. . . . . .  

William Wordsworth is the unlikeliest of names one would associate with Indo-Pak diplomacy, yet during this intermission in the drama of our inter-state relations, Wordsworth’s appeal to the poet John Milton springs to mind. Wordsworth’s memorable call can be paraphrased and addressed to another poet: ‘Vajpayee sahib! Thou shouldst be living at this hour. Both India and Pakistan hath need of thee.’

Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee died on 16 August. The date should be marked in both countries with a respect akin to 14 August in Pakistan and 15 August in India, for no leader since 1947 had done as much as he did to bridge the midnight chasm between our two countries. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru may have signed the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty in a final, grudging gesture to share the liquid assets of the divided subcontinent, but he never reconciled to the reality of Pakistan. The 1966 Tashkent peace agreement executed under duress by PM Shastri and President Ayub Khan was blown to smithereens by the 1971 war over Bangladesh. The 1972 Shimla agreement inked by PM Indira Gandhi and President Z.A. Bhutto only bought time for festering suspicions to bore even deeper. And I.K. Gujral’s Doctrine of better neighbourliness had a shelf life no longer than his own tenure as PM, until Mr Vajpayee retrieved it from oblivion, dusted it and restored its relevance.

No one ever thought that someone with a BJP shell and a RSS kernel would have undertaken the daring risk of crossing Wagah border in a bus. Yet, Shri Vajpayee did, giving an innovative meaning to the phrase ‘shuttle diplomacy’.

Accompanying him on that trip was that other friend of Pakistan, the author/Journalist Kuldip Nayar. He died on 23 August, a week after Mr Vajpayee. Kuldip’s efforts to promote Indo-Pak amity have been overshadowed by his role in the Dr. A. Q Khan-gate episode. His book ‘Distant Neighbours’ though deserves never to be forgotten. It possesses a Darwinian, seminal significance for both countries.

Some of us are still alive who witnessed history being made in those short February days during Mr Vajpayee’s bus yatra to Lahore in 1999. They recall the contrast between the affable but tongue-tied host Nawaz Sharif and his mellifluously articulate guest.   

On that visit, Mr Vajpayee revealed to us Pakistanis that he was in equal parts a politician, a poet, and a verbal magician.  As a politician, he had the sagacity to ignore the unruly demonstrations orchestrated to prevent him from attending the banquet in the Lahore Fort. Once there, he could have taken umbrage at a menu that offered him Kashmiri tea, but he swallowed that tactless slight without the frown of a démarche.   

As a poet, he could condense his ahimsa inclinations into such euphonic lines as: Hum jang na honain dayenge, khoon ka rang na honain dayenge [We will never permit war; we will never allow the red stain of blood].

As a verbal magician, he knew how to cast a spell over his audience with measured, perfectly paced oratory. He never used histrionics, ignoring it as oratory’s poorer, unwelcome cousin. Importantly for us, Mr Vajpayee knew how to untie with his tongue the Gordian knots of paranoia, suspicion, and misplaced zealotry that have yoked Pakistan and India together for too long. 

What would Shri Vajpayee or Kuldip Nayar have made of our new leadership? Kuldip would have interviewed Imran Khan’s earlier friends, extracted spicy stories from them, and then ground them together into a sizzling expose. Shri Vajpayee would have responded to PM Imran Khan’s offer of humanitarian aid for the Kerala flood victims with a polite deflection. He might also have refused it, but without Mr Modi’s condescension.

Would Mr Vajpayee have sent a delegation to discuss the contentious Indus Waters Treaty so quickly after Pakistan’s elections, aware that its immature government had still to find its feet, leave alone the relevant files?

He might have advised his team first to hear the Pakistani arguments, reiterate its own position, and then end the talks with the sensible proposal that both delegations should brief their respective governments (old and new) before another round of negotiations. He would have flinched had either side mentioned the word ‘arbitration’. Kashmir had taught him that diplomacy is best conducted behind closed doors, never from outside locked ones.

PM Modi owes his position to his own determination and talent, but genetically also to the foresight and patronage of the late A.B. Vajpayee. PM Modi faces general elections next year. He might be tempted, to garner votes, to increase the intensity, the sharpness of rhetoric against Pakistan. Hopefully, PM Modi will reincarnate Shri Vajpayee’s vision. He may well see that a Naya Pakistan lies no further than a bus ride away from the past.



[DAWN, 6 SEPT. 2018] 

06 September 2018
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