I can never forget 11 May 1998. On that fateful day, a few months into my posting in Tokyo, I was hosting a dinner at my residence, when the phone rang. The call was for Dr Jaishankar (then Deputy Chief of Mission, and later India’s Foreign Secretary). ‘We have done it’, he said, putting down the receiver.
It was a bold, difficult and a highly risky manoeuvre, which ended decades of ambivalence, and placed the country squarely in the big league.
Aftershocks of the Nuclear Test
Japan went ballistic as news of India’s nuclear tests broke out, and with some justification, being the only country in the world to have suffered the horrors of radioactive fallout. Then Prime Minister Hashimoto went into an over-drive. He called Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif urging him not to follow suit, brandished inducements and even offered to take the Kashmir issue to the UN Security Council. President Clinton was livid and so was the western world.
A series of economic and technological sanctions were imposed on India, aid was cut-off and access to IFI (International Financial Institution) funds suspended.
The US and some other nations recalled their ambassadors. Demands were made on India to immediately sign the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty).
Prime Minister Vajpayee and his core team remained unfazed. They weathered the storm stoically through a slew of deft economic and political measures. India announced a voluntary moratorium on further tests and pledged ‘No first use’ of nuclear weapons, among other steps. Strategic dialogues were initiated with France (led by National Security Adviser Brijesh Mishra) and the US (led by External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh). Resurgent India Bonds (RIBs) were launched to garner USD 2 billion, which mobilised more than USD 4 billion within months. The rest, as they say, is history.
The five day-five city visit to India (including the iconic Taj Mahal) by President Clinton (and his daughter Chelsea) in March 2000, within two years of Pokhran nuclear tests, was a sterling testimonial to Vajpayee’s diplomatic skills and success, if one was at all needed.
Clinton followed it with a reluctant five-hour visit to Pakistan. De-hyphenation of India and Pakistan was complete!
Vajpayee — The Charmer
Vajpayee (ABV) was a man of many parts. Besides being a nationalist, visionary and a decisive leader, he was also a humanist, poet and a foodie. A mesmerising orator during his heydays, he was also blessed with a great sense of humour. Upon becoming the Foreign Minister in 1977, he was accosted by the media – ‘Mr Minister, while in Opposition, you said this, this and this. What do you say now?’
‘I am no longer in Opposition,’ was Vajpayee’s retort.
Ambassador Mohan Kumar, a batchmate, fondly narrates an anecdote from his days as a Third Secretary in Geneva in 1983. He was asked to fetch a Member of Parliament (MP) from the airport, and opted to drive down in his personal car. On the way back, they got talking, and upon realizing that he was a young IFS officer, the MP asked him to stop the car at once. Perplexed, he did exactly that.
The dignitary promptly switched to the front seat of the car, apologising to Mohan for not knowing that he was an Officer (he never said that he had mistook him for a chauffeur).
They continued to chat as if they had known each other forever. ‘Such class and consideration! I agree they do not make them like that anymore’ wistfully remarks Mohan. As you must have guessed, the MP was none other than Mr Vajpayee.
Popular in Pakistan
AB Vajpayee was a statesman who was capable of looking at the big picture, transcending short-term considerations, setbacks and personal disappointments.
Vajpayee harboured a life-long dream to normalise relations with Pakistan, despite the latter’s treachery and compulsive hostility.
To foster better ties, the then Prime Minister Vajpayee and his delegation, undertook the famous bus ‘yatra’ to Lahore on its inaugural run on 20 February 1999. He was received at the Wagah border by Prime Minister Sharif. He interalia paid respects at the historical Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, built to honour a 1940 resolution that led to the creation of Pakistan, which was rich in symbolism.