The rebalancer of power :Atal Bihari Vajpayee -
The rebalancer of power :Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Posted 18 Aug 2018 02:50 PM

Atal Bihari Vajpayee will be judged by history as the prime minister who orchestrated India’s strategic shift to the US. Foreign policy practitioners prefer to call it ‘rebalancing’. But the fact is that he made afundamental break from a well-entrenched adversarial political narrative against the US.

Up until Vajpayee, it was considered political suicide for any Indian leader to side, let alone partner, with the US. Which is why it’s important to understand that the 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests were not a culmination, but the beginning of a strategic repositioning of India in global affairs.

There were broadly three new pivots on which this doctrinal shift was made: nuclear restraint, China and terrorism. How? By moving in at a time when the US, as the sole superpower under President Bill Clinton, was looking to take control of the imminent redistribution of global power.

The first step was the declaration that India will not carry out any more nuclear tests after Pokhran 2. This was followed by a clear enunciation of a no-first use policy in a bid to convey that New Delhi viewed nuclear weapons as a defensive option meant to deter, not provoke, adversaries. In doing so, India, for the first time, had leveraged China — the second pivot — against the US. While much of the Washington establishment saw this as a nuclearisation of South Asia, the Indian argument was that its biggest neighbour, China, was already a nuclear weapons State with a veto power in the UN Security Council (UNSC). And that Pakistan’s nuclear programme was nothing but a proxy extension of the Chinese programme, a fact attested by the CIA.

Three individuals played a key role in conveying the Indian message after the tests. External affairs minister Jaswant Singh, who largely dealt with the US and Japan. National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, who worked behind the scenes on Russia and France, which had considerable leverage in Washington and mattered in tipping the scales within the UNSC. And quite understated, but extremely effective, as far as Vajpayee was concerned those days, was Indian Ambassador to the US, Naresh Chandra.

Demolished the Great Wall Mishra also managed the difficult conversation with China when it became imminent that the Chinese threat was at the core of the Indian diplomatic effort to get Washington to view India differently.

Vajpayee’s interlocutors had made it clear to the US that it had erred in framing India in a hyphenated relationship with Pakistan. But it wasn’t going to be easy to get the US to make the change overnight, an aspect well-documented by Strobe Talbott and Jaswant Singh themselves, as they grappled to find a common agenda for action despite several areas of agreement.

In many ways, the Kargil War — an act of tactical brilliance, but a massive strategic miscalculation by Pakistan — helped India work the narrative to its advantage.

This was the first India-Pakistan conflict in which the US decidedly weighed in on India’s side. This was the first time that a conversation between a Pakistan chief of army staff (General Pervez Musharraf) on a visit to China with his chief of general staff found its way to Indian hands and was leaked to prove complicity of the Pakistani military.

Despite these provocations, Vajpayee held on, and did not allow Indian forces to cross the Line of Control (LoC) at Washington’s behest. This show of restraint — and of trust towards the US — was a big political gamble, which paid off for Vajpayee.

Clinton eventually sat down Nawaz Sharif, the then-Pakistan PM, at Blair House in Washington in July 1999, and told him that withdrawal of troops from Kargil had to be unconditional. He added, as documented later by Talbott, that if he was in Vajpayee’s place, he would not give into nuclear blackmail. This was a big diplomatic victory for India, a major shift for the US.

Terror attacks on US interests in North Africa and the rise of al-Qaeda further expanded the common ground. What this allowed India was to build a case against the Pakistani military for sponsoring terrorism. Despite that, Vajpayee never lost an opportunity to show Indian earnestness in making peace, if possible. The Lahore bus trip and the Agra Summit, both of which yielded little, were instances that lifted Vajpayee’s credibility among India-sceptics in the US.

ANew Policy Fission The 1999 IC-814 hijack, 9/11, the December 2001attack on the Indian Parliament and Chinese reluctance to support any collective action against Pakistan changed the narrative in South Asia permanently. By the time Vajpayee’s term came to a close in 2004, India, for the US, was the principal strategic lynchpin in South Asia.

Also, from a nuclear pariah, it was billed, along with Japan, as the balancing power against China. The challenges faced after Pokhran 2 became history, and the foundation of a nuclear deal was laid in the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) under his watch.

Politically, the Vajpayee Years undid the suspicion attached with the US. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s political success with the US, and now his successor Narendra Modi’s positive run on this count, only attest to this first significant foreign policy shift in post-Independent India.

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