What is it about prime ministers from the Bharatiya Janata Party that gets them so entangled in the question on Pakistan? It first happened with Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999 and then in 2001. It has now happened with Narendra Modi in 2015 and in 2016. Both these prime ministers have followed similar cycles that began with enthusiastic overtures towards Pakistan—evoking euphoria among both the liberals and those in the BJP. There then arrived the counter-point when there was a negative event that emanated from Pakistan, and the overtures seemed to be of irrational expansiveness in retrospect.
On 20 February 1999, when Vajpayee took a bus to Pakistan and crossed the Wagah border, he reportedly described it as a “defining moment” in South-Asian history. By July that year, Pakistan and India were engaged in the Kargil war. Although Indian leaders were quick to claim an absolute and uncontested victory, the military operation took a huge toll in terms of the number of soldiers lost in the bid to reclaim territory along the line of control. As Anit Mukherjee, an a former officer from the Indian army and an assistant professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), reported in an article published in The Caravan in February 2014, this number continues to be shrouded in ambiguity. In November 2012, it was reported in parliament that the losses had amounted to 530 soldiers. However, Mukherjee noted, a section on the official website of the Indian army, which has since removed the information, stated that 970 soldiers had been lost during the war. In January 2000, the Kargil Review Committee, headed by K Subrahmanyam, a former civil servant and strategic affairs expert, submitted its report on the war to Vajpayee. The committee pointed towards a lack of coordination among the various intelligence agencies in India. In fact, as a former army official who had occupied a senior position during that time, told me, the Kargil war was not very different from the debacle of India’s war with China in 1962. According to him, India was just as unprepared and there were lapses in the work of its intelligence agencies.
In 2001, Vajpayee made a second attempt to revive relations with Pakistan. In May that year, he sent General Pervez Musharraf a letter inviting him to India for talks to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict between the countries. A much-hyped summit in Agra followed in July, but it turned out to be a fiasco. Mushararaf, who capitalised on his status as an object of curiosity within the Indian media at that time, directly reached out to Indian editors. He spoke to them with a candour that is uncharacteristic of the participants of such visits, frequently employing rhetoric to manoeuvre his way out of accountability for the failed bilateral.
The next stumbling block in the relationship between India and Pakistan during Vajpayee’s term emerged with an attack by armed militants on the Indian parliament on 13 December, three months after the attack in New York and Washington on 11 September. India asked its ambassador in Islamabad at that time, Vijay K Nambiar to return and reduced the strength of its diplomatic staff at the embassy. Bus and train services between the two countries were halted. Soon after, the Indian army moved to the border. Pakistan responded by stationing its troops there as well. The Indian army retreated nearly a year later, in October 2002.
At the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit that was held at Kathmandu in January 2002, Musharraf gave another media performanceat the venue. During his address at the opening ceremony of the summit, he emphasised that big countries—referring to India—are not more equal than others. Towards the end, however, Musharraf added that he “genuinely and sincerely” extended a hand of friendship to Vajpayee. After this proclamation, he strode from the lectern to the table at which Vajpayee was seated along with others heads of states and extended his hand. Vajpayee stood up and shook Musharraf’s hand to loud applause. Once the summit ended, Musharraf held a press conference at Kathmandu, which was widely attended by members from both the Indian and Pakistani media. At the conference, he deemed it fit to speak about the relationship between Indian and Pakistan.