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Alone In The Crowd

The last three years have shown that Vajpayee is not hung up on power. In fact, he may be the most modest prime minister India's had since Shastri.

Alone In The Crowd
illustration by Saurabh Singh Most newspapers have dismissed Atal Behari Vajpayee's threat to resign as a political trick—one analyst even called it blackmail—designed to bring his fractious coalition and his unruly party to heel. That may well have been a part of what he had in mind. But those who believe that having reassured himself of their support, Vajpayee will go back to business as usual, would do well to think again. For one thing, if the last three years have shown anything, it is that Vajpayee is not hung up on power. In fact, he may be the most modest prime minister the country has had since Lal Bahadur Shastri. To him power is not an end, but a means to an end. The corollary to this is that he wants to look back on his years in office and claim that he contributed something to the formation and growth of the nation. Vajpayee does not want to be remembered as yet another prime minister who achieved nothing.

It would take a book to enumerate the ways in which a combination of populism, political cowardice and petty opportunism have succeeded in paralysing the government. Suffice it to say that by the time he made his threat, the consensus that he had evolved within the nda in December 1998, that the coalition partners would refrain from public criticism of the government's policies while he would ensure that the right wing of the Sangh parivar would not try to foist Hindu monolithism on the coalition, had become so badly frayed that it was on the point of coming apart. The Sangh parivar ceased to be quiescent from the moment that K.S. Sudershan became the sarsanghchalak of the rss.

Vajpayee and Yashwant Sinha's economic policies, especially their efforts to control the fiscal deficit that lies at the root of the prolonged slump in the economy, have been systematically opposed. The Tehelka scandal gave the rss a chance to attack Vajpayee's mainstay in the pmo—Brajesh Mishra and N.K. Singh—and led to the exit of the latter. With that Vajpayee lost the one civil servant in his office who had given a crisp new edge to economic reform. Worse still, both the nda and the bjp ignored his pleas to treat the issue of corruption as a national problem arising from the lack of a system for election funding, and decided instead on a highly charged mud-slinging match with the Congress. The last straw, however, was the rss' opposition to, and later criticism of, the Agra summit.

It took immense courage for Vajpayee to hold out an olive branch to a Pakistani general who had, only two years ago, planned and executed the Kargil incursion. But with the full support, indeed encouragement, of Advani and Jaswant Singh, Vajpayee rose to the occasion. History will very likely record that far from having been a failure, the Agra summit was the first step on the long road to reconciliation between Pakistan and India. But criticism from the rss and a section of the bjp has combined with a truly short-sighted Pakistani effort to make media capital out of the summit's failure.

The significance of Agra becomes clear only when the summit is viewed against the background of developments in India-Pakistan relations over the past fifteen months. This reveals a pattern of slow convergence in which two intensely distrustful neighbours have repeatedly made overtures to each other, only to draw hastily back again. The process began in March 2000 when the Hizbul Mujahideen decided at a majlis-e-shoora that it would make a peace overture to India. Musharraf could easily have prevented this but chose not to.Instead, he created a favourable climate for it by declaring a unilateral cessation of artillery shelling along the LoC on June 26. The Hizb's offer of a three-month ceasefire in Kashmir came four weeks later.

Pakistan, however, took fright at the overwhelming response in Kashmir to the prospect of peace. It drew back and compelled the Hizb leader in Islamabad, Syed Salahuddin, to end the ceasefire in just two weeks.

The second overture came from Vajpayee in November when he declared a moratorium on combat operations by the security forces as a prelude to letting Hurriyat leaders visit Pakistan. But this time it was India that took fright when the home ministry realised that Ali Shah Geelani, the most overtly pro-Pakistan member of the Hurriyat's executive council, would be a part of the delegation and refused to issue them passports.

The Agra summit was the third effort, and it was made by both heads of government at considerable risk to themselves. While it is true that the summit failed to produce a declaration, it did two other invaluable things that have gone unnoticed in the general din. The first is that both governments made significant concessions during the talks. Pakistan did not refer once to the resolution of 1948, and India stopped harping on the fact that "Azad Kashmir" and parts of the old princely state ceded by Pakistan to China are "an integral part of the country". Vajpayee went further by agreeing in principle to some formulation that made Kashmir an issue between Pakistan and India. Musharraf said twice in public that Pakistan and India could, by mutual consent, eliminate some solutions to the Kashmir issue. But in the end a wide gap remained. In return for conceding to Pakistan a say in the settlement of the Kashmir problem, India wanted Pakistan to endorse the Simla Agreement as a starting point for future talks, and to commit itself to controlling "cross-border terrorism" in Kashmir. Not surprisingly, Pakistan was able to do neither. But the summit has clearly drawn the lines that divide the two countries. It has therefore shown precisely where progress will be needed in the future. After 54 years of conflict, this is no mean achievement.
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