Pakistan’s Kargil misadventure in May 1999 came barely two months after then PM Atal Behari Vajpayee and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, signed the Lahore Declaration. Vajpayee was upset and had let Sharif know that he saw the Kargil intrusion as a breach of trust. Once the war started, he did not interfere, but was always available when we needed anything. When we faced a severe shortage of spares for the Bofors guns—a mainstay of our artillery—Vajpayee got the ban on the firm lifted so we could procure spares and ammunition immediately.
During the war, he visited formation commanders on the front. I was with him the day he went to Kargil. When Pakistan started shelling the town, he watched calmly from the helipad. He also saw wounded soldiers in army hospitals in Srinagar and Udhampur. Initially, when intelligence kept talking of the intruders being Mujahideen, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) decided our armed forces would not cross the Line of Control (LoC). This restriction was primarily due to the nuclear weaponisation of the subcontinent (this aspect was not discussed with military leaders). India also wanted to avoid the UN Security Council; since the May 1998 nuclear test, Western governments were seeing India and Pakistan as rogue nations.
Our military strategy, however, catered for crossing the border if and when needed. I spoke to Vajpayee, asking him not to announce in public that our forces won’t cross the LoC. He understood. That evening, his National Security Advisor, Brajesh Mishra, told a news channel: “Not crossing the LoC or the border holds good today; we don’t know about tomorrow.” A shaken Sharif went running first to Beijing and then to the US.
The Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) used to meet Vajpayee every day during the war. On July 10, 1999, I was called to his residence. There, in Mishra’s presence, he told me Pakistan wanted to withdraw its forces from wherever they were on our side of the LoC. I told him we had already recaptured about 85 per cent of the area and couldn’t let Pakistan just walk away. Vajpayee called me for a second meeting the same day, and asked how many days it would take. I said 15-20. He asked if there could be more casualties. He seemed concerned. I said no commander wishes to lose any soldier, but it cannot be ruled out.
Vajpayee said international opinion could go against us if we continued—and his was an interim government, with polls around the corner. I told him I needed to consult my COSC colleagues and our field commanders. At my third meeting of the day with Vajpayee, after the consultations, I said we would let Pakistan withdraw its troops, but on our terms. The PM agreed. He could have ordered me, but he chose to sit through three meetings to convince me.
This was Vajpayee, the consensus builder. He also made good use of military diplomacy. In January 2000, he sent me on a quiet mission to establish contact with Myanmar’s military government. Indo-Myanmar relations have improved considerably since that meeting.
An open-minded and pragmatic leader, I don’t have enough words to describe the statesman he was in peace and in war.
(The author is former Chief of Army Staff)