India's elder statesman keeps pressure on Pakistan

Vajpayee is taking hard line on Kashmir

January 17, 2002|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NEW DELHI, India - He is silver-haired, a long-standing conservative and projects the relaxed demeanor of a kindly grandfather. His oratorical skills have earned him a reputation as the best Hindi-language public speaker of his generation.

Even secularists who disagree with the politics of his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party find Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee hard to dislike.

"Every Indian has grown up with Vajpayee," said Kanti P. Bajpai, a professor at the Center of International Politics, Organization and Disarmament at Jawaharlal Nehru University here. "Even leftist politicians who detest the BJP will personally get along with him quite nicely."

In recent weeks, India's amiable elder statesman has captured the attention and concern of the world by engaging in a game of brinkmanship with India's arch- rival, Pakistan. Since a terrorist assault on India's Parliament building last month, the prime minister has sent hundreds of thousands of troops to the Pakistani border in the largest military buildup in South Asia in three decades.

Vajpayee blamed the attack on terrorist groups operating in Pakistan and demanded that Islamabad crack down on them or face the consequences. Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, responded by denouncing terrorism in all forms, banning five Islamic fundamentalist groups and rounding up some 1,400 militants.

While critics have accused Vajpayee of being too soft on Pakistan in the past, his decision to dispatch troops earned broad support here.

"He's put a lot of pressure on Pakistan," said Rahul Jain, 24, who runs the Jain Fancy Store, a tiny sari shop in a grimy old British colonial market downtown. "This time, he's done very well."

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell arrives today for talks with Vajpayee after meetings yesterday with Musharraf in Islamabad. Powell, who is in the region to ease tensions between the two nuclear powers, will urge the Indian premier to act with restraint. While New Delhi has reacted positively to Musharraf's initial moves, the Indian government says it won't reduce troops along the border until it sees more concrete results.

Vajpayee, whose age is variously given as between 75 and 77, became prime minister three years ago with ambitions to improve relations with Pakistan and the United States and push India into the front rank of world powers. His tenure has been marked by turbulence and surprises, many of his own making.

Soon after taking charge, Vajpayee ordered the detonation of nuclear weapons. The move, which drew international condemnation, provoked Pakistan to test weapons of its own.

Vajpayee said he decided to conduct the tests because he was concerned about the nuclear arsenal in neighboring China. Many analysts, especially those outside India, saw the tests as a bid for international attention and respect.

In some ways, the strategy worked. As a nuclear power, India has gained far more attention from major powers, including Great Britain, France and Japan.

Vajpayee has drawn criticism within his party for reaching out to Pakistan, a nation with which India has fought three wars.

In 1999, the prime minister met with then-Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif in Lahore and signed an agreement to begin talks on the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. Later that year, Pakistani-backed insurgents seized Indian troop positions near Kargil in India-controlled Kashmir and fighting erupted. At the time, Musharraf ran Pakistan's army.

Last year, Vajpayee invited President Musharraf for talks in India. After their summit collapsed, Musharraf held a news conference at which he criticized the Indians and embarrassed Vajpayee. Party stalwarts and others thought Vajpayee had been duped and humiliated.

"Musharraf is the butcher of Kargil," said Tarun Vijay, editor of Panchjanya, a Hindi-language newspaper and political organ of the BJP's parent organization. "Why should he be given the red carpet treatment?"

Between 1948 and 1951, Vajpayee edited Panchjanya and was a fiery conservative espousing Hindu nationalist views that made the nation's secular political majority uncomfortable. Over the next half-century, he evolved into a consensus-builder while serving as an opposition leader in Parliament and external affairs minister in the late 1970s.

In the past couple of years, though, Vajpayee's health has declined and he has reportedly become more isolated. The prime minister, a heavy man, moves slowly with one injured knee. He had surgery on the other last year.

Last summer, stress and age seemed to overwhelm him and Vajpayee talked of resigning. At the time, the prime minister, known for being thin-skinned, was reacting to intra-party criticism and veiled allegations of corruption within his office.

"I am told I have grown old and I am also unwell," he said. "Before people tell me it's time to go, I want to retire on my own."

Vajpayee's threat quickly dissipated. While some party members believed it had been a ploy to consolidate support, others believed it was genuine and a sign of the toll taken by decades in public life.

In his spare time, Vajpayee writes Hindi poetry. He published a volume of 21 poems last year, and while many are sentimental, a few seem to offer insight into Vajpayee's thoughts in the winter of his political career.

One poem, "A New Milestone," concludes:

But the seasons turned, the shadows lengthened,

The vessel's drained, all enchantments fade,

Though I staked all I had, it's been a contract of loss.

A new milestone's been crossed.

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