It is perhaps better to recall the Kargil war from the prism of those who were at the helm of affairs at the time. In his memoirs, My Country My Life, LK Advani writes:
In the second week of May 1999 the prime minister called me for an urgent meeting. The Army had informed him about some strange movement of unidentified people crossing the LoC (Line of Control) in Kargil district. It being a high altitude and rugged region with sparse population the first intrusions were detected quite accidentally by local shepherds on 3 May who were occasional informers of the Indian army. The army sent out patrols and found that the intrusions extended not only to the Batalik sector but also to Dras, Mushkok and Kaksar sectors. The infiltrators were heavily armed and had entrenched themselves at heights of 16,000 to 18,000 feet along a 150 kilometre stretch of the Indian side of LoC and threatened the strategic Srinagar-Leh highway that lay below. Consequently defence minister George Fernandes visited the area on 12-14 May. Upon his return he and senior officers gave the prime minister a detailed briefing on a situation whose gravity had certainly not been fully understood earlier.
On May 26, 1999, the Indian Army launched a counter offensive code-named Operation Vijay. Pakistan had made early advances into the Kargil sector, and the mandate was to beat them back without crossing the LoC. After an intense debate, the Indian Air Force was deployed with instructions not to cross the LoC. Even as the war progressed, there were many casualties on the Indian side, as soldiers on the ground had to go uphill where they proved easy targets for Pakistanis who had occupied vantage positions.
Pakistan’s early defence was that these were insurgents from the Kashmir valley, acting autonomously in protest against the Indian State. Later, the argument was made that the LoC itself was disputed.
But what went well from the Indian perspective was the release of transcripts of a conversation between General Musharraf (while on a visit to China) and Lt Gen Aziz Khan, the then Chief of General State. (The entire conversation is reproduced in Jaswant Singh’s memoir, A Call to Honour.)
The telephone conversation was pretty damning stuff and it was just a matter of time before the Pakistanis dropped the pretence. There were no mujahideens; Pakistani soldiers dressed as civilians were given hand-held weapons and other ammunition as part of a deliberate plan. Years later, Shahid Aziz who was the head of ISI during the Kargil conflict, admitted as much in a signed article in a Pakistani daily.
At the end of the war, the official death toll for India stood at 527 and 1,363 wounded, including one Prisoner of War (PoW). The official figures for Pakistan stood at 357-453, although later many from their military establishment, including Nawaz Sharif, claimed that thousands were killed.
I did not cover the war, my focus being politics, but we were all involved and it was in a sense the first war in my adulthood. I shall never forget the eleven-hour battle fought by Indian soldiers to reclaim Tiger Hill on July 4, 1999. Finally, twenty-two days later on July 26, 1999, the Indian Army concluded Operation Vijay after announcing a complete eviction of Pakistani troops.
By the time the guns fell silent, what went well in Vajpayee’s favour was that there was enough credible evidence to show that the Kargil conflict was a consequence of aggression from Pakistan.
In his memoirs, Jaswant Singh quotes a letter by the then US Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, dated January 4 2000.
During Kargil, India held fast to the moral high ground, in the face of enormous provocation, and resisted the temptation to take retaliatory steps which would at best have cost India its unprecedented international support.
Jaswant Singh also mentions a meeting with the then US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright in July 2000, during which she said, “Jaswant, it was a masterly handling of the Kargil crisis. You did not put a foot wrong.”
In the end, the Kargil war was not only viewed as a military victory, but a moral win for Prime Minister Vajpayee.
Even before the guns fell silent in Kargil, the BJP was quick off the mark to start campaigning for the elections that were scheduled in September-October that year. It was an eventful year for me. Besides following Vajpayee and other BJP leaders around, I vividly recall running into Narendra Modi at the BJP headquarters. In 1998, the current prime minister was one of the general secretaries of the BJP in charge of the sangathan, which meant that he was the link between the party and RSS. He remained in Delhi till 2001, after which he was sent to Gujarat as chief minister.
But back then, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was at the centre of attention. The man who was India’s thirteenth and sixteenth prime minister respectively, was on his way to becoming its seventeenth as well.
Contrary to the current view, the 1999 election was the first big presidential-style poll campaign mounted by the BJP. It was on a smaller scale than Narendra Modi’s 2014 campaign, but it was nevertheless presidential.
The “branding” of Vajpayee became an oft-quoted term in BJP circles of those days. Two leaders who came to be known as “Young Turks” (the term however was first used in reference to Chandrashekhar whose prime ministership had lasted for a mere seven months) plunged themselves into the campaign: Arun Jaitley and Pramod Mahajan. The latter played a more significant role owing to his proximity to the Vajpayee establishment and particularly the first family.
The first time I heard the word “Teflon” being used to describe an Indian politician, was when Arun Jaitley, always the master of eloquence told me, “Like Ronald Reagan in the US, Vajpayee as the triumphant leader of a triumphant nation has become Teflon-coated.” Pramod Mahajan, who was then the Information and Broadcasting Minister, was not so good with glib phrases. But he had this to say about the prime minister: “During the caretaker days, respect for Vajpayee has become reverence, admiration has become adulation. Everything has changed in a 100 days.”
On the sidelines however, there was some discomfort in the party and parivar as Vajpayee was looming way above the others, specially LK Advani whose performance as Home minister had not impressed. Pramod Mahajan, the most reliable insider those days whose off-the-record political assessments were often accurate, once openly admitted to the dilemma faced by the party and ideological family. He felt that for a cadre-based party like the BJP, projecting an individual (Atal Bihari Vajpayee) as opposed to a collective, was going against the grain. Although Pramod Mahajan was still an important strategist for the impending elections, his disastrous anniversary jamboree wasn’t forgotten either. The prime minister shot down his idea of celebrating 15 August as Vijay Diwas (Victory Day), as he’d felt that to solely focus on the Kargil war on Independence Day would be a bit crass.
Meanwhile, the “Brand Vajpayee” team first toyed with the idea of hiring a professional advertising agency, much like what the Congress party had done in the past, and famously during Rajiv Gandhi’s campaign, evoking the rather mushy but unforgettable slogan: “My Heart Bleeds for India”. They zeroed in on Dhar & Hoon, who roped in the advertising legend, Tara Sinha, to handle the campaign. But the three-member team of Jaitley, Mahajan and Arun Shourie, tasked with overseeing the campaign, were not satisfied with the first cut. As a result, the deal with Dhar & Hoon was called off and there was talk of bringing in Trikaya Grey, another leading advertising agency those days.
In due course it was felt that while the agencies were producing commercially attractive copy, it lacked political heft. The job eventually went to an in-house group known as “Taskforce BJP”, with the creative input handled by Sushil Pandit, a man we frequently now see on Indian television news speaking aggressively about Kashmiri pandits and rubbishing any opposing views as being “anti-national”.
The campaign was focused on Vajpayee and was unabashedly personality-centric. It would soon be splashed across national dailies – “A leader you can trust. In war. In peace.”
When I went searching for a quote from Narendra Modi during the 1999 elections, he had said: “Vajpayee has become a leader. Sonia is a mere reader.” It would be the beginning of his relentless attack on Sonia Gandhi.
Excerpted with permission from Shades of Saffron: From Vajpayee to Modi, Saba Naqvi, Westland.