May 30, 2020
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The Dove Coos

The PM's peace pipes in J&K bespeaks his growing distrust for the US, post Iraq

The Dove Coos
The Dove Coos
Only Bal Thackeray and Ashok Singhal are objecting. The rest of the house is resonating with thumping applause. A.B. Vajpayee managed quite a feat in Srinagar last week. He manoeuvred India out of a no-win diplomatic position, lowered the temperature along the border, won over cynics in the Valley and returned to substantively higher approval ratings.

What's more, Outlook has learnt from official sources, the Srinagar performance was scripted by the PM alone and wasn't the articulation of a thought-out MEA policy shift. Before every prime ministerial visit, Vajpayee is briefed by aides and mea officials. Before the Srinagar visit too, he was handed several briefs. He quietly read them but kept his own counsel.

Vajpayee's first significant engagement in Srinagar was the public rally where he spoke extempore. And when he mentioned peace with Pakistan, says an official, "there was total astonishment on the faces of some of his advisors".

The big question is what changed between foreign minister Yashwant Sinha saying Pakistan is a fit case for pre-emptive strikes and Vajpayee's peace overture? Sinha's statement was made soon after the last meeting of the cabinet committee on security (CCS), which discussed the Iraq war and the Nadimarg massacre. CCS members were angry that the US had exhorted India to talk to Pakistan immediately after the killings. The PM listened and advised caution. But Sinha eventually made his faux pas, which, nonetheless, went down well with the hawks.

The PM, however, felt that such a response was acceptable from a party leader, not a minister. Says a senior official: "Why talk of pre-emptive strikes when you aren't going to do it? It only alarms the world." Pakistan accused India of issuing threats and Washington declared it was soon going to turn its attention to the region. Surely, the visit of US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage to India and Pakistan next month must have also figured in Vajpayee's calculations.

However, to conclude that "US pressure" led to Vajpayee's softened stand would be like missing the wood for the trees. True, some members of the 'Vajpayee establishment' have been distinctly pro-US, their logic being that sooner or later the US will have to tackle a rogue state like Pakistan. Hence, India is a natural ally. But Vajpayee's famous instincts appear to have led him to surmise that something entirely different may happen. Post Iraq, the US might handle the only nuclear Islamic nation with caution.

Says an official source: "The PM has been mulling over the post-Iraq situation for a while now. He knew the significance of the Kashmir visit and decided to assert his views there." The aide stresses the importance of Vajpayee's statement at the Srinagar press conference that "what has happened in Iraq is a chetavni (warning) to the rest of the world, especially to the developing countries. India and Pakistan should sit down and sort out their problems. Inviting a third party will only expand the problem."

This statement, say insiders, was a direct message to Pakistan that both countries better get their act together before big brother lands in the neighbourhood. "Na inki dosti achchi/na inki dushmani achchi (Their friendship can be as dangerous as their enmity)," may well be the philosophy now guiding Vajpayee's attitude to the US, say sources.

Besides, Vajpayee is politely telling the hardliners here they can't expect a fresh round of warmongering in the changed world order. In fact, any changed posture on Pakistan can't be delinked from domestic politics. Sources close to Vajpayee say he has assessed that the post-Iraq mood in India is distinctly anti-US. While 9/11 had increased Hindu-Muslim tension, the war in Iraq is not being perceived as a Muslim issue.If anything, it has harmonised communal differences. The PM is reportedly of the view that the hawkish Togadia-Modi line has turned out to be a damp squib. This made it easier for him to soften his stand on Pakistan.

Moreover, in recent months, Vajpayee's hands have been strengthened by the BJP's declaration that he'll lead the party into the next elections. Ever since, he has been quietly asserting his line. On April 6, in a function at the BJP headquarters, he declared: "Whenever there's a contentious issue, we'll take a stand guided by national interest, not party interest." The reference was obviously to Ayodhya. On April 18-19, he rose above party interests to endorse the healing touch policy in Kashmir. On April 22, at a BJP parliamentary party meet, he ticked off MPs complaining about vat: "We have to take decisions in the larger interest even if they hurt our traditional votebank."

That Vajpayee is currently riding a high is borne out by the fact that even the parivar hawks are endorsing his line. Tarun Vijay, editor of the rss mouthpiece Panchajanya, says: "What Vajpayee proved during the Kashmir visit is that he's a statesman, not a mere politician." rss spokesman Ram Madhav responds more cautiously: "Peace initiatives are always welcome. The problem is Pakistan's track record. But we're glad there's a rider about cross-border terrorism in the PM's statements." Critical statements like vhp chief Ashok Singhal's—"Doesn't the PM know his history? What peace can we have with Pakistan?"—have been ignored in the all-round tones of approval.

The five years of Vajpayee's prime ministership have been marked by certain highs and lows. The less inspiring moments were when, hemmed in by the hardliners in his own party, Vajpayee abandoned his carefully calibrated moderation and became a Hindutva hawk, if only for a day. That was a display of his political agility—the art of surviving at the helm of a party often out of sync with its leadership. But Vajpayee's finer moments are surely those that were guided by his intuition. Years in public life have taught him to modulate his tone with the times but also to pursue his instinctive pacifism.

At the Kashmir University convocation address, Vajpayee spoke of Hindu-Muslim unity, Sufi philosophy, the Valley's composite culture. Even if it was mere rhetoric, it was another vintage Vajpayee performance that disarmed his audience.

Is this another attempt by Vajpayee to take moral positions reminiscent of Nehru and carve out a place in history distinct from his party? After all, he did begin his speech by declaring he was "aware of the honour of following in Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's footsteps"—the last prime minister to have addressed a Kashmir University convocation.
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