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Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A Peace Visionary and a Man Who Believed in India’s Destiny and was Ready To Fight For It

It was precisely this persona of Vajpayee -- one merged in Hindutva ideology yet seemingly not wholly willing to bow to it -- that won him admirers cutting across the political spectrum.

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Atal Bihari Vajpayee,
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India's peace visionary. Image: Flickr

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a man of moderation in a fraternity of jingoistic nationalists; a peace visionary in a region riven by religious animosity; and a man who believed in India’s destiny and was ready to fight for it.

Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (93), who died on Thursday, will go down in history as a person who tried to end years of hostility with Pakistan and put development on the front burner of the country’s political agenda. He was also the first non-Congress Prime Minister to complete a full five-year term.

Even though he lived the last 13 years of his life in virtual isolation, dogged by debilitating illnesses and bedridden, he has left an enduring legacy for the nation and the region where he was much loved and respected across the political spectrum and national boundaries, including in Pakistan.

Vajpayee, former Indian Prime Minister
Vajpayee stunned the world by making India a declared nuclear state. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the tumultuous period he presided over the destiny of the world’s largest democracy, Vajpayee stunned the world by making India a declared nuclear state and then almost went to war with Pakistan before making peace with it in the most dramatic fashion.
In the process, his popularity came to match that of Indira Gandhi, a woman he admired for her guts even as he hated her politics.

He also became the best-known national leader after Indira Gandhi and her father Jawaharlal Nehru.

After despairing for years that he would never become Prime Minister and was destined to remain an opposition leader all his life, he achieved his goal, but only for 13 days, from May 16-28, 1996, after his deputy, L.K. Advani, chose not to contest elections that year.
His second term came on March 19, 1998, and lasted 13 months, a period during which India stunned the world by undertaking a series of nuclear tests that invited global reproach.

Although his tenure again proved short-lived, his and his government’s enhanced stature following the world-defying blasts enabled him to return as Prime Minister for the third time on October 13, 1999, a tenure that lasted a full five-year term.

When finally he stepped down in May 2004, after an election that he was given to believe he would win, it marked the end of a long and eventful political career spanning six decades.

Vajpayee had gone into these elections riding a personality cult that projected him as a man who had brought glory to the nation in unprecedented ways. The BJP’s election strategy rested on seeking a renewed mandate over three broad pillars of achievement that the government claimed — political stability in spite of the pulls and pressures of running a multi-party coalition; a “shining” economy that saw a dizzying 10.4 percent growth in the last quarter of the previous year; and peace with Pakistan that changed the way the two countries looked at each other for over 50 years.

The results of the elections could not have come as a greater shock to a man who was hailed for his achievements and who was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 influential men of the decade.

Success didn’t come easily to the charismatic politician, who was born on Christmas Day in 1924 in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, into a family of moderate means. His father was a school teacher and Vajpayee would later recall his early brush with poverty.

He did his Masters in Political Science, studying at the Victoria College in Gwalior and at the DAV College in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, where he first contested, and lost, elections. He began his professional career as a journalist, working with Rashtradharma, a Hindi monthly, Panchjanya, a Hindi weekly, and two Hindi dailies, Swadesh and Veer Arjun. By then he had firmly embraced the ideals of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).
But even as he struggled to win electoral battles, his command over Hindi, the lingua franca of the North Indian masses, his conciliatory politics and his riveting oratory brought him into public limelight.

Also read: For Modi, Road To 2019 Will Be Steeper

His first entry into Parliament was in 1962 through the Rajya Sabha, the upper house. It was only in 1971 that he won a Lok Sabha election. He was elected to the lower house seven times and to the Rajya Sabha twice.

Vajpayee
Vajpayee spent months in prison when Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency rule in June 1975. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Vajpayee spent months in prison when Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency rule in June 1975 and put her political opponents in jail. When the Janata Party took office in 1977, dethroning the Congress for the first time, he became the foreign minister.

The lowest point in his career came when he lost the 1984 Lok Sabha polls, that too from his birthplace Gwalior, after Rajiv Gandhi won an overwhelming majority following his mother Indira Gandhi’s assassination. And the BJP he led ended up with just two seats in
the 545-member Lok Sabha, in what looked like the end of the road for the right-wing party.

In no time, Vajpayee was replaced and “eclipsed” by his long-time friend L.K. Advani.
Although they were the best of friends publicly, Vajpayee never fully agreed with Advani’s and the assorted Hindu nationalist groups’ strident advocacy of Hindutva, an ideology ranged against the idea of secular India.

Often described as the right man in the wrong party, there were also those who belittled him as a moderate “mask” to a hardline Hindu nationalist ideology. Often he found his convictions and value systems at odds with the party, but the bachelor-politician never went against it.

It was precisely this persona of Vajpayee — one merged in Hindutva ideology yet seemingly not wholly willing to bow to it — that won him admirers cutting across the political spectrum. It was this trait that made him the Prime Minister when the BJP’s allies concluded they needed a moderate to steer a hardliner, pro-Hindu party.

