High international politics and diplomacy was, by all accounts, former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s enduring passion. A natural grand strategist, Vajpayee’s realism was tempered by restraint, leading him to craft a pragmatic foreign policy template for India that has endured till date. Put somewhat differently, far from being “asleep at the wheel"—as one scurrilous 2002 portrait of him put it—Vajpayee instinctively knew when to speed up India’s quest for power and when to slow down so as to not overreach. This delicate balancing became most prominent in three interrelated set of events that he shaped: India’s decision to unambiguously become a nuclear weapons state in 1998, the Kargil War of 1999, and the outreach to China soon after.
To understand Vajpayee’s foreign policy philosophy of balance, one must situate it in the larger arc of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS’s) thinking on international relations and ways in which he departed from it. As scholar Rahul Sagar points out, Vinayak Savarkar’s and M.S. Golwalkar’s view of the world was, in many ways, similar to that of the realist school of international relations where power becomes the sole currency on the world stage. From this, the Jan Sangh’s foreign policy weltanschauung would flow: a distrust of China and Pakistan, an aversion to non-alignment and fence-sitting and, most importantly, the importance of nuclear weapons as the ultimate arbiter of power. However, as Sagar remarks, RSS’s view would also be marked by an “exclusionary nationalism" which—by fragmenting the domestic basis of national power—would contradict the realist dictum. Vajpayee would remain keenly aware of this problem. His outreach to Indian minorities would, inter alia, consolidate the domestic base of grand strategy and allow him to pursue a broadly realist foreign policy.
Realism also demands prudence and restraint. No other instance better describes Vajpayee’s adherence to moderation in foreign policy than the immediate aftermath of India’s 1998 nuclear tests. Having made good on the promise to move India away from nuclear ambiguity since the Pokhran test of 1974, Vajpayee unilaterally committed to two important stabilizing measures: an informal moratorium on further nuclear tests and a commitment to “No First Use" (NFU) of nuclear weapons. Both have become sacrosanct in India’s thinking about nuclear weapons despite occasional rumblings otherwise. Ignoring questions about India’s thermonuclear capability—one of the five weapons tested in 1998 was, ostensibly, a fusion bomb that fizzled—India has not resumed nuclear testing despite not being a party to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). And by committing to an NFU posture, India has simultaneously introduced a measure of crisis stability in the South Asian subcontinent as well as prevented an all-out arms race in the region. Both pillars have also been paramount in securing India’s entry into the global nuclear and non-proliferation order despite not being an NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons) signatory.
Under Vajpayee’s leadership, India’s conduct during the Kargil War of 1999 is also a testament to strategic restraint—and the rich dividends that it sometimes pays. In May 1999, the Pakistani military decided to avenge India’s 1984 occupation of the Siachen glacier through a fait accompli in the Kargil-Dras sector of Jammu and Kashmir. It is almost certain that the presence of nuclear weapons on both sides emboldened the Pakistani military to upset the status quo without fears of an Indian reprisal. What ensued—one of only two limited wars between nuclear powers—was a demonstration of Indian resolve as well as restraint. Vajpayee made it clear, early on in the conflict, that India will not cede any territory or accept a ceasefire unless Pakistan’s forces had vacated the peaks of Kargil. At the same time, he issued firm instructions to the Indian Armed Forces, notably to the Indian Air Force (IAF), to not breach the Line of Control (LoC). Tactically, this would translate to extremely careful manoeuvring by the IAF. However, had India breached the LoC, it would have been held responsible for expanding the conflict. In that case, India would not have been able to generate a favourable international intercession, which ultimately became the case.
Vajpayee’s approach to China also illustrated his keen ability to balance contending impulses in international politics. Despite the Jan Sangh’s suspicion of the People’s Republic, as Moraji Desai’s foreign minister, Vajpayee became the first Indian cabinet minister to visit China in two decades, in February 1979. What transpired in his meetings with his then counterpart Huang Hua is in itself interesting. A 11 February 1979 Press Trust of India interview with Huang has the minister describing the meeting: “Mr Vajpayee stated that the boundary issue should not constitute a hindrance to the improvement of our bilateral relations." This approach of India—of de-emphasizing the border issue in the overall context of India-China relationship—continues to serve as a template despite the Doklam standoff last year. This, however, did not make Vajpayee any less aware of the challenges of Chinese power. Recall that China figured as pre-eminent rationale for India’s 1998 nuclear test, as Vajpayee put it to then US president Bill Clinton in a (leaked) private letter.
Having established notional nuclear parity with China in 1998, Vajpayee began a high-profile outreach to the People’s Republic, which included a visit to Beijing in 2003. The import of the Beijing visit can not be overstated. Beyond India’s official recognition of the Tibetan Autonomous Region as part of mainland China, Vajpayee also instituted the Special Representatives (SR) mechanism for resolving the border dispute between the two countries. By appointing his principal secretary and national security adviser Brajesh Mishra as the first SR—notably, Mishra had served as India’s charge d’affaires in China between 1969 and 1973—Vajpayee instituted the first high-level mechanism in decades to address the long-standing problem.
In all, Vajpayee emerges as a figure in the classical tradition of 19th century European strategists like Klemens von Metternich and Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh—a realist committed to restraint and balance. That is his greatest legacy.
Abhijnan Rej is senior fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
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