Saturday, 20 February 1999 was a crisp and sunlit winter day in Delhi. It was a day when a gleaming deep-gold-coloured luxury coach, with the Indian and Pakistani flags and the name of the bus – Sada-e-Sarhad (Call of the Frontier) – painted on its front, rolled towards the border between India and Pakistan. Slowly, it drove towards the Radcliffe Line, that blood-drenched line drawn by retreating British imperialists in 1947 which separated the mortal enemies who had fought three wars.
In the bus sat India’s Prime Minister Vajpayee and twenty-five chosen celebrities, from actors Dev Anand and Shatrughan Sinha to cricketer Kapil Dev, sculptor Satish Gujral, lyricist Javed Akhtar, danseuse Mallika Sarabhai and Akali Dal leader Prakash Singh Badal. Vajpayee was crossing into Pakistan on a bus.
He was inaugurating the Delhi–Lahore bus service, on the invitation of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. A prime minister from a Hindu nationalist party, head of a government that had just tested nuclear weapons, was journeying towards his Muslim counterpart, the head of a government of an Islamic republic, which had also recently tested the atomic bomb.
It was an act of assertive risk-taking Vajpayeeism, part of the long arc of subcontinental “Nehruvian” peacemaking he had begun as Janata foreign minister.
In November 1998 the BJP had been badly routed in assembly elections. The Congress swept to a record win in Delhi, bringing Sheila Dikshit to power as chief minister; it retained power in Madhya Pradesh, with fifty-one-year-old Digvijay Singh at the helm; and it streaked to a two-thirds majority in Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot felling BJP stalwart and Vajpayee’s friend Bhairon Singh Shekhawat.
The BJP was taken aback by the defeats, and sangh hardliners again fumed that it was an overdose of “Vajpayee-type secularism” and departure from Hindutva dogma which was damaging the party and alienating its core supporters. Sections of the sangh even grumbled it was time to set up another Jana Sangh.
In December 1998 the RSS affiliate the Swadeshi Jagran Manch held a dharna against Vajpayee in Delhi, shouting out its objections to reforms in the insurance sector. It was BJP vs BJP, as swadeshi stormtrooper Uma Bharti, minister of state in Human Resource Development (HRD), and RSS ideologue and trade unionist Dattopant Thengadi, fire breather of the Swadeshi campaign, vowed to oppose Vajpayee’s reformist moves in the economy.
Vajpayee had already clearly spelt out his economic agenda before becoming prime minister in 1998. “We are for the acceleration of reforms in the true sense of the word. We criticised the Congress [about] the lack of conviction on the part of the ‘reformers’ and the direction of the reforms. There can be no going back to the days of licence-quota raj. There are still large areas in need of de-bureaucratisation, especially at the state level.”
As prime minister, Vajpayee was set on getting his way. The hand-wringing BJP party president Kushabhau Thakre was summoned and given an earful from the PMO about government being supreme over party. Thakre was warned about those making noises against Vajpayee and instructed to ensure the party fully backed the government on the economy.
“We are elected representatives of the people,” Vajpayee said impatiently. “We are accountable in Parliament. Decisions have to be taken by us.” The elected representative of the people – this was Vajpayee’s argument clincher with his party radicals.
Under siege from both the saffron brotherhood and his allies – and troubled by the election losses – Vajpayee knew it was time again for a narrative-setting moment.
Setting off for Pakistan from Delhi early on 20 February 1999, Vajpayee was in a state of excitement and also a little nervous. So much so that ten minutes into the ride to the airport, he suddenly turned to Shakti Sinha to say, “Hearing aid chhoot gaya.” He had forgotten his hearing aid at home, without which the seventy-five-year-old was almost completely unable to hear.
The prime minister’s motorcade travels fast, speeding through traffic lights without stopping, and to turn it around is impossible. Another car was quickly dispatched to fetch the hearing aid, resulting in a few minutes’ delay in the flight to Amritsar, where Vajpayee would board the bus to Pakistan.
