On foreign policy, revive tradition of bipartisanship
In 1994, Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto cut off all meaningful interaction with India. The freeze continued till Nawaz Sharif won the February 1997 election and immediately signalled a desire to resume diplomatic and political contact. Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda and external affairs minister IK Gujral decided to reciprocate positively, but, before doing so, Gujral held quiet and separate conversations with leaders of the ruling alliance but, significantly, also with the main Opposition parties.
Gujral went personally to some of them, taking his officials along so that if matters of detail arose during these discussions, they were on hand to answer them. I recall that I accompanied Gujral to a meeting with the then Congress president Sitaram Kesri who, like all political leaders, endorsed the view that India-Pakistan dialogue should resume.
The purpose of my recounting the political spadework undertaken by Gujral is only to emphasise that despite the political contestation, there has been a tradition of trying to forge a consensus or, at a minimum, bridge differences on crucial foreign policy and security issues. This was accomplished through out-of-the-public-eye contacts and briefings, either directly between political leaders or through contacts of officials and professionals whom the Opposition leaders trusted. It would seem that this tradition continued, at least, for some part of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government on matters relating to Pakistan and the India-United States (US) nuclear deal.
In keeping with the same spirit, Opposition political leaders sometimes reined in their colleagues from probing too deeply on sensitive information on national security and foreign policy matters. Again, an incident related to Gujral comes to mind. He was then no longer PM, but a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs. The then foreign secretary was before the committee on the Afghanistan situation. Committee members began to raise questions about the nature and extent of our assistance to the anti-Taliban forces. This was sensitive information and it would have been detrimental to India’s interests if it became public. Gujral intervened. He said that he knew what India was doing and it should not be openly discussed. The subject was immediately dropped.
It was good that PM Narendra Modi convened an all-party meeting after China’s dastardly action of June 15 in the Galwan Valley. Obviously, he did so, among other reasons, to show the nation’s resolve to resolutely respond to the Chinese strategic challenge, especially its designs on Indian territory. Notwithstanding the controversy that emerged from some of Modi’s remarks, the essential message that emerged from the meeting was one of the nation’s firmness to confront China’s actions. Such signals are important but cannot be a substitute for the development of a consensus on broad and enduring strategy. That can only come through quiet and confidential dialogue within all sections of the country’s political and strategic classes.
Naturally, this does not mean that the government of the day does not have the right and the responsibility to design and execute foreign and security policies. To think otherwise would be to question its popular mandate and its constitutional functions. But there are some issues of such surpassing significance to the national interest that every endeavour has to be made by the political class to forge understandings through quiet and purposeful conversations, which would lead to a toning down of the sharp, often vitriolic rhetoric — the staple fare of spokespersons of all political parties in the electronic media. The process naturally would have to be government-led but the main Opposition parties would bear an equal responsibility in making it a success.
After the trauma of Partition, there has not been as difficult a time for the country as now. The Covid-19 health crisis, by itself, is daunting for India’s society and polity. The migrant labour movement brought about great distress and its impact continues in some spheres. The economy, which was already in a slowdown, is now contracting. It will take time to be restored to the path of sustained growth. It is at this stage that India has been confronted by Chinese aggression along the Line of Actual Control, necessitating a complete re-look at India’s China policy since 1988.
The question that the political class has to ask itself whether the nation can afford normal ebb and flow of politics at this stage or if it is a time to reach out to each other. Is this a time for the political parties, whether in the ruling alliance or the Opposition camp, to score points on national security and foreign policy concerns, even if, unlike the past three and a half decades, there is one single party under a leader with a decisive electoral mandate? The answer cannot but be to seek a build a unified national policy approach to begin with on China. And, give politics and the ideological divides a rest.
Vivek Katju is a former diplomat
The views expressed are personal