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Vajpayee’s US policy was characterised by an uncommon deftness in foreign policy

Indeed, despite severe US sanctions after Pokhran II, Vajpayee started the nuclear dialogue with the US and had the audacity to propose separation of Indian civilian and military nuclear reactors to visiting US Secretary of State Colin Powell on July 28, 2002. This laid the foundation of 2005 India-US nuclear agreement.

analysis Updated: Aug 22, 2018 17:30 IST
Shishir Gupta
Shishir Gupta
Hindustan Times
The Vajpayee government was under tremendous pressure from the US government and a section of Indian media, who construed it as a good opportunity to mend ties with Washington, and which could perhaps convince the then Bush administration to lift the sanctions imposed against India after Pokhran II.(AP)

At a time when there is significant focus on the growing warmth in India’s relations with the US, it makes sense to look at the role the late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee played in this. Vajpayee’s US policy was characterised by a deftness not often seen in Indian foreign policy at the time.

On July 14, 2003, he chaired a crucial meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) to decide whether India should send troops to Iraq to operate alongside the US and British troops following the invasion of that country. The Vajpayee government was under tremendous pressure from the US government and a section of Indian media, who construed it as a good opportunity to mend ties with Washington, and which could perhaps convince the then Bush administration to lift the sanctions imposed against India after Pokhran II.

Vajpayee asked a simple question to his CCS: Would Indian troops and weapons be used against Iraqi citizens? The decision not to send troops to Iraq was taken after the answer was in the affirmative. Great leaders have a tremendous sense of timing and Vajpayee was gifted in abundance in that respect. Had he bowed to American and strategic expert pressure, India would have been in a quagmire and its credibility in West Asia would have taken a nosedive. His views on the supply of weaponry to the Afghanistan army after the 2001 Afghan war were no different as he did not want Indians to be the enemy of the Afghan people. While some of his right-wing contemporaries saw him to be malleable at times, Vajpayee not only had the steel to conduct the Pokhran II tests but to also identify a state which committed armed aggression against India in 1962 as one reason why India couldn’t turn its back on nuclear weapons. Yet, he used the draft nuclear doctrine in 1999 to announce no first use policy to signal India’s commitment to peace.

That between-the-lines message, interestingly, came in on May 13, 1998 in a letter to the then US President Bill Clinton. India conducted the tests at a time when an influential section of strategic experts wanted it to sign the discriminatory Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT). His indirectly naming of China in the letter was treated as some sort of sacrilege by some.

Back then, Pakistan was the perennial third wheel in India-Pakistan relations. The US still considered Pakistan a closer ally than India and was declared as a major Non-NATO ally by US Secretary of State Colin Powell on March 18, 2004, during his Islamabad trip without even sharing it with New Delhi — his previous stop. In 1999, even as he directed the Indian military to evict Pakistani army intruders from the Kargil sector, Vajpayee took the high ground and said no Indian troops or fighter jets would cross the Line of Control (LoC) into Occupied Kashmir. He also chose not to attend the July 4,1999, meeting at Blair House in Washington with the then Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif and President Clinton, who ultimately brokered the deal that facilitated the withdrawal of Pakistan. Again, keeping national interests paramount, Vajpayee ordered mobilisation of forces against Islamabad after Pakistan-based terrorist groups conducted the December 13, 2001, strike on Indian Parliament. The troop mobilisation gave India the option of going into a full-fledged war or putting global and US pressure on Pakistan on cross-border terrorism. His message to the US which, by then, had woken up to the global impact of terror groups, was straightforward: India would do everything to protect itself, but with maturity that behoved a country with global interests. Vajpayee’s steely brinkmanship paid dividends. The then Pakistan dictator Pervez Musharraf was forced to make a public statement on January 12, 2002, in which he banned four terrorists groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed (involved in the Parliament attack). Musharraf made it clear that no organisation would be allowed to carry out terrorism on the pretext of Kashmir. It was due to Vajpayee’s deft diplomacy that Kashmir became a symbol of cross border terrorism by Pakistan and not so-called freedom struggle.

Indeed, despite severe US sanctions after Pokhran II, Vajpayee started the nuclear dialogue with the US and had the audacity to propose the separation of Indian civilian and military nuclear reactors to visiting US Secretary of State Colin Powell on July 28, 2002. This laid the foundation of the 2005 India-US nuclear agreement although it is another matter that hardliners within his own party later opposed the arrangement during the Manmohan Singh government. But by that time Vajpayee had become old and infirm.

shishir.gupta@hindustantimes.com

First Published: Aug 22, 2018 17:16 IST