NEW DELHI: A gentle giant. That’s probably how the international community will remember Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the man who put India on the nuclear weapons map and repeatedly offered a friendly hand to Pakistan despite snubs and snipes, sometimes from his own party men. Within months of becoming Prime Minister for the second time in 1998, Vajpayee fulfilled the BJP’s promise to go nuclear by conducting two nuclear tests at Pokhran in Rajasthan on May 11 and 13, 1998.
Overnight, India became an international pariah, with the US and most other big powers imposing sanctions to show their disapproval. Undeterred, India declared a self-imposed nuclear moratorium and a no-first use policy, while Vajpayee’s foreign minister Jaswant Singh launched a dialogue with the US. It was during this time that China became “enemy number one”, as defence minister George Fernandes declared soon after the nuclear tests. It took a visit by Vajpayee to China in 2003 to soothe Beijing, which officially recognised Sikkim as an Indian state.
Partly as the outcome of that dialogue, Vajpayee agreed to revive the bus service to Lahore, and in February 1999, took that bus to Pakistan and signed the Lahore Declaration with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif. The key points of that treaty involved ways to avoid a nuclear weapons race as well as other conflicts. But then came the Kargil intrusion (May-July 1999) initiated by Pakistan Army Chief Pervez Musharraf. Following a July 4 ultimatum by US President Bill Clinton, Pakistani troops were ordered to withdraw. Musharraf overthrew Sharif in an October 1999 coup and the Lahore Declaration was buried.
The final nail was perhaps driven in by the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight IC 814 from Kathmandu to Delhi, which was eventually flown to Kandahar with 175 passengers and 15 crew. The release of three dreaded terrorists to resolve the matter was slammed by most people. In March 2000, US President Bill Clinton visited India and the two sides signed ‘ A Vision for the 21st Century’, which forms the backbone of relations’ even today.
In November 2001, during a visit to Moscow, Vajpayee and President Vladimir Putin inked the Moscow Declaration, which among other things calls annual meetings which still continue. In July 2001, Vajpayee invited Musharraf to a summit in Agra, but the latter walked out over differences over Kashmir. The two met again at the Saarc summit in Islamabad, and pledged to work to normalise ties. But that was not to be.