Awaiting Vajpayee’s arrival in Amritsar’s Raja Sansi airport was the golden-hued Sada-e-Sarhad. A military band struck up “Saare Jahan se Achcha” as Vajpayee landed. Stepping off the plane, Vajpayee boarded and off drove the bus towards the Wagah border post. “Balle balle,” shouted bhangra dancers leaping in front of the bus. Schoolchildren waved flags. Even BJP president Kushabhau Thakre was at Wagah to wish the prime minister.
Vajpayee kept waving to the crowds as the bus arrived at the border post. Slowly, the bus headed for the iron gates that separated India and Pakistan. Masses of officials stood gathered on both sides of the border. On either side of the gates, military and police bands struck up tunes. The Pakistan Rangers’ musical band belted out such catchy tunes that people on the Indian side danced to their beat.
As the bus reached the gates, India’s Border Security Force and the Pakistani Rangers rose up in coordinated goose-steps, throwing open the two gates in unison. The gates opened, the bus pulled through, and in thirty seconds India’s prime minister had entered Pakistan. For the first time ever, an Indian premier had travelled by road to Pakistan. The bus stopped in Wagah. Out stepped Vajpayee, watching his steps, yet endlessly smiling, caught up in this date with history.
As he alighted, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stood waiting on the red carpet. They embraced, and shook hands vigorously. A twenty-one-gun salute boomed. Crowds of journalists on both sides watched, their dispatches rocketing out to the world.
Here, in the golden winter sunlight of the northern subcontinent, a little after 4 pm, India and Pakistan were making peace in the biggest act of détente since 1947.
“It is with a sense of elation that I find myself on Pakistani soil after twenty-one years,” gushed Vajpayee. “I bring the goodwill and hopes of my fellow Indians who seek abiding peace and harmony with Pakistan. I’m looking forward to a substantive programme and talks with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. I’m conscious that this is a defining moment in South Asian history and I hope we will be able to rise to the challenge.”
Dev Anand, returning to Lahore, the city of his student days, was overcome with emotion. “It has been too long a wait. This is the moment of the century.”
The idea for the bus journey had not been begun as a grand plan but had fallen into place bit by bit. In July 1998 Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif had met in Colombo, shaking hands stiffly, making no progress in talks. The mood lifted considerably in September 1998, when they met in New York during the UN General Assembly session and Vajpayee hosted Sharif for lunch. Vajpayee served his Pakistani guest a deliciously elaborate five-course Mughlai and Punjabi meal, the highlight being a masala lobster curry.
The UN General Assembly sessions were Vajpayee’s stamping grounds; he had attended them regularly since 1988 and loved being there. Away from excoriating domestic politics, in New York he reverted to his smiling, gregarious self, unlike the withdrawn, grim visage he wore at home, catching up with old friends like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others.
As Vajpayee and Sharif warmed to each other, both speaking in fluent Hindustani, Vajpayee said to Sharif, “Arre sahab, jhagde ki baat hi kahan hai? Hum to apki cheeni kha rahein hain. Bahut meethi hai [Where’s the question of a quarrel? I am eating your sugar – a reference to Pakistan’s sugar imports to India].”
Sharif for his part nostalgically recalled his visit to India in 1982, when he, with a known fondness for fast cars, drove his own car to Delhi to watch the Asian Games. There was talk at that time of establishing a highway link and a regular bus service between the two countries.
In early 1999, in an interview to Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta, Sharif said, “Vajpayee is an extremely decent man,” and invited him to Pakistan, promising to show him a hospitality “so great the people will not forget it for a long time...I will even be happy to go back with him...we will solve 50% of our problems, make 50% progress on all issues on the way.”
Before the interview, Sharif had told Gupta that he would be extending this invitation on condition that he didn’t lose face and wasn’t rebuffed. Gupta had conveyed this to Vajpayee and had received a yes to Sharif ’s invite.
