12:00 AM, August 20, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:34 PM, August 20, 2018

Vajpayee's enduring legacy

He left an indelible mark on India's foreign policy

Former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee broke new ground and helped shape India's foreign policy. Photo: DOUGLAS CURRAN/AFP

If PV Narasimha Rao was the initiator of the process of India's globalisation diplomatically and economically, it was Atal Bihari Vajpayee who cemented that process irrevocably. In doing so, Vajpayee, three-time prime minister of India, went against some of the basic ideological tenets of Bharatiya Janata Party such as economic nationalism and Gandhian socialism and left an indelible mark on India's foreign policy outreach both in economic and political arenas.

This article would, however, focus on how Vajpayee broke fresh grounds in India's relations with the United States and China and how he was the original practitioner of New Delhi's “neighbourhood first” policy. In all the three areas, India has been carrying on till today the template of the policies formed during the Vajpayee era from 1998-99 to 2004.

Vajpayee's biggest decision was, undoubtedly, the nuclear test in May 1998. It was the best thing to have happened to India's foreign policy and its international standing. It not only earned India the status of a de factor nuclear weapon state but also established a strategic deterrent in the face of its two neighbours China and Pakistan. It also ensured the gates to international technologies having dual use—civil and military—had opened for India. True, the nuclear tests sparked a tsunami of international condemnation and sanctions barring France and some other countries.

The global sanctions led by the United States came at a time when India was still coping with the fallout of the Asian currency crisis of 1997 and its economic liberalisation was at a nascent stage. But Vajpayee knew that India would ride out the storm. He stuck to his course as the pragmatist in him realised that the US, Japan and uranium-rich countries like Canada and Australia were looking at India's huge market for nuclear power.

During a visit to Washington soon after the nuclear test, Vajpayee caused a flutter in political circles in India, including in his own party and its spiritual mentor the RSS, when he termed the US as India's “natural ally.” The Indian political class and the RSS had at that time remained too deeply steeped in the Cold War ideology of non-alignment to come to terms with what Vajpayee was doing. At home, Vajpayee came under fire from the right, left and centre for his foreign policy course and was accused of breaking away from the traditional path of consensus. One of the main qualities was his immense patience and he was an avid listener, as many of his cabinet and party colleagues and officials who worked under him or saw him from close would vouch. This helped him take bold decisions.

It was the Vajpayee government which began the tortuous negotiations with the United States on a civil nuclear agreement that finally culminated in 2008. All other western countries, and Japan and Australia gradually followed suit and engaged with India paving the way for New Delhi's integration with world nuclear order. It was the Congress party government under Manmohan Singh as prime minister that signed the 2008 nuclear deal with the US but the journey towards it was set off by Vajpayee who nudged India away from its pro-Soviet and Cold War mindset.

Coming to India's neighbourhood, Vajpayee began the process of normalisation with China way back in 1977-79 when he was the External Affairs Minister in the Janata Party government headed by Prime Minister Morarji Desai. At a time when anti-China feelings were prevalent in India—15 years after the Sino-Indian War of 1962—Vajpayee undertook an official visit to that country ignoring severe criticism at home. However, it was during Vajpayee's visit to China later as prime minister that the two countries set up a framework for addressing the core boundary dispute between the two countries—the Special Representatives, an arrangement which continues even today. It was during Vajpayee's reign that a landmark give-and-take in ties between New Delhi and Beijing took place: China recognised Sikkim state as part of India and India accepted Tibet as part of China.

In South Asia, Vajpayee reached out to both Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1999 by personally launching two key people-centric initiatives within four months of 1999—passenger bus services between Delhi and Lahore in February and between Dhaka and Kolkata in June. True, before Vajpayee it was Inder Kumar Gujral, another former prime minister, who had articulated India's neighbourhood policy with what came to be known as the Gujral Doctrine. But Gujral neither had the strong political backing nor the time to implement his ideas in 1996-97 as he was the PM only for a few months. But Vajpayee had both.

For Vajpayee, Bangladesh was very important irrespective of the party in power across India's southeastern frontier. If he launched the Dhaka-Kolkata bus link when Sheikh Hasina was the PM, he had rushed his national security adviser and his trusted aide Brajesh Mishra to Dhaka soon after Khaleda Zia came to power in 2001 to convey India's willingness to deal with the new dispensation in Dhaka. It is a different matter that the Khaleda government squandered that opportunity by not responding positively.

With Pakistan, Vajpayee's February 1999 bus journey to Pakistan was a milestone in the backdrop of troubled relations between the two countries. But Pakistan responded by pushing in its troops into Kargil in Jammu and Kashmir a few months later, triggering the Kargil conflict. Vajpayee resisted the temptation of expanding the theatre of the conflict but showed firmness that Pakistani troops be driven out of India's territory.

After the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, India under the Vajpayee government amassed troops along the border with Pakistan but the two countries pulled back from the precipice of another war. Vajpayee, the peacenik, invited Pakistani military ruler Pervez Musharraf to the Agra summit in 2001 but it ended in a fiasco. He, however, travelled to Islamabad in 2004 for a bilateral visit and the Saarc Summit and succeeded in extracting from Musharraf a pledge in writing that Pakistan would stop sponsoring cross-border terrorism into India. That is a commitment still cited by India which helped pin down Pakistan on the issue of cross-border terrorism.

What becomes clear from Vajpayee's neighbourhood initiatives is that India must connect and engage with neighbours from a position of strength. The poet in Vajpayee had also written “Jung na honay denge hum” (We will not allow a war). Two successive Indian prime ministers, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi, have broadly stuck to that path despite the downturn in ties with Pakistan in the last two years. 

Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent to The Daily Star.

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