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August 16, 1999


The Rediff Specials/ Vir Sanghvi

Can Vajpayee be defeated?

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Sharif sharif na raha;

Atal atal raha -- graffiti in South Delhi

If the Kargil war, hadn't happened, no one would have believed that Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a stubborn man. If there is one thing that has set him apart from other Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, it is the absence of dogmatism. He has been tolerant, in the BJP's eyes, to the point of amorality, he's treated the hide-bound in his party with contempt and disdain, and has quite cheerfully ploughed a lonely furrow in a party that considers non-conformity a treasonous offence.

And yet, throughout the Kargil war, the prime minister was unmoved by appeals from his party that India cross the Line of Control. No amount of shrill rhetoric, angry warnings and dire election predictions could make him change his mind. "Right in the beginning, Atalji took the decision that unless defeat was staring us in the face, we would not cross the LoC," said Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to the prime minister. "He never wavered from this decision."

Others may have wilted under all the pressure. Not Vajpayee. The Prime Minister's Office was besieged by calls from the BJP asking what the hell the government was doing -- was India destined forever to be a passive, hapless nation, turning the other cheek? Panchajanya, the organ of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, wrote editorial after editorial offering the PM all moral and material support if he should turn aggressive. "Why did we ever make the bomb? Was it to swaddle it in cloth and lock it up in the Godrej almirah?" asked an angry RSS sympathiser.

This was not the only pressure. Somewhere along the way, there was a genuine apprehension that India may not be able to win the war unless the army was allowed to cross the LoC. Before the decisive battle for Tololing, the mood was black. Indians were losing men without anything substantial to show for it. "We were haemorrhaging, we knew it, and it was hard to keep one's cool," says an official in the PMO.

But Atal Bihari Vajpayee, say his friends, never lost his cool. "Atalji is sthitapragna (the serene one). He is unmoved by joy, stoic about sorrow. Advaniji is the emotional one. Atalji takes things as they come," says a member of the BJP's national executive. Even the lure of making Indian nationalism a huge election issue was ignored by the PM.

Instead, he stood firm and stubborn in his belief that Pakistan would be driven back by the Indian army. And when it was, he refused to crow about it. Because he knew all the time that this is what would happen.

It is Vajpayee's calm and unemotional handling of the war which has prevented other -- especially communal -- conflagrations in India. Once again, he has proved that he is the right man in the wrong party, and thankfully for India, at the right time.

In keeping with the BJP's fondness for alliterative slogans, the first draft of the PM's address to the nation said the key to winning the war was: reasonable behaviour, restraint, and resolute steadfastness. So how did these three 'r's work out?

Restraint was evident right from the beginning. Even when the question of air strikes against the intruders' camps on the LoC was considered, the PM thought long and hard about it. "Each step was deliberate. That one, most deliberate of all," says Mishra, recalling the agony of deciding whether the Indian Air Force could be used in an air campaign east to west, when the whole intrusion issue could be settled in a few hours, if the IAF was permitted to go north to south, ie, beyond the LoC and back.

This proposal was, of course, rejected out of hand. But even the decision to use air power, which the Pakistani side used to great advantage to show that they were aggressed against, not the aggressors, took several days to come. This in turn threw the army in a tizzy because in their view at the time, the IAF intervened too late. In fact, there was considerable pressure from the army on the government to induct the IAF in the battle.

Later, when the air strikes were moderated and withdrawn, the army chief was to thank the PMO for thinking through the decision because the speed of the IAF and the army action was not matching -- the IAF was moving too fast for the army.

While the operations were on, there was absolutely no interference from the government in trying to force the pace of the action. "Men were coming back in coffins. All we could hear was the wailing of their families," said an army officer. But the PM only advocated restraint.

And when India got its territory back? The prime minister was happy, but cautioned against crowing about the victory. The fear was that too much celebration in India might strengthen the fundamentalists in that country. And in Vajpayee's view, the worst thing that could happen to Pakistan -- and India -- is that Nawaz Sharief might be overthrown. With a fragmented and weak Opposition, the fundamentalists could seize power, leading to a situation much worse that what it is today.

Few people know all that India did to help and stabilise Nawaz Sharief -- within reason. The taped conversation of Pakistan Army chief Parvez Musharraf and his chief of staff, Mohammed Aziz, recorded during the former's trip to Beijing, was given to Nawaz Sharief before it was made public in India. This was so that Sharief knew what was going to hit him. (Those who were on the spot say it took nearly 15 minutes for Nawaz Sharief to recover from the information that his army had attacked India and he was the last to know.)

Kind Courtesy: Sunday

TOMORROW: Vajpayee's personality asserts itself

The Rediff Election Specials

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