On the morning that the interview was published, Vajpayee landed in his constituency, Lucknow. When the press asked about Sharif’s invitation he said, “Yes, I would like to have a bus ride to Pakistan.” “By accepting Sharif ’s invitation immediately and open-heartedly, Vajpayee left no space for the hesitations of the MEA [Ministry of External Affairs] and diplomats to come in,” recalls Gupta.
But in Pakistan, passions were aroused and the hard-line Jamaat- e-Islami made threatening sounds. The Pakistan authorities told the Indian side that once Vajpayee arrived in Pakistan, it would not be safe for him to travel all the way to Lahore by bus, and so from Wagah Vajpayee left the bus and travelled to Lahore by helicopter. As the helicopter carrying Vajpayee and Sharif lifted off for Lahore, multicoloured kites shot into the air, dancing airborne escorts for the two peacemakers.
In Lahore, Sharif had arranged a grand official banquet at Lahore Fort. He had spared no effort and had personally supervised the arrangements. At the banquet Sharif recited Vajpayee’s line “Jung naa hone denge” (We will not let war happen).
In the magnificent Diwan-i- Khas in the Lahore Fort bedecked with lights, the mood was festive but outside it was belligerent. The Jamaat, with a strong presence in Lahore, was bitterly opposed to the visit of the Hindu nationalist Vajpayee. It had called a hartal that day, and across Lahore traders downed shutters.
The veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar, who had been sitting behind Vajpayee on the bus, recalls that Vajpayee had entered Pakistan as a worried man. “He beckoned to me and informed me that he had received news about the killing of 26 Hindus by militants in Jammu. He was anguished and wondered whether there was any use in further talks.” Nayar tried to reassure him by saying that the militants were only desperate to stall the talks, but Vajpayee said he was unsure how Indians would react to his visiting Pakistan after these killings.
In Lahore, Jamaat cadres attempted to block Vajpayee’s convoy. Jamaatis swarmed around the fort and pelted stones at some diplomats’ cars. Some held up banners saying “Vajpayee go back”.
“Don’t worry about this,” Vajpayee reportedly told Nawaz Sharif, with whom his rapport was growing warmer by the minute, “these things happen everywhere.” In spite of the protests, the visitor was charmed.
Vajpayee had come bearing gifts: shawls for Kulsoom Nawaz and CDs of Hindi film classics like Pakeezah and Mughal-e-Azam for his counterpart. Ghatate recalls how before his trip Vajpayee had asked Brajesh Mishra what he should say. “Read your poem ‘Jung Naa Hone Denge’,” advised Mishra. So Vajpayee did. But first, on the morning of 21 February, throwing protocol to the winds, and against the advice of the foreign ministry, in an unprecedented move, Vajpayee visited the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore.
This seventy-metre-tall tower was built at the site where, in 1940, the All India Muslim League called for a separate homeland for India’s Muslims. For Vajpayee, member of a party which has always rejected Partition and called for an “Akhand Bharat” or undivided India, to visit a monument to a separate Muslim nationhood and to the two-nation theory, was decidedly out of the diplomatic box.
Not only did Vajpayee visit the Minar-e-Pakistan, but he wrote in the visitor’s book there, “A strong, stable and prosperous Pakistan is in India’s interest. Let no one in Pakistan be in doubt. India sincerely wishes Pakistan well.”
At the glittering Governor’s reception that evening, he would enthral the Pakistani elite by saying: When I go back home some people in my party will say that by going to the Minar-e-Pakistan I have placed my mohar on Pakistan. Kya Pakistan meri mohar se chalta hai? Pakistan ki apni mohar hai, aur woh chal raha hai [Does Pakistan need my seal of consent? Pakistan has its own seal and it works]. Suspicions are so deep...Pakistan is a reality, we want it to grow and thrive...there has been so much enmity, let’s give friendship an opportunity...In these 24 hours I feel the distance between Delhi and Lahore has become a little less...we must bring all of Pakistan and India closer.
Excerpted with permission from Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Sagarika Ghose, Juggernaut Books.