Vajpayee eyeing history
NEW DELHI: A Hindu nationalist and nuclear hawk, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee heads to Pakistan at the weekend for a regional summit, cast in the role of peacemaker less than two years after he almost went to war.
The 79-year-old Indian leader’s trip to Islamabad is a stunning turnaround from early 2002 when he sent his army to the border with Pakistan in an angry response to an attack on India’s parliament in December 2001 that New Delhi blamed on Pakistan-backed Muslim insurgents. “Be prepared for sacrifices ...because it is time for a decisive fight,” Vajpayee, whose political grounding is in India’s Hindu nationalist school of thought, said at the time.
But Vajpayee donned peacemaker robes last April. He said he would make his final effort for peace with Pakistan and he agreed to a truce on a military line dividing disputed Kashmir. He also accepted an invitation to attend the summit in Islamabad of the seven-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which had been delayed for a year because of the tension between the nuclear-armed nations.
Although Vajpayee is not expected to hold separate talks with Pakistani leaders at the summit, his visit shows he continues to tread the path of peace, cautiously, with a neighbour with which India has gone to war three times. “You can change friends, but you can’t change neighbours. So why not live as good neighbours?” he said after an historic bus trip to the Pakistani city of Lahore in 1999. It was followed by a conflict in the icy heights of Kargil in the same year.
A bachelor with an adopted daughter, Vajpayee has impressed even his critics by a canny ability to play the roles of hawk and dove, emotional poet and shrewd politician, with equal ease. “He has a brilliant talent of being different things to different people. In the politics of confusion and cynicism in India, he is seen as the great conciliator,” political commentator Inder Malhotra told Reuters.
A law-maker since 1957, Vajpayee’s talent for getting different interests to work together has helped him run for more than five years a coalition government of more than 20 parties with diverse political views.
His visit to Pakistan - despite security fears arising out of two assassination attempts on President Pervez Musharraf - reinforces Vajpayee’s image as a man of peace, although he has indulged in sabre-rattling against Pakistan that keeps hardline supporters of his ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in good humour. “He has his eye on a place in history and peace with Pakistan could help get that place,” Malhotra said.
The trip comes at a time when Vajpayee’s political fortunes have never looked so good. The BJP won key state elections in December, the Indian economy is booming and the coalition is solidly behind him.
Vajpayee is also seen as the teflon man of Indian politics.
Although two summits with Pakistani leaders - with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan in 1999 and with Musharraf in India in 2001 - failed to sustain hopes of improved ties, there is virtually no domestic criticism of his new peace offensive. “He is a wily survivor, a flexible politician and has a sound political weathercock,” Jaipal Reddy, a spokesman for the opposition Congress party, told Reuters.
His eloquent oratory, punctuated with dramatic long pauses, and his wit help Vajpayee win friends and keep enemies off guard. He has been a member of the BJP’s parent organisation - the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a secretive Hindu group said to have a deep-seated bias against Muslims and Christians - since his student days. He was detained in 1942 during a protest against British rule.
Vajpayee is seen as a moderate in a party of Hindu hardliners, but critics say he has often failed to rein in anti-Muslim rhetoric within the party. —Reuters