Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Can he make peace with Pakistan?

Illustration by Charlie Powell

For the leader of a party whose supporters are renowned for destroying mosques and killing Muslims in occasional spasms of mass violence, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has been remarkably restrained in his response to the attacks on his country by Islamic militants from Kashmir. Perhaps it’s the vow of celibacy Vajpayee is supposed to have taken as a young Hindu nationalist: Just as Bill Clinton’s tomcatting encapsulated his lack of discipline and his preference for pursuing lots of small, feel-good ventures instead of one ambitious project, Vajpayee’s youthful commitment reflects his ability to control his country’s passions for the sake of the national interest.

More than any leader in India’s history, the 77-year-old prime minister has sought peace with Pakistan. During Vajpayee’s brief tenure as India’s foreign minister from 1977 to 1979, the two countries experienced their best relations since independence. Two decades later in February 1999, Vajpayee became the first Indian prime minister in 10 years to visit Pakistan, a move frequently compared to Nixon’s visit to China. In an act that Newsweek International called “the moral equivalent of Arabs’ recognizing Israel’s right to exist,” Vajpayee visited an Islamic minaret built to commemorate the partition of the subcontinent into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. Then in November 2000, Vajpayee declared a unilateral cease-fire against Islamic militants in India-controlled Kashmir for the month of Ramadan. He extended the cease-fire for six months, and when he lifted it, he invited Pakistan’s Gen. Pervez Musharraf to India for peace talks.

These efforts didn’t please many in Vajpayee’s party—the Bharatiya Janata Party, or Indian People’s Party. A group of Hindu nationalists that only a decade ago was considered a belligerent, radical fringe, the BJP is a political outgrowth of a group that might be dubbed the “brown shorts”: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a militant all-male Hindu group that conducts drills uniformed in khaki shorts. The RSS was formed in 1925 to oppose Gandhi’s nonviolence and his drive for Hindu-Muslim equality, and its nationalist, anti-Muslim rhetoric—”Hindustan for the Hindus”—resembles that of the Ugly European parties of Jean-Marie Le Pen and Jörg Haider. Vajpayee himself was one of the RSS’s organizers, men who took vows of celibacy to commit themselves fully to the Indian nation (Vajpayee remains a bachelor today). And at times he can engage in similarly ugly rhetoric. According to London’s Independent, Vajpayee told supporters at a party rally in April, “Wherever Muslims are living, they don’t want to live in harmony. They don’t mix with the society. They are not interested in living in peace.”

That’s the sort of talk that frightened a lot of people in 1998, when Vajpayee became prime minister and carried out a longstanding pledge to test nuclear weapons. He had been a longtime opposition leader in parliament, where he was first elected in 1957 at the age of 33, and he had edited the RSS’s newspaper before seeking elective office.

But for the most part, Vajpayee has moderated his Hindu nationalist rhetoric in order to expand his governing coalition (which consists of 24 parties) and reach out to liberal Hindus. His belief in India as a “Hindu nation” seems fairly benign, similar to American politicians’ talk of the United States as a Christian nation with a shared culture and values. He praises Gandhi and even Gandhi, which he cites as one of his favorite films. And he has muted the BJP’s anti-U.S. sentiment, possibly because he doesn’t feel much of it himself: He devours John Grisham novels, attended Fiddler on the Roof and Evita on Broadway, spent hours at New York City’s FAO Schwarz, and raved over a trip to Disneyland.

Despite Vajpayee’s moderate stance, much of his peace-seeking hasn’t translated into peace-making. Most notably, only a few months after Vajpayee’s historic 1999 trip, Pakistan advanced beyond the Kashmir Line of Control into India-controlled territory, prompting renewed fighting. That experience, and the deep mistrust Vajpayee has for Musharraf, led to a change in tactics during the current crisis, which now appears to be receding. Rather than extend yet another olive branch to the Pakistanis, Vajpayee chose to beat the war drums, particularly with a speech to soldiers in which he pledged a “decisive battle” and a “new chapter of victory.”

Many critics of India argue that Vajpayee’s bellicose rhetoric was designed to boost his party’s support at the polls, and perhaps that’s true. But the alternatives were worse. After all, actual wars have been started to boost political parties at the polls. If a little tough talk and chest-thumping was required to keep some of the hard-liners in Vajpayee’s party behind him, so be it. What’s remarkable about the conflict isn’t that India and Pakistan were on the brink of nuclear war, it’s that the two countries didn’t start blowing each other up immediately after militant terrorists assaulted India’s parliament in December. Think of it this way: Talk of peace brought only more war, so perhaps this time Vajpayee gambled that talk of war would bring more peace.