Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy
By Dr. D. K. Giri
(Prof. International Politics, JMI)
Atal Bihari Vajpayee left deep footprints on Indian politics in the six decades of his political activism. A great deal has been written about his rich legacy by his associates and observers. It is perhaps in order that we recall his unique contribution to India’s foreign policy as he began his Ministerial stints as Foreign Minister in 1977-79 in the government led by Morarji Desai. Twenty years later he became the Prime Minister for six years, from 1998 to 2004 deftly guiding foreign affairs.
Vajpayee’s foreign policy was a wonderful blend of realism and restraint. He was conscious of the need for India to be on the world stage as a great power to reckon with, at the same time, he was aware that India should deal with its smaller neighbours with restraint, not to indulge in over-reach or chest-thumping. He was also conscious of the RSS world view and positioning India, as well as the Nehruvian legacy of idealism, non-alignment, fence-sitting, etc.
Vajpayee, in fact, discarded both, and created his own approach to India’s foreign policy. He repudiated the ‘exclusionary nationalism’ of RSS that fragmented the domestic basis of national power drawn from Hindutva canons, and Nehruvian isolationism drawn from non-alignment, by declaring that India and America are natural allies; non-alignment is antithetical to alliance making.
During 1977-79, Vajpayee was the Foreign Minister. He brought creativity and intellectual flair into the foreign office, much to the chagrin of the conservative foreign policy establishment. He was the first Cabinet minister to visit China, two decades after Prime Minister Nehru had been. He surprised his Chinese counterpart as he announced that “the border problems should not constitute a hindrance to improving our bilateral relations.” That was an offer of friendship, although Chinese did not reciprocate then with equal warmth and sincerity. Vajpayee did not give up.
In order to regain the prestige while retaining the autonomy in foreign policy making, his Janata government recalibrated non-alignment as “genuine non-alignment”. A journalist once asked him in a press conference, “Foreign Minister, are you tilted towards America or Soviet Union?” Vajpayee quipped, “I am not tilted anyway, please watch, I am standing straight.” Vajpayee, for the first time as Indian Minister spoke in the United Nations in Hindi, a symbolic manifestation of Indian nativism.
It may be recalled that relationship with our neighbours, especially Pakistan was at its best during Janata period. An anecdote goes that, when Morarji Desai, then Prime Minister came to know of Zia-ul-Haq’s plan to expand his army, he telephoned Zia and said, “General, why are you spending money on expanding the army, if your country is ever under attack, my army will be at your disposal.” That heartwarming gesture by Morarji melted General Zia. No wonder Morarji was given the highest honour of Pakistan, Shan-e-Pakistan. Behind such friendly posturing, was the Foreign Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Twenty years later, Vajpayee became the Prime Minister with greater power and determination to re-shape India’s foreign policy. Three initiatives taken by him during his premiership were outstanding – the second nuclear test in 1998, the Kargil war of 1999, and the outreach to Pakistan. Vajpayee, as soon as he took over as Prime Minister, went from conducting the six nuclear tests announcing India’s presence in the world as a nuclear weapon State.
India was not a signatory to Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), so technically it could do the nuclear test. But the reaction from the world was expectedly to be excoriating, hence it had to be extremely brave decision that one had to take and Vajpayee did. The five nuclear powers were too guarded to allow any other country to acquire nuclear weapons due not to lose their nuclear privilege and for the inherent dangers nuclear weapons carry.
However, Vajpayee knew it too well that the currency for a nation’s power is the nuclear capability. He did not want India to lose out on its quest for being a world power, especially vis-à-vis China, a nuclear weapon State. Those critical of Vajpayee for not standing up to China were rebuffed when he went single-handed for the nuclear tests as an answer to China’s bullying and belligerence.
Having done the test, shown to the world India’s prowess, Vajpayee immediately went down the road of moderation and restraint. He announced an informal moratorium on further nuclear tests, and committed to no-first-use (NFU). Such self-restraint mollified many, upset by India’s nuclear bravado, and looked at the incident with understanding and empathy.
The second issue is Vajpayee’s outreach to Pakistan. Many expected a toughening of approach towards Pakistan by a BJP-led government. Vajpayee surprised all those by his extra-ordinary realism. He famously said, “You cannot change geography, meaning you cannot change or choose your neighbours.” He tried to drive the point home by building peace with Pakistan. He jumped into a bus and headed for Pakistan to build bridges. As per the custom a dinner was hosted in his honour. It was reported that the atmosphere was a bit tense. He diffused the tension in a simplistic answer to a query by one journalist accompanying his delegation.
When the journalist asked what his impression of the dinner-talks was, Vajpayee said, in a lighter vein, “I do not know about the talks but you do not get the gajar ka halwa (carrot pudding) as good as in Islamabad. He then turned to General Musharraf and asked, “Is it not, General?” Such was the sense of detachment and the ability to generate good-will. His Pakistan visit, however, turned out to be a ‘fiasco’ as Pakistan attacked India to avenge India’s occupation of the Siachin glacier in 1984 at Kargil-Dras sector of J&K.
That brings us to the infamous Kargil war of 1999, which India decisively won. But the way Vajpayee conducted the war was a remarkable display of aggression as well as restraint. He declared that not an inch of territory could be ceded at any cost but the LOC would not be crossed. Such restraint was admired by many international actors and earned India the support needed at that juncture.
Vajpayee’s foreign policy was one of relaxed realism, a blend of pragmatism and idealism, a balance which is the hallmark of India’s culture and civilization.— INFA