New Delhi: Given the parlous state of India-Pakistan relations, it is wondrous that the 2003 ceasefire agreement got done. The credit for this largely goes to Atal Behari Vajpayee and a small share invests with Parvez Musharraf for getting the ultra-nationalistic corps commanders on board. The 2003 pact sometimes counters this writer’s pessimism about ties with the adversary to the west. But to build on that would require a second Vajpayee, and no one of the present establishment can take his place.

How could Vajpayee do the impossible with Pakistan?

Several factors operated here. Even before he became Prime Minister, Vajpayee was well-known in the subcontinent and revered. As the first Janata government’s Foreign Minister (what an abject show Sushma Swaraj puts up in comparison), he went about his mission with a clear aim to reverse Indira Gandhi’s Big Brother policy with India’s neighbours. Broken as Pakistan was, literally and metaphorically, with the creation of Bangladesh, the other South Asian neighbours were equally apprehensive of India’s power projection. It would come to haunt the region again with India’s support to Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka topped with the despatch there of the IPKF.

In the Janata interim, however, Atal Behari Vajpayee won the hearts of South Asian countries. Even in that short stint as Foreign Minister, he sought to salve Pakistan’s pain of losing its eastern wing. Wars are not merely lost or won on the battlefield. Winning a war is incomplete if the peace cannot be won as well. This is to say, the vanquished must be assuaged about the loss and restored in prestige and self-worth even if the outcomes of the conflict cannot be reversed. Perhaps the necessity to befriend and reassure Pakistan became Vajpayee’s foremost concern as Foreign Minister. His visit to Minar-e-Pakistan as Prime Minister was also undertaken with that object although Pakistani nationalists saw him as a desecrator.

Vajpayee’s limited but friendly tenure as Foreign Minister was fondly remembered by South Asian countries when he became Prime Minister. In the South Asian geopolitical narrative, it has somehow been assumed that a hard-right, BJP nationalist government will resolve the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan. This is perhaps no longer the case but the narrative held strong when the BJP was rising in the late 1980s and Nineties. With Vajpayee becoming the first Prime Minister from the Bharatiya Janata Party, this narrative gathered extra force. That Vajpayee was Prime Minister of a coalition government did not sully the narrative.

Vajpayee was, of course, more than merely a BJP or, accurately speaking, an NDA Prime Minister. While being in the BJP, he was mildly contemptuous of it, having dearer friends in competing parties. His relationship with the RSS was cold and distant. In any case, he had no use for Hindutva or nationalism as it has horribly metastasized today, injuring the nation’s fragile social fabric. Glimpses of the real Vajpayee were to be seen when he was Foreign Minister, who could well swim against the current of orthodoxy. But since time dulls memory, the old remembrances were partly overlaid with the new reality. Whatever Vajpayee’s equations with the BJP/ RSS, he became Prime Minister on their support. Therefore, India-Pakistan relations stood a better chance of resolution on the conventional narrative.

It is a verity of traditional diplomacy that it needs the threat of force to succeed. In Vajpayee, this equation came to be perceived with him representing the diplomatic side and the RSS/ BJP symbolizing the force element. In the real world of a million obstructions, light does not travel in a straight line as it would in a vacuum. In choosing Vajpayee as Prime Minister, the Indian electorate exhibited rare mass genius. In geopolitics, he carried on from where he left as Foreign Minister, ignoring any narratives that he was supposed to embrace. Most thought inviting the aggressor of Kargil to Agra was a blunder, but Vajpayee’s powerful intuition with Parvez Musharraf paid dividend with the 2003 ceasefire. The ceasefire covered all three variously described portions of the frontier with Pakistan “without any prejudice to counter-infiltration measures and anti-terrorist operations in Jammu and Kashmir”.

Typical of Vajpayee, the agreement was announced to the world without showmanship, chest-thumping or display of nationalism. It was stately and workmanlike.

Why is the ceasefire agreement in shreds today? Vajpayee had moral authority. It is not enough to win elections and lead a single-party government. Moral authority derives from moral legitimacy, justness, wisdom, vision and genuine following, assets that M. K. Gandhi naturally inherited. Without being Gandhi, Vajpayee in his geopolitical practices came close. The people of South Asia, to the extent they were aware of him and his policies, did not doubt his good faith. He evoked trust. The 2003 ceasefire agreement came some months after the US intervention in Iraq. Vajpayee had exhorted Pakistan to settle issues bilaterally to prevent similar foreign interventions with disastrous consequences to both countries. That small beginning carefully crafted by him has been all but lost today. The militarism that ruined Pakistan has leached into India.

If only Vajpayee knew the cruel fate of his legacy.