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May 28, 1999
Advani, Fernandes pushed PM into ordering air-strikes
George Iype in New Delhi
The decision to launch Operation Vijay, India's biggest peacetime air offensive against Pakistan-backed insurgents in Kashmir, was aggressively pushed forward by Defence Minister George Fernandes and Home Minister L K Advani.
While Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was hesitant to clear the crucial decision to mount an aerial attack on mercenaries holed up in Kargil, official sources said it was Fernandes and Advani who took the initiative to convince him.
Even though the Indian Army had sought the government's permission to involve the Air Force in the Kargil operation, the prime minister was said to be unwilling to agree to the proposal initially.
Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said Vajpayee was initially "not ready to give the go-ahead to launch the air-strike as he felt that it would virtually nullify the Lahore Declaration".
"The prime minister was also worried that any unwarranted move from India at this juncture could lead to a full-fledged war," a senior official told Rediff On The Net.
But the official added that Vajpayee was under considerable pressure from his hawkish defence and home ministers to order air-strikes against the insurgents.
Vajpayee was also said to have been keen on convening a cabinet meeting before giving the nod to Operation Vijay. Since any operation in Kashmir would invite considerable international attention, the prime minister wanted his External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh -- who was away on a foreign tour -- to be in India before the offensive was launched.
But the Army top brass and Fernandes and Advani impressed upon Vajpayee that the government did not have a minute to waste as the movement of militants in Kargil and other areas in the heights was "alarming in numbers and nature".
Thus the army proposal was immediately put before the apex Cabinet Committee on Security on Tuesday morning before the prime minister left for Pondicherry and Sriharikotta.
Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshall Tipnis briefed the CCS about "the ground situation in Kashmir", and the apex cabinet committee that includes the prime minister, the home minister and the defence minister immediately gave its consent to use air power.
Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh was informed of the decision over telephone and told to take care of the international fall-out from Paris and Moscow.
Sources said Fernandes and Advani were insistent that Operation Vijay should be carried out urgently and immediately for different reasons.
Fernandes knew for sure that the Army had failed miserably to detect and prevent the massive infiltration of mercenaries, including Taliban fighters by the Pakistani army in the difficult terrain of Kashmir.
Since the three defence services are under his direct control, Fernandes feared that the opposition parties would mount a scathing attack on him for letting Kashmir fall into the lap of militants.
After battling with the opposition for four months on the controversial dismissal of Navy Chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, the defence minister knew that if he did not act now to flush out the terrorists from Kashmir, he would become an easy target for the opposition and even the ruling coalition partners.
Advani, who launched a pro-active policy in Kashmir upon taking charge as home minister last year, was also caught in a similar predicament. The government's external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing under Advani's charge too failed to detect the training and movement of more than 600 armed militants in Kargil and the surrounding areas.
Fernandes and Advani were alarmed when the Jammu and Kashmir chief minister flew into New Delhi on Monday morning to inform them that the ongoing military operation to flush out the militants have been completely unsuccessful till then.
The chief minister also warned that an air operation was of utmost necessity as otherwise the combing operation on the ground would take months to achieve its objective.
"Both Fernandes and Advani are unable to explain why their ministries could not anticipate and check the infiltrationof insurgents by Pakistan," Congress external affairs wing chairperson K Natwar Singh told Rediff On The Net.
"The Vajpayee government, and Fernandes and Advani in particular, will be entirely responsible if the air-strikes lead to a full-fledged war in Kashmir," he warned.
According to Singh, by launching this large-scale military offensive in Kargil, the Vajpayee government has proved that it has failed to check militancy in Kashmir and the so-called bus ride and the Lahore Declaration were political stunts.
The Bharatiya Janata Party leaders fear that the air-strikes and India's loss of two aircraft will put the BJP coalition on a mat during in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections in September.
"The opposition parties will portray the increasing tension on the border as an admission of our government's failure to check militancy in Kashmir," a senior BJP politician told Rediff On The Net.
He said the air strikes "are not going to help the BJP in any way in the coming elections". "Our only fear is whether it will affect our chances which are quite good now," the BJP official added.
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