Atal Bihari Vajpayee: Poet-PM who thrilled Pakistan with his dream for peace
He was a man of dreams because he was a poet.
My first impression about poet-politician Atal Bihari Vajpayee was not very positive. I had read a few lines about him the first time in a book titled If I Am Assassinated written some four decades ago by former Prime Minister of Pakistan Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. This book was written by Bhutto in Rawalpindi Central Jail. The manuscript was smuggled to London by a lawyer of Bhutto’s in 1978, and it was published in India.
1978 was the year when Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Pakistan for the first time as India's Foreign Minister. General Zia-ul-Haq was the President of Pakistan and Bhutto was silently writing his book in jail. Many world leaders were making appeals to the Pakistani military dictator for suspending the death sentence of Bhutto — but Vajpayee never spoke about Bhutto during his Pakistan visit. Bhutto criticised Vajpayee in his book and declared him an anti-Muslim leader who apparently expressed displeasure over the Karakoram Highway, which connected Pakistan with China.
Fast-forward time and it was 1998 when India conducted its nuclear tests on the orders of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee — I was one of those Pakistanis who were demanding that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif should follow Vajpayee’s example and make a nuclear balance in South Asia.
I then met Vajpayee for the first time in Lahore, when he came to Pakistan on a famous bus — his second Pakistan visit thrilled the whole of Pakistan.
A grand reception was arranged in his honour at Lahore Fort. When Vajpayee arrived, many journalists, writers, poets and singers were introduced to him, including me. He shook hands with me, with a lovely smile on his face. His hands were soft, like his face.
He impressed all of us by his speech, which gave us the message of peace. He emerged as a moderate face of the BJP. Nawaz Sharif paid a great tribute to Vajpayee and said he could win an election in Pakistan!
Unfortunately, within a few weeks, the Kargil war started and the goodwill created by both Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif broke into pieces. General Pervez Musharraf came to power in October 1999 and an Indian plane was hijacked in December 1999. Air links between the two neighbours were suspended. The Agra Summit in 2001 was another effort by Vajpayee to bridge the gap with Pakistan but, at the end of this summit, I was standing disappointed in front of the Taj Mahal and listening to anti-Pakistan slogans raised by some Hindu extremists.
In 2003, Vajpayee visited Srinagar and said, “Guns cannot solve any problem — but brotherhood can”. I tried to interview the Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha. I was granted a visa by the Indian High Commission in Islamabad and I reached New Delhi via Colombo. My interview with Yashwant Sinha was a breakthrough between India and Pakistan. Many Indian officials told me privately that permission for that interview was given to Yashwant Sinha by PM Vajpayee.
I met Vajpayee sahib the second time during his third visit to Pakistan in 2004. He was staying at the Serena Hotel in Islamabad. The Pakistani Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz was deputed as Minister in Waiting for the Indian Prime Minister. Shaukat Aziz was a good friend of mine and I got a lot of information about Atal Bihari Vajpayee through him. He told me, “Vajpayee ji ka sense of humour bara zabardast hey” (his sense of humor is very good). Vajpayee gifted his book, 21 Poems, to Shaukat Aziz along with a CD of Lata Mangeshkar's songs. Shaukat Aziz gifted him CDs of Noor Jahan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Mehdi Hasan, Ghulam Ali, Iqbal Banu and Nayyra Noor.
General Pervez Musharraf and Atal Bihari Vajpayee signed the famous Islamabad declaration during that visit. One evening, I invited Shaukat Aziz on my TV talk show to speak about Vajpayee — he was full of praise for Vajpayee ji. Shaukat Aziz watched the Australia-India cricket match with Vajpayee in his hotel room for two hours and realised the Indian Prime Minister had more knowledge about cricket than him.
When Vajpayee was leaving Pakistan, he apparently candidly told Musharraf that Shaukat Aziz took good care of him and “he is your future star”. Within months, Musharraf removed Zafarullah Jamali and Shaukat Aziz was made Prime Minister of Pakistan.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee knew cricket is the second love of many Pakistanis and Indians. His bus diplomacy failed in February 1999 — but he successfully launched his cricket diplomacy in March 2004. I still remember that Vajpayee met the Indian cricket team before their visit to Pakistan and told Captain Sourav Ganguly, “Khel bhi jitiye — aur dil bhi jitiye” (Win the game — and also win the hearts).
He tried his level best to improve relations with Pakistan.
His three-point formula for the resolution of the Kashmir dispute gave a message to Pakistanis that he was serious about making peace with them. He said 'Insaniyat (Humanism) Jamhooriat (Democracy) and Kashmiriyat (the old tradition of Hindu-Muslim amity)' is the ultimate way of resolving all problems.
The new Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, is not the only one who sent his condolence message now on the sad demise of Vajpayee ji. There are many Pakistani leaders who paid tributes to Vajpayee ji after his death. The Kashmiri leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq also tweeted, “Sad to hear about the demise of Vajpayee ji. He was a rare Indian leader who had the humaneness to seek the resolution of the festering Kashmir dispute in the wide ambit of humanity and not within the confines of a constitution”.
One can disagree with Mirwaiz but, no doubt, Vajpayee ji is one of the few Indian leaders who are respected in Srinagar.
There was a time when Vajpayee wrote a poem against agreements between Pakistan and the USA but now, the USA is making agreements with India. Circumstances have changed, but the dreams of Vajpayee are still shared by a large majority of Indians and Pakistanis.
Vajpayee ji has left this world — but his dreams and poems are still with us. He wanted peace with Pakistan. I am sure Prime Minister Modi and Imran Khan can turn his dreams into reality. That’s the best way to pay him the ultimate tribute.
Let’s start new efforts. Let’s start at least cricket matches between India and Pakistan.
If Vajpayee could do it in 2004, why not Modi in 2018?
Hamid Mir @hamidmirpak
The author is a Pakistani journalist. He works for GNN.