BY M.R. JOSSE
KATHMANDU: Atal Bihari Vajpayee, one of India’s most popular prime ministers, passed away the other day at the age of 93, following a stroke in 2009 that sidelined him into the political cold thereafter.
Serving as prime minister three times – first for 13 days in 1966; then for nearly a year beginning in 1998; and, finally, for a full five-year term from 1999 to 2004 – the BJP patriarch was a man of unusual contradictions.
A poet-politician with a silver tongue, Vajpayee was soft spoken and easy to talk to, as yours faithfully discovered when – with two colleagues from the now defunct The Independent weekly – we engaged in a free-flowing, on-the-record conversation with him on a wide range of topical subjects, in September 1992.
Vajpayee, a former journalist, was then a BJP MP. As Foreign Minister in Prime Minister Morarji Desai’s Janata Party government, he had paid an official three-day visit in July 1977, at the invitation of Foreign Minister Krishna Raj Aryal.
That excursion was not only the first visit to Nepal by a non-Congress foreign minister of India; it was also Vajpayee’s maiden diplomatic mission after assumption of his office.
Although his visit helped restore cordiality to hitherto bruised Nepal-India relations, his public reference to Nepal and India both lying “south of the Himalayas” underscored and laid bare India’s flawed geopolitical mindset – as a significant portion of Nepal’s territory undeniably lies north of the Himalayas! (Vide. MRJ’s “Nepal and the World”, Volume II).
Coming back to Vajpayee’s ‘Independent’ interview, I was struck by his studious disinclination to make political capital on the then raging controversial Tanakpur deal negotiated between the Indian Congress government and NC Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala.
On other issues, too, Vajpayee steered clear of any temptation to take pot shots against the then ruling Congress’s decisions – though one could imagine many other Indian opposition politicians doing precisely so. One presumed it was because of the laudable practice of conscientious public figures not washing dirty domestic linen while abroad – something our politicos could jolly well learn from.
Vajpayee emerged, metaphorical guns blazing, against the ‘Islamic bloc’ which he categorically denounced as a ‘Great Threat to International Security and Stability’ – an assertion that, even today, seems to have huge resonance with the BJP and the Narendra Modi-led government.
Ironically, his prediction ruling out any war between India and Pakistan was belied by the Kargil conflict in 1999 – when he himself was prime minister! Vajpayee agreed that no country should take another for granted “much less Nepal.” Saying “we are closer than any two countries in the world”, he went on to note that “unfortunately, we are bigger in size, population, natural resources and army. This creates problems with our neighbours from time to time.” And so on.
Despite his image as a ‘softie’ – in contrast to his one-time protégé Indian Prime Minister Modi – it was Vajpayee who presided over India’s clandestine nuclear tests that confirmed India as a nuclear power – and embittered relations with a Pakistan which, weeks later, conducted six of her own nuclear tests.
Despite that, Vajpayee began peace talks with Pakistan and a cross-border bus service from Lahore to Delhi – initiatives that evaporated not long after they were launched. He expressed anguish over hundreds of Muslims killed during rioting in 2002 in Gujarat; termed the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992 by Hindu fanatics India’s darkest hour, but then defended the construction of a Ram Mandir on that very venue!
In summation, I’d say Vajpayee was a softer, gentler version of the prickly, current Indian prime minister much given to braggadocio. Their differences are of degree and optics – not of the fundamentals!
As readers are aware, Imran Khan was sworn in as Pakistan Prime Minister on August 18, while 15 members of his cabinet along with five advisers were formally inducted into his cabinet on August 20.
Reserving the right to expound at greater length this subject in future columns, at this juncture, I wish to merely add that I’ve been impressed by the promptness of his decisions regarding corruption, black money and jettisoning all vestiges of ostentation that come with the office of the prime minister.
Though that seems to have gone down very well with the hoi polloi it remains to be seen how the elite in Pakistan will react, by and by.
In the meantime, I could not but be struck by the fact that the Hindustan Times’ prediction that Shireen Mazari was likely to be either the new defence, foreign affairs, or information minister was completely off the mark: she was appointed minister for human rights.
The Indian newspaper seemed to be particularly perturbed that Mazari, who was termed a “hawk”, might be Pakistan’s new defence minister. She, of course, for many years headed Islamabad’s Institute of Strategic Studies.
Who doesn’t know that Prachanda has a burning penchant or yen for foreign travel?
If a report in the Himalayan Times is credible, the co-chair of the Nepal Communist Party (NPC), has scrubbed a planned visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Apparently, that was timed for him to be present at celebrations marking North Korea’s National Day on September 9.
As per the story quoting an unnamed NPC apparatchik, “The decision not to visit DPRK was taken to maintain good relations with the international community, including western countries.”
So, might one ask: why did he agree to it in the first place? The suggestion that Prachanda could usefully ‘share Nepal’s experience of the peace process’ – in the light of ‘the peace process’ that had ‘just started in the Korean peninsula’ – boggles the mind.
Could Kim Jong Un could take lessons from Nepal ‘peace process’ – a product of outright or blatant foreign intervention, including from India and the West? What an insane idea!