Atal Behari Vajpayee, then, would be an unusual candidate to control a nuclear arsenal. But for four years the Indian Prime Minister's grandfatherly hands have held the subcontinent back from tumbling into war. Despite the fact that he heads the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a constituency stuffed with extremists, Vajpayee has ambitiously pursued peace with neighbor and rival Pakistan, even traveling to the Pakistani cultural capital of Lahore in 1999, vainly hoping to bury the bloody animus of the past and start an era of good feelings.
With 1 million soldiers facing each other at high alert on the India-Pakistan border, those days seem long ago. At the same dangerous time, Vajpayee's stewardship is looking less and less comforting. The frail bachelor seems shaky and lost, less an aging sage than an ordinary old man. He forgets names, even of longtime colleague and current Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, and during several recent meetings he appeared confused and inattentive. After a meeting with a Western Foreign Minister, his appearance was described by one attending diplomat as "half dead." At a rare press conference last month in Srinagar, the Prime Minister tottered to the podium—Indian TV crews are asked to film him from the waist up to avoid showing his shuffling gait—to find he had trouble understanding questions, repeatedly relying on whispered prompts from Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani. Even then Vajpayee stumbled over his replies. "He is very alert when he is functional," says one BJP worker. "But there are very few hours like that." Adds one Western diplomat: "We have a lot of conversations about his health. Some of his mannerisms come down to his personal style. But some of it is definitely spacey stuff."
While no one questions that key decisions on national security and foreign policy are still made by Vajpayee, the focus is now turning to the two men behind the throne: Vajpayee's low-key National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, and Vajpayee's hard-line BJP colleague of 50 years, 72-year-old Advani. The consensus among observers and diplomats is that the hawkish Advani is preparing to succeed Vajpayee at the next national elections due by late 2004. "There is no doubt he is the Prime Minister in waiting," remarks a diplomat.
In the meantime, Vajpayee has undergone a sudden conversion from peacemaker to warmonger—primarily in response to political pressures. This year's standoff on the border shows the dovish Prime Minister has accepted the argument that war—or the threat of it—works. In comments that set off alarm bells around the world, Vajpayee last month spoke twice of an impending "decisive battle" against India's "enemy." Although he has repeatedly said that he does not want war, the Prime Minister has sound strategic reasons for ratcheting up the rhetoric. Since Sept. 11, he has found the international community more sympathetic to the idea of India waging its own war on terror against jihadis in the contended state of Jammu and Kashmir, where many of them have been inserted by Pakistan. And it plays well for India to keep the pot boiling: New Delhi can claim a victim's solidarity with the U.S., avoid addressing the awkward issue of its heavy-handed rule in Muslim-dominated Kashmir—and just possibly get Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to actually shut down the jihadi industry on his territory, ending what India calls a "proxy war."
Last week, Musharraf told visiting U.S Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage that he was going to put a permanent end to terrorist incursions into India. Vajpayee's government promised in turn some de-escalation measures, though a withdrawal of troops from the border has been ruled out. The big risk, however, is that no matter what Musharraf does, there are enough jihadis already in Kashmir to keep hammering India with suicide bombs and death squads. Four people were killed by terrorists Friday night in Kashmir, even as heavy shelling continued at the frontier and an unmanned Indian spy plane was shot down by the Pakistani air force. Any small spark can still push Vajpayee to deploy his soldiers in some punitive counterattack on Pakistan, which can lead to full-scale war.
Meanwhile, Vajpayee's colleagues carp that he's still not being hawkish enough. "Any Prime Minister that takes action against Pakistan will sweep the elections, but Vajpayee is reluctant and that will definitely damage the BJP," complains BJP hard-liner B.P. Singhal. "As the Prime Minister, for him, national interest is above party interest."
Tellingly, Vajpayee was forced to give up his moderate stance and attend to his party in response to a domestic disaster, not an international crisis. On Feb. 27, a group of Muslims firebombed a train in the western state of Gujarat murdering 58 Hindus. The reprisals against Muslims in Gujarat were fierce, unpoliced, and went on for weeks, killing some 2,000 according to human rights groups. (The official death toll, widely disbelieved, is half this.) On April 4, Vajpayee reacted with revulsion, urging Hindu rioters to rediscover "a sense of unity and brotherhood." Asked the published poet: "Burning alive men, women and children? Are we human or not? Or has a demon taken over us?" His office briefed newspapers on the likely candidates to replace Gujarat state leader Narendra Modi, a member of the BJP who was accused of complicity in the violence, or at least, ineptness in containing it. But scarcely a week later, on April 12, Vajpayee changed his tune. Nothing more was said about sacking Modi. And speaking to an audience in Goa, Vajpayee shocked the country by declaring: "These days militancy in the name of Islam leaves no room for tolerance. Wherever such Muslims live, they tend not to live in coexistence ... they want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats."
