Peacemaker par excellence

Sudheendra Kulkarni

ONE OF MY MOST vivid and heartening memories of working with Atal Bihari Vajpayee is associated with Kerala. He had chosen “the verdant environs of Kumarakom resort on the banks of the sea-sized Vembanad Lake” to bid goodbye to 2000 and usher in 2001. As usual, his team of close aides had accompanied him. I had the added pleasure of taking along my eight-year-old daughter Tapas.

It was not merely a much-needed vacation for him. He articulated his thoughts, which appeared in two parts under the now famous title, ‘Kumarakom Musings’.

“Unlike our nation, all of us have a limited life,” he wrote. “Each new generation, therefore, has to give a worthy account of itself in its own lifetime, aware that its contribution to India’s progress will be judged essentially on two counts: one, how many ‘legacy problems’ inherited from the past has it resolved? Two, how strong a foundation has it laid for the future development of the nation?”

He shared his views on two such ‘legacy problems’—the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute and the longstanding problem with Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir. On Ayodhya, he said, “It is a challenge to the collective wisdom of our society that we find a peaceful and amicable solution to this problem, sooner rather than later.” While pledging to uphold the judicial verdict on the matter, he nevertheless said something significant. “Resumption of talks between representatives of the Hindu and Muslim communities, conducted in an atmosphere of trust, goodwill and flexibility, has the potential to create such an atmosphere.”

If I had had one more term, I would have resolved the Kashmir issue once and for all. —Atal Bihari Vajpayee

What he said about India-Pakistan relations was even more optimistic. “India,” he affirmed, “is willing and ready to seek a lasting solution to the Kashmir problem. Towards this end, we are prepared to recommence talks with Pakistan at any level, including the highest level, provided Islamabad gives sufficient proof of its preparedness to create a conducive atmosphere for a meaningful dialogue.” Announcing that his government would “soon initiate talks with various representative groups in J&K”, he said something no prime minister had said before: “In our search for a lasting solution to the Kashmir problem, both in its external and internal dimensions, we shall not traverse solely on the beaten track of the past. Rather, we shall be bold and innovative designers of a future architecture of peace and prosperity for the entire South Asian region.”

The ‘Kumarakom Musings’ were warmly welcomed by people at home and also in capitals around the world, including Islamabad. Here was a prime minister willing to let the betrayal and bitterness of the Kargil war behind, and willing to resume the dialogue process with Pakistan. Seven months later, president Pervez Musharraf was invited to Agra. The summit failed. In December, terrorists attacked Indian Parliament. But Vajpayee persevered with undiminished passion and commitment. I accompanied him on his landmark visit to Kashmir in April 2003. Taking almost everyone by surprise, he announced, “India is ready for talks with Pakistan on all issues, including the issue of Kashmir.”

At last, light seemed to appear at the end of the dark tunnel when Vajpayee and Musharraf met in January 2004, on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in Islamabad. In the joint statement issued on the occasion, Pakistan pledged, for the first time ever, not to allow any part of its territory—or territory controlled by it—to be used for acts of terror targeting India.

Alas, the BJP lost the parliamentary elections in May 2004. But, one day, as I was sitting alone with him at his 6 Krishna Menon Marg residence, Atalji told me with deep sadness in his voice, “If I had had one more term, I would have resolved the Kashmir issue once and for all.”

Kulkarni served as a close aide to Vajpayee in the PMO.