Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Opinion | Vajpayee, the poet who packed a punch

Atal Bihari Vajpayee's biggest success in foreign affairs was in bringing relations with the US back from the brink, says Dilip Sinha

New Delhi: Vajpayee, the poet who packed a punch Atal Bihari Vajpayee had the distinction of being the first non-Congress prime minister to complete his term. As a former foreign minister, it was expected that he would make a mark in foreign affairs but his contribution to the country went well beyond that. Others before him had tried to bring changes in foreign policy but in the absence of a strong economy, their efforts became lines on sand, not foundations of an effective international presence.

Vajpayee had led the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party to power for the first time. He had to balance his party’s patriotic rhetoric with the country’s unstable economy and fractious politics. He began by stamping his nationalist credentials with the bold nuclear tests that ended the ambiguity in the country’s nuclear weapons policy and established him as a strong leader who could be trusted to talk peace. Nine months after exploding the bomb, Vajpayee was sitting in a bus to Lahore. The trip proved to be infructuous, but it sowed the seeds of discord between Nawaz Sharif and Pervez Musharraf, who carried out his surreptitious invasion of Kargil soon thereafter.

After the coup in Pakistan, Vajpayee had to deal with the crafty general, but he persisted with his overtures of friendship. He made another attempt at Agra which also failed and, twice bitten, he gave up on Musharraf. Three years later, it was Musharraf who made the long walk at the SAARC Summit in Islamabad to Vajpayee to greet him and make a commitment to not allow any territory under Pakistan’s control to be used for terrorist activities against India. Of course, he had no intention of abiding by his promise but the implicit admission that Pakistan was promoting terror against India was a climb-down from Agra, where he had refused to accept the use of the term ‘terrorism’ for the violence in Kashmir. Their joint statement became the basis for the composite dialogue during Manmohan Singh’s tenure. It continued for over three years before the terrorist attack on Mumbai brought it to a crashing end.

But Vajpayee’s biggest success in foreign affairs was in bringing relations with the US back from the brink. The US led the imposition of sanctions on India and Vajpayee had to do quick damage control. His deft handling of the economy and the start of an intensive dialogue with the US brought a rapid thaw in relations, and, in less than two years, Bill Clinton came on a highly popular visit to India. This was a watershed in India-US relations and a landmark visit that can be taken as the spectacle that changed India’s global image from a humdrum country to an information technology giant. The talks with the US culminated in January 2004 in the Next Steps in the Strategic Partnership for cooperation in civil nuclear, space and high-technology areas. It laid the foundation of the nuclear deal which Manmohan Singh concluded with much fanfare. Vajpayee’s hard nuclear punch with the soft touch of willingness to talk had paid off.

China was a tougher challenge. Vajpayee would not have forgotten his hurried return from his visit in 1979 due to its invasion of Vietnam. That was as foreign minister. As prime minister, he was more pragmatic. He chastened China with a few strong statements after the nuclear tests and a letter to the US expressing willingness to make India a “counterweight" to it. China showed a little more respect this time and Vajpayee had a more fruitful visit. It started the dialogue of the special representatives on the boundary dispute and facilitated the formation of international groups like BRICS and BASIC in the following years.

By the time Vajpayee relinquished office following his surprise defeat in the election in 2004, India had emerged as a nuclear power and one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Its relations with the US and with its two difficult neighbours, China and Pakistan, were on the upswing. India’s foreign policy had acquired heft with a robust presence in Afghanistan.

Vajpayee removed many of the self-imposed inhibitions of our foreign policy and allowed it to become less self-conscious in promoting national interests and projecting national power. The campaign for a permanent seat in the Security Council gathered steam in his time and reached a crescendo a year later. Vajpayee’s image today is that of an amiable leader – amiable he was, but one who packed a punch. He knew that a country’s foreign policy can only be effective when its economy and military are strong. Even a gentle hand requires a strong arm.

(Dilip Sinha is a former Indian envoy to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. He was in charge of the Pakistan desk in the Indian foreign ministry between 2005 and 2007.)

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