FIFTEEN years ago in February 1999, Atal Behari Vajpayee, the then
Prime Minister, took a bus to Lahore to normalize relations with
Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif was Pakistan's Prime Minister. They jointly
issued the Lahore Declaration which adumbrated several steps to
overcome the differences that had yawned the distance between the two
I was one of those who rode the bus. It was an exhilarating
experience, pregnant with optimism. At least, I felt that the journey
of a few kilometers from Attari to Wagah border would not be a long
travel to bring New Delhi and Islamabad nearer.
Unfortunately, this did not happen not because the Prime Ministers of
the two countries differed but because the military in Pakistan was
against the rapprochement. It was apparent when the three service
chiefs of Pakistan refused to salute the Indian Prime Minister.
General Pervez Musharraf, then the army chief, had different ideas. His subsequent coup to oust the elected Prime Minister bared his
The bus journey was a courageous step by Vajpaee because his Bharatiya
Janata Party was anti-Pakistan and pursued Hindu nationalism as its
sole agenda. Vajpayee went to the extent of having a timeframe within
which the Kashmir problem was to be solved. He had probably in mind
what a chastened Zuflikar Ali Bhutto, then Prime Minister of Pakistan,
had told me in a recorded interview after the liberation of
Bhutto said: "We can make the ceasefire line a line of peace and let
people come and go between the two Kashmirs. After all, why should
they suffer? Let there be some free movement between them. Then one
thing can lead to another. After all, simultaneously we hope that
there will be exchanges of visits, of officials and non-officials."
Bhutto denied having said the "line of peace" when New Delhi took it
up with him officially.
I wish that the Lahore Declaration to normalize trade and travel could
be implemented even now. What the two Prime Ministers achieved may
seem very little in concrete terms, particularly when Pakistan weighed
everything on the scales of Kashmir. Even there Vajpayee said, at
least three times during his visit, that the problem of Jammu and
Kashmir had yet to be settled and that the two sides would continue to
have talks until they resolved it. In other words, Vajpayee conceded
that it was a dispute. The fact that he did not mention that Kashmir
was an integral part of India during his visit was something which the
Pakistanis should have noticed.
Coming back to the bus journey, I was one of the 22 "eminent" people
travelling to Pakistan on a mission to retrieve soiled relations.
Punjab chief minister Prakash Singh Badal joined us at the Amritsar
airport. He hugged me and said: Your efforts are bearing fruit."
Indeed, he was referring to our effort to lighting candles at the
Wagah border since 1996--to send a message of friendship to the other
Badal disappeared in the crowd of tall, turbaned Sikhs awaiting
Vajpayee's arrival. But some of us moved towards the bus, standing
lonely near the tarmac. Flags of India and Pakistan were painted on
its body. Thank God, there was no slogan, which would have spoilt the
bluish colour that stood out in the afternoon sunlight. Dancing and
singing men and women in colourful costumes provided an ideal
backdrop. Policemen looked out of place, even though they were not
As soon as Vajpayee sat in the front seat, the bus began its journey
to Lahore. A ticket collector first gave me a ticket and then tore
half of it, which I retain as a souvenir. Another attendant offered
cold drinks. The TV and mobile telephones were there--all part of
service as it would be at the time of regular trips. Right up to the
border, a distance of 35 kilometres, people were lined up on both
sides. Children waving yellow flags and bands playing loud tunes
reflected the enthusiasm that the meeting between the Prime Ministers
of India and Pakistan had generated.
The mood in the bus was relaxed. But very few exchanged words with one
another. A feeling of expectancy hung in the air. Some nervousness was
visible and it got heightened with every kilometer-stone going past.
How will the visit go was the thought writ large on everyone's face.
Still they were conscious of the history they were making.
"It was a bold step," I remarked when I sat next to the Prime Minister
briefly. He only smiled. I persisted with my questions. "What made you
respond to Nawaz Sharif's off-the-cuff remark to take a ride on the
bus? What about your party, the BJP?" He said: "I thought, let me do
something to be remembered. After all, the Prime Ministership does not
last long." And then he mentioned the killing of Hindus at Rajori. He
was disturbed. "Certain elements always do it to sabotage the talks."
I wanted to talk to him further but there was a long queue.
There was the usual guard of honour, a large contingent of policemen
on the other side. The guard of honour is a beaten path, covered again
and again even after 66 years after the British rule. The mood of
abandon on the Indian side changed into somberness. Pakistan Rangers
stood rows upon rows, to attention. There was silence and the air was
heavy. Nawaz Sharif's smiling face broke the monotony. Some of his
colleagues, dressed in achkan, too were a relief.
"Kush Aamdeen" (welcome) to Pakistan," were the first words Nawaz
Sharif spoke before he embraced Vajpayee. Pakistan ministers also
lined up to shake hands with Vajpayee. People had lined up both sides
of the road leading to Lahore. There were women without veil and many
friendly hands waved towards us.
I wish that their expectations had been met. When the two Prime
Ministers met I also thought that the impasse between the two
countries would be over. But it did not happen. There were too many
vested interests and unseen elements coming in the way. No doubt, they
have really missed the bus. EOM