In the subcontinental context, that kind of statement is a license for the killings to continue. According to diplomatic sources, the burden of the crisis made Vajpayee unwell. Adds Vinod Mehta, editor-in-chief of the Indian weekly Outlook magazine, Advani and his supporters used the illness to gather the party's hard-line core and read him the riot act. "The party basically gave him no room to maneuver," says Mehta. "He knew he could have lost his job and he had neither the spirit nor the physical strength to fight back. So he just gave up his moderate stance and fell in line. Now he's just a party mascot, a puppet of the hard-liners."
With an enfeebled Vajpayee at the helm, the prospect of war with Pakistan becomes more real. "Advani would really like to finish this proxy war, and perhaps do a bit more," says one diplomat. India has none of the checks and balances designed during the cold war to prevent a nuclear launch in anger. (Although India's military is comfortingly professional, nonpolitical and obedient to civilian control. The country's nukes are controlled by government scientists, and deployment orders come from the Prime Minister's office alone.) For his part, Advani denies any undue influence, or even the tag of "hawk"—although, characteristically, he describes communal violence under the BJP as "minimal," even after the shame of Gujarat. But asked about the possibility of attacking across the Line of Control in Kashmir, Advani answers that in his view India is already facing an "undeclared war" from the militants. His list of conditions that Musharraf must meet before peace talks can begin is lengthy. "As long as this undeclared war, this training, arming, financing of jihadis, and this infiltration and terrorism and sabotage continues," he says, "then any dialogue will be meaningless." And he hints that the international community has given tacit approval for action. "One major change in the last 10 days has been that the U.S., Britain and other coalition members have said publicly and forcefully that Pakistan should stop cross-border terrorism," he says. "Our Prime Minister took really radical initiatives in the past. There's no question of that now"—in other words, of actively looking for peace. An Indian army source adds that unless India detects that promised shift in militant activity and capability in the next five weeks, the military expects an order to attack.
The body on the other end of the seesaw is Mishra, a 70-year-old career civil servant and diplomat, who functions as the equivalent of a White House chief of staff. The fact that Mishra has survived countless calls for his removal—he's accused of wielding influence beyond his position—is testament to his pivotal role, diplomats say. Mishra is considered to be the brains behind the peace overtures of the past. His influence with Vajpayee these days waxes when the two men get away from the capital and the rest of the BJP. At a regional security conference in the Kazakh capital of Almaty last week, the Prime Minister made a rare and unexpected conciliatory gesture when he proposed joint Indian-Pakistani patrols along the Line of Control to ensure an end to infiltration. All week Mishra was briefing India's national newspapers that the government had decided to tone down the rhetoric. And significantly, when Vajpayee returned to Delhi on Wednesday night, Mishra stayed behind for further talks. But, warns Outlook editor Mehta, Mishra is just an appointed government servant, however close he is to the boss. "Mishra's influence is directly proportional to Vajpayee's position. He has no party base. When Vajpayee goes down, Mishra goes with him."
Observers say that the BJP is hoping to use Vajpayee through the next general elections, but no further. The party currently rules in a coalition, with Vajpayee as the glue that holds it together. If it manages to win an absolute majority, it won't need him any longer. The Prime Minister has largely accepted this gradual decline. His great ambition on gaining office was to do for India-Pakistan relations what Nixon did for China and the U.S.: only a right-winger, went the argument, could take the country into a peace deal with the archenemy. And this Vajpayee wanted to do, to secure a place in the history books. Friends say this ambition is now dead. Much of the Prime Minister's energy is now devoted to the business of weight rather than weighty affairs of state. His staff coaxes the reluctant old man onto a treadmill for 10 minutes every day and encourages him to take short walks. His "family"—longtime companion Rajkumari Kaul, who suffered a heart attack in March, and her daughter Namita—ensures he is served only boiled vegetables and rice. But Vajpayee still insists on an evening drink or two. In the family cottage in the Himalayan foothills, says an aide, nothing can keep him away from deep-fried trout. "He promises to stick to his diet with doubled rigidity once he leaves," says an aide, "but the trout he must have." On a long flight abroad, Vajpayee compared his menu with other members of the government party. "He was terribly upset when he discovered he had been singled out for special treatment," says the aide, "and tried to browbeat the in-flight staff into serving him the general meal, which was spicier." Meanwhile, tension seems set to continue between India and Pakistan. But as Vajpayee's ability to steer a moderate course diminishes, he's spending the twilight of his political life where he wants to be—out to lunch.