He brought into governance measures that created for India a distinct international status on the diplomatic and economic fronts. In his third prime ministerial stint, Vajpayee launched a widely acclaimed diplomatic initiative by starting a bus service between New Delhi and Pakistan’s Lahore city.

Its inaugural run in February 1999 carried Vajpayee and was welcomed on the border by his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif. It was suspended only after the 2001 terror attack on the Indian Parliament that nearly led to a war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

The freeze between the two countries, including an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation on the border for nearly a year, was finally cracked in the spring of 2003 when Vajpayee, while in Kashmir, extended a “hand of friendship” to Pakistan. That led to the historic summit in January 2004 with then President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad — a remarkable U-turn after the failed summit in Agra of 2001. Despite the two men being so far apart in every way, Musharraf developed a strong liking for the Indian leader.

His unfinished task, one that he would probably rue, would be the peace process with Pakistan that he had vowed to pursue to its logical conclusion and a resolution of the Kashmir dispute.

He was not known as “Atal-Ji”, a name that translates into firmness, for nothing. He could go against the grain of his party if he saw it deviate from its path. When Hindu hardliners celebrated the destruction of the 16th century Babri Mosque at Ayodhya, he was full of personal remorse for the apocalyptic action and called it — in a landmark interview to IANS — the “worst miscalculation” and a “misadventure”. He even despaired that “moderates have no place — who is going to listen to the voice of sanity?”

In his full five-year term, he successively carried forward India’s economic reforms programme with initiatives to improve infrastructure, including flagging off a massive national highway project that has become associated with his vision, went for massive privatisation of unviable state undertakings despite opposition from even within his own party.

While his personal image remained unsullied despite his long innings in the murky politics of this country, his judgment was found wanting when his government was rocked by an arms bribery scandal that sought to expose alleged payoffs to some senior members of his cabinet. His failure to speak up when members of his party and its sister organisations, who are accused of killing more than 1,000 Muslims in Gujarat, was questioned by the liberal fraternity who wondered aloud about his secular proclamations. He wanted then Chief Minister — now Prime Minister, Narendra Modi — to take responsibility for the riots and quit but was prevailed upon by others not to press his decision.

A day before his party lost power, Vajpayee was quoted as saying in a television interview that if and when he stepped down he would like to devote his time to writing and poetry. But fate ruled otherwise. The man who once rued that “I have waited too long to be Prime Minister” found his last days in a world far removed from the adulation and attention — though across the nation people prayed for his well-being — surrounded only by care-givers and close family whom he even failed to recognize. (IANS)

Next Story

The Errant Son: Mir Murtaza And Al-Zulfiqar

Would the Bhutto charm, have worked on India? And had it been so, would the map of the Indian sub-continent today, have resembled the idea of a free market zone in South Asia, with porous borders?

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Mir Murtaza Bhutto with Shahnawaz Bhutto
Mir Murtaza Bhutto with Shahnawaz Bhutto
Tania Bhattacharya
Tania Bhattacharya

By: Tania Bhattacharya

India-Pakistan relations have hit a record low following the dastardly Pulwama Attack on a CRPF convoy in Indian administered Kashmir, on the 14th of February this year. Curiously, the Pakistan PM Imran Khan, made a statement a few days ago, endorsing the Indian PM Modi, and suggesting, that in case there was a re-election of the latter, the Kashmir issue may be finally resolved. This scenario is significant, given that both Imran and Modi, are perceived hardliners in their respective nations. As some South Asian policy watchers have noted, it is hawks like the two aforementioned heads of state, and not peaceniks, who are more likely to take large risks over bilateral issues involving the two neighbours, since if any of them is required to acquiesce, they cannot be labelled as anti-nationals. Peaceniks, their good intentions aside, are looked upon with suspicion in their countries, which accuse them of selling out.

 

These are the heady days of jingoist patriotism in South Asia, where Right Wing organizations seem to be faring much better than the other political alternatives; but there was a time not very long ago, when Southern Asia was in a sweet spot between Dictatorship and Democracy, where conducive factors facilitated the spectre of Left-Wing radicalism, in both India and Pakistan. Between the imprisonment of Pakistan’s democratically elected PM Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the mysterious plane crash that killed President Zia ul Haq in 1988, a shadowy entity by the name of Al-Zulfiqar had emerged out of the pale, and rocked the Zia dictatorship, with its nuisance value. What were the origins of Al Zulfiqar, and who, was its chief executive officer?

The PIA Hijack drama
The PIA Hijack drama

We must retrace our steps to the early 1970s, when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was the Pakistan president. His eldest son, and second-born, Mir Murtaza, would build a lavish tent on the sprawling lawns of 70 Clifton, the Bhutto residence at Karachi. Inside the private sanctuary he had made for himself, the young lad would read the influential works of prominent Marxist revolutionaries like Lenin, Mao, and Che Guevara. The walls of his tent would be adorned with posters of world-famous figures, who had adopted Marxist techniques and applied them to their personal agendas. Murtaza had become deeply involved with the guerrilla warfare ethos of Socialist insurgents and quickly became a role model for his younger male sibling, Shahnawaz, junior to him by four years.

