Pokhran to Kargil, Shakti Sinha Saw Vajpayee Make Tough Decisions

Vajpayee’s former secretary & close aide reflects on his prime ministership, ‘that changed India.’

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“The way he handled the Kargil conflict, he was very clear – Pakistan is the aggressor, we shall not compromise,” says Shakti Sinha, author and former private secretary to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, narrating why he felt proud working with him.

Be it the Kargil war, the Pokhran nuclear tests or the India Shining campaign, Vajpayee, one of the tallest leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, was often called as the ‘right man in the wrong party’.

As the nation observes his 96th birth anniversary, Sinha has launched his book ‘Vajpayee: The Years That Changed India’, that reflects upon the time of Vajpayee’s Prime Ministership.

“In 1971, when we had the mid-term polls, Vajpayee was there, and he gave a speech. I went to listen to him as a 14-year-old. And I was mesmerised by what he said not just by how he spoke but even by the fact that he was raising very serious issues. Little did I know, that 10 years later, I'd come to know him and slowly start working with him,” Sinha said, as he remembered hearing Vajpayee speak for the first time.

“Vajpayee was not a social butterfly. He was a very silent person, almost shy to that extent. Till you got to know him, he was a shy person. He was not the back-stabbing kind,” Sinha said.

Why Allies Favoured Vajpayee for PM Over Advani?

Asked what according to him made Vajpayee the preferred choice as the prime ministerial candidate for the allies over LK Advani, Sinha said that Vajpayee was needed for the party to go beyond the core voters of the BJP.

“People don't realise today, that Advani's popularity as a national leader was only from the mid-1980s. For the party, he was very important, but publicly he was not (initially). Vajpayee was the face of the Jan Sangh for a long time and the BJP. In that sense, Vajpayee had a much larger following or acceptance across the country,” Sinha said.

“Advani was more of a sangathan person in-and-out, and he really built it up. But it was required of Vajpayee to then go beyond the party. You cannot win an election based on committed voters only. You need the uncommitted voters to come across as well,” he added.

Vajpayee’s Equation with the RSS

While the question of Vajpayee’s decisions being influenced by the RSS have risen several times, the differences that he had with the Sangh were also a matter of public knowledge.

“Of course, there was a difference between what Vajpayee was trying to do and some very old swayamsevaks of the RSS – people like Dattopant Thengadi ji, who built the labour movement, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. But if you look at Vajpayee's whole attitude towards governance and politics, you can see a very strong impact of his days in the Sangh. Therefore, his worldview was very much impacted by the fact that he was from the RSS himself,” Sinha said.

“Vajpayee also, during his political career, had made changes in his thinking. So, I think the relationship was a dynamic one, there were differences, but there were large areas of overlap where they were absolutely on the same page,” he added.

Vajpayee’s Mood While Pokhran Tests Took Place

The Pokhran nuclear tests changed the world’s outlook towards India, but the decisions had its international repercussions. Sinha was in the room with Vajpayee when the test results were announced and also penned the statement that Vajpayee gave after the tests.

“Going nuclear for Vajpayee, especially after the Chinese blasts of 1964 and the Russian Treaty of 1967, was imperative. India had to go nuclear to be safe. And in that room that day (Pokhran tests), there was electric tension; there was nervousness as to 'What if something goes wrong and we look like fools'; what would be the impact, because these were very momentous decisions. So it was, I'd say, nervous excitement, among others.” Sinha said.

“For Vajpayee, I remember, as we wrote the one-line statement – which he then spoke at the lawns of 7, Race Course Road to the press – it was the vindication of the belief – ‘This is what I set out to do and I have done it,’” he added.

Vajpayee was prepared for international backlash, but not for the isolation.

“They were prepared for backlash, but I guess not that severe. The fact that for the next six months, we were an international pariah, and the kind of language used against us...” Sinha recalled.

Was Vajpayee’s Kashmir Strategy Better Than Modi’s?

“The BJP and Vajpayee always wanted Article 370 to go. It was there in every manifesto of the BJP that Article 370 would go. He said that 'it's just because we do not have the numbers'. Vajpayee never once said that he wanted Article 370 to continue. He used to say, 'Syama Prasad Mukherjee told me, 'Vajpayee, now you go back and continue it (the Kashmir strategy),” Sinha remembers.

“For him also, the complete integration of Kashmir into the Indian Union was an article of faith, as he said he did not have the numbers to do it. People say distinctions are happening (between Vajpayee and Modi), I don't think distinctions are that sharp,” he added.

The Pakistan Pitch

While the Modi regime has seen severe deterioration of relations with Pakistan, Vajpayee’s approach was different.

“When the Parliament was attacked in December 2001, Vajpayee ordered a complete mobilisation of the Indian Army. In 70 years of Independence, if the Army was mobilised once completely – the entire Army – it was under Vajpayee against the Pakistanis. But Vajpayee also felt that India (of that time) was too weak, and it needed international support, it needed the American support, etc; and that as our neighbours, you must handle them (Pakistan) somehow,” Sinha said.

“So, I think it was a nuanced approach which Modi also tried – he invited Nawaz Sharif for his swearing-in. What happened after that? You got Pathankot, the Army Cantonment in Uri and much later, you had Pulwama,” he added.

‘Proud of Vajpayee’

As a man who saw Vajpayee make the toughest decisions that transformed India faster than the world could have imagined, Sinha is nothing but proud of working with Vajpayee through his prime ministership.

“The way he handled Kargil – he was very clear that Pakistan is the aggressor, and we shall not compromise. There was a lot of pressure on him to agree to a ceasefire. He said, 'No, we will agree to a ceasefire only when the Pakistani Army agrees to withdraw from across the LOC.' I think that was a turning point in India's position in the international world order. It was a recognition that India is a different country from Pakistan and the challenges that India faces from Pakistan have to be handled differently. I think, I would put that as the... (moment I felt proud),” Sinha remembers.

“The old India and the new India – which is why my book is called ‘Vajpayee: The Years that Changed India’... It's a different India, a confident India, an India which could talk to the world powers as an equal and not as a supplement,” he said.

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