New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was then the general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), played a crucial role in building up pressure on US Congress members during the Kargil war to impose sanctions on Pakistan.
This interesting nugget is part of the book Vajpayee: The Years That Changed India by former civil servant Shakti Sinha, who served as private secretary to the late former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s for many years, including in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
The book, which will be released on Vajpayee’s 96th birth anniversary Friday, offers a detailed account of how the former Prime Minister worked and functioned.
Weighing in on the 1999 Kargil war, Sinha explains the “intense diplomatic and media efforts” made by India to highlight Pakistan’s aggression on the global stage.
“India’s intense diplomatic and media efforts seemed to be paying off. The moniker ‘rogue army’ to describe the Pakistan Army caught on. Digital media was in its infancy but it played a role, so did full-page advertisements in national and international press,” he writes.
“The NRI community rose to the occasion and put their money where their mouth was. Extensive tours of the US by senior leaders like Sushma Swaraj and the then-upcoming BJP general secretary, Narendra Modi, helped increase pressure on US Congressmen,” Sinha adds.
As a result of this lobbying, Sinha writes, “what followed was the US imposing sanctions on Pakistan, which included blocking all assistance from international institutions like the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and World Bank”.
According to the book, a US House of Representatives subcommittee, led by then Congressman Jim McDermott, had agreed on a far lower level of sanctions, “but the thousands of fax messages that his office, and those of the other members, received, thanks to the efforts of Narendra Modi, forced a rethink, to Pakistan’s detriment”.
A proper funeral for enemy soldiers
The book offers a detailed account of the Kargil war, and informs readers that even when Kargil was bombarded by Pakistani long-range guns, Vajpayee kept the lines of communications open between the two countries. “Even as the Pakistani army was dead opposed to it,” he told ThePrint in an interview about the book.
He says in the book that the Pakistan Army and political leadership both requested the US to intervene and help bring about a ceasefire. But, “Vajpayee, in his telephonic conversations with (then US President Bill) Clinton, made it clear that the Pakistani adventure was dangerous and could not be condoned”.
“Either they could vacate Indian territory on their own, or India would throw them out the way it deemed best. There would be no ceasefire till the sanctity of the LoC was respected. Surprisingly, Clinton did not have much choice but to eventually publicly rebuke Pakistan and call upon it to withdraw its troops back to the LoC at the earliest,” he adds.
He also recalls how India conducted a number of funerals of Pakistani soldiers after the country’s army refused to collect the bodies.
“What I found rather extraordinary was the attitude of the armed forces to the enemy casualties, despite the odd circumstances and bad faith in which the war had been initiated,” he writes.
“Since Pakistan was not prepared to own up to their involvement, they refused to collect the bodies of the fallen from the Indian Army. So the army conducted around 145 funerals, dug graves at altitudes of 15,000 feet, flew in maulvis and conducted the last rites,” he says.
Among other things, the book details the complexities of running a coalition government and the impact it had on Vajpayee. The second time Vajpayee was sworn in as PM, in 1998, his government only lasted 13 months, as the NDA lost a no-confidence motion by a single vote after then-ally AIADMK withdrew its support.
“(Former AIADMK chief) Jayalalithaa reached Delhi on 2 April and met Vajpayee the next day with a long list of her demands, the sum and substance of which was the dismissal of the DMK government in Tamil Nadu. But there was little that Vajpayee could do in this regard, besides asking her to have faith in him,” Sinha writes.
Fifteen days later, he lost the no-confidence motion.
Sinha also makes some personal observations about Vajpayee. Writing about the 1998 Independence Day, Sinha says: “Vajpayee, who, for his age (74 years at the time), was quite fit even if overweight, now looked bogged down and often sluggish. The burden of office and the uncertain nature of his position could not have made things any easier. I am convinced that it was over-medication that made life more difficult for Vajpayee than just the psychological burden that he was carrying”.
Sinha goes on to provide another interesting anecdote as he gives us a glimpse into Vajpayee’s mind as he prepared for the 15 August speech. “If this was not enough, Vajpayee seemed overwhelmed about speaking from the Red Fort on 15 August and spent lots of time agonizing over the many drafts that he got prepared from different persons. Our best efforts to make him feel that it was no big deal, that it would be child’s play for him, did not succeed,” he writes.
“His simple reply was, ‘Bolna toh mujhe hai (I have to speak).’ So how would others know the pressure? This, from a person whose eloquence was legendary, who had a way with language and was never at a loss for words in any verbal duel,” Sinha adds.
Ultimately, Vajpayee was clear he would read out the speech from a written draft. “Even Arun Shourie’s point, that if he read out the speech it would be like a major medieval warrior riding a scooter, did not move him,” he writes.