 

Sensing that the wayward, and obstinate nature of the older Bhutto was getting him into trouble with his high school officials and law enforcement, Zulfiqar had insisted, that Murtaza abandon his tent, and his Leftist reactionary literature, to concentrate on his school syllabus, so that the straight and the narrow could produce results for the latter. As soon as it became possible, and after consulting his wife Nusrat Bhutto, the President had packed off his enfant terrible to study in the United States, and then to England, where he hoped, that a new environment would change him. It was here, that Murtaza shone. A thorough academic, he researched upon and produced a dissertation, concerning the consequences of India’s nuclear program, on Pakistan. He developed the reputation of being a cad, and somewhat of a lady’s man as well, during his student years in London, where he was a regular sighting at nightclubs, with one or the other pretty girl, on his arm.

 

His father, had made the issue of the ‘Muslim Bomb’ an international one, arguing, that since the Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Marxist political spheres had their own, ultimate weapon of mass destruction, it was only fair that the Islamic world follow suit. Israel though not openly belligerent with the bomb, was suspected of being in possession of the technology to construct one, in 1966 itself. Moreover, it had refused to sign the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty). Pakistan, under his leadership, he had sworn, would ‘gift’ the Muslim world with its first nuclear weapon. The president’s (and later, Prime Minister’s) son, would broach the topic on an academic level, and make its knowledge, widespread.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with his third wife Husna Sheikh
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with his third wife Husna Sheikh.

Murtaza was yet abroad, when his father, by the time, the democratically elected Prime Minister of his country, was toppled in mid-1977, in a military coup, headed by General Zia ul Haq, who until the event, had been Zulfiqar’s handpicked Chief of the Pakistan Armed Forces; and a man, that the confident, and arrogant premier, termed his ‘monkey general’. In a letter, handwritten to her brother, Benazir had advised him to travel to the United States, to meet with American leadership, that were friendly with the Pakistan Peoples Party, to plead for assistance in toppling the dictatorship of Zia. Interestingly, she had told him to steer clear of a top Bhutto aide, Ghulam Mustafa Khar. This is testified by Lt. General Khalid Mahmud Arif in his book Working With Zia. Khar, an uncle of PPP ex-Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar (2008 – 2013), had been a confidante of Prime Minister Bhutto, who he faithfully plied to the home of Bhutto’s first, secret mistress, and then, legally married third wife, Husna Sheikh, on a daily basis.

 

From the United States, Mir Murtaza had decided that it was not judicious to return to a strife-ridden homeland, which was experiencing its umpteenth military rule. Instead, he had flown to Syria and then Libya, to garner support from  Hafez  al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi respectively. The Assads and Gaddafi were supportive of the Bhuttos. Zia to them, was an American puppet that had been installed as a means to an end, that too, through an undemocratic and unpopular regime change. It was in Syria occupied Lebanon, that Murtaza had begun building up a guerrilla outfit, which he named, the PLA (Pakistan Liberation Army). Members from the PPP back in Pakistan, were herded off to the Middle East, for rigorous guerrilla training, that was imparted by the Leftist PFLP (Popular Front For The Liberation Of Palestine). When Mir Murtaza deemed that the time was ripe for ambushing Zia’s men in positions of power; the trained militia of PLA flew to Afghanistan, where they continued further arms training, awaiting an opportune moment, to cross into their homeland, using the mountainous, and lawless tribal routes of northern Pakistan, which flanked the Durand Line.

 

While in Kabul, Murtaza Bhutto decided to rename his outfit Al-Zulfiqar Organization, or AZO. Shahnawaz, the younger son of the jailed premier, joined his older brother and was imparted training in guerrilla warfare, and violent Marxist insurrection. When not wielding guns in army fatigues, the young volunteers and the Bhutto brothers, would watch Bollywood flicks to kill time.

 

Initially, all Shahnawaz wished to do, was to open a tourist agency in Pakistan, and live quietly with the Afghan object of his affections. But the restless circumstances that engulfed the young man, forced him to join Al-Zulfiqar, all the more so, as it had his older brother at its helm; a man he had much admired from the days of his youth.

 

One of the first acts of the AZO, was to try to blow up Zia-ul-Haq’s plane with a missile, from an Islamabad rooftop. It did not produce the desired result. Next, was the hijack of a PIA (Pakistan International Airlines) flight. It was flown to Kabul, where the hijackers stated that the plane and its passengers would only be released if ninety-one political prisoners from the PPP, were set free from incarceration in Pakistan. Zia’s response initially, was a “No”. But once it became eminent, that there were no international mediators to take on the case on behalf of Pakistan; especially once Assad and Gaddafi explained the dilemma to General Zia, the latter was forced to rethink his stand. By then, AZO had reduced the demand from ninety-one prisoners, to some fifty-four of them. The Pakistan general was forced to comply with Murtaza’s bargain, as it released the PPP detainees from various gaols in the country, who were then swapped for the PIA plane and its passengers.