Foreign policy in 2001: what’s going on?


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THE last five years have been dramatic years for foreign policy. A succession of momentous decisions and events have marked the last half decade, starting with India’s rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996 to the counter-terrorism war in Afghanistan in the wake of 11 September. In between there were the nuclear tests of 1998, the Lahore summit, the Kargil war, the Musharraf coup and the hijacking of IC 814 in 1999 and the Clinton visit to India as well as the Vajpayee return visit to the US in 2000. Probably no year has been as critical for Indian foreign policy, however, as 2001 is turning out to be.

Any assessment of Indian diplomacy in 2001 must centre on three events: New Delhi’s support to the United States’ decision to move ahead with missile defence; the Vajpayee-Musharraf summit in Agra in July; and 11 September and the war in Afghanistan. My argument is that the Indian government under the BJP-led NDA has adopted a foreign policy approach which emphasizes decisiveness and departures (from established patterns and styles), then finds itself under criticism or is under-prepared in dealing with the consequences of its decisions, and finally begins to lose momentum or to develop self-doubts along the way, leaving the country without a firm sense of what it is trying to achieve and why. That in many ways is the story of 2001.



Missile Defence: The Indian Foreign Minister and the NDA government surprised everyone in May 2001 by suddenly stating publicly that it understood what President George W. Bush was talking about when he announced that the United States would proceed with missile defence. The Indian statement came within days of the Bush announcement and took the Indian public by surprise. Only weeks earlier, during a visit to Moscow, Jaswant Singh had seemingly opposed missile defence when he said that India supported the Russian stand on the necessity of maintaining the sanctity of earlier arms control agreements and in particular the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM).

The Indian statement in May welcomed the Bush speech on a ‘New Strategic Framework’ (which contained his remarks on missile defence) on at least five grounds. First, it praised the US President’s address as a ‘highly significant and far-reaching statement... [which] seeks to transform the strategic parameters on which the Cold War security architecture was built.’ Second, it singled out Bush’s desire to make unilateral cuts in nuclear weapons. Third, it supported the move away from hair-trigger nuclear alerts associated with the Cold War. Fourth, India noted that there was a ‘strategic and technological inevitability’ to the transition from MAD to defence. Fifth, the Bush Administration’s signal that it was interested in evolving more cooperative and consultative relations and that leaving behind the ‘adversarial legacy of the Cold War’ was a welcome move in international politics.

The government’s position came under considerable criticism. Critics made several arguments. The government had been precipitate and had turned India’s traditional stance on disarmament on its head. The US could not be trusted to use missile defence for defensive purposes. There was the risk that combined with its offensive weapons it would be in a position to carry out a disarming first strike against its opponents. The possibility of such an eventuality would compel its rivals to expand their nuclear programmes, thus promoting an arms race rather than disarmament.



Critics also argue that missile defence was not a strategic and technological inevitability. The US could be stopped from developing defensive weapons if the international community galvanized itself. There was evidence, for instance, that its closest allies, the UK and France in particular, did not favour missile defence. Technologically, it was doubtful whether any defensive system could truly work against a determined opponent. The real US agenda was not missile defence but rather the domination of outer space. Defensive systems would entail positioning some components in space, and the US wanted to use missile defence to legitimize its militarization of outer space. Finally, the US President’s statement notwithstanding, the US seemed to be in the mood to proceed unilaterally with missile defence even if that meant tearing up the ABM Treaty. This did not augur well for international politics. The US’ unilateralism could well extend to other areas.

The government did little to respond to these criticisms. It clarified that it had not been precipitate in making its statement, that India’s response to missile defence had been under discussion for some time, and that it had not endorsed missile defence but rather the promise of a new strategic order. When the US Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, visited Delhi on 11 May (a mere ten days after the initial Indian statement), New Delhi added that it had emphasized to the US that missile defence should not ‘unilaterally abrogate bilateral compacts like the ABM Treaty of 1972 or other similar international commitments.’ The second statement was consistent with India’s statement in Moscow some months earlier and clearly was necessary in order to reassure Moscow.

While criticism of the government’s stand abated, it was unclear where India stood any longer. Was India truly for missile defence or not? If it was, what advantage did India derive from the US’s determination to develop and deploy defensive systems? India’s response, along with Australia’s, had been the quickest and most positive to the Bush statement. What was the hurry? Unused to such decisive reactions, the Indian public was bemused and suspicious. There was fear that India had been coerced into supporting the US. There was also concern that India had decided to bandwagon with the US without any quid pro quos. Was this the beginnings of an alliance with the US, with India as junior partner? These larger, grand strategic questions remained unanswered. The government was not bound to answer them, but clearly such a major announcement should have occasioned a larger debate about India-US relations and India’s basic worldview. Unfortunately, it did not do so.



The Vajpayee-Musharraf Summit: On 23 May, soon after the rather dramatic endorsement of President Bush’s new strategic framework statement, the Indian government announced that it was inviting President Pervez Musharraf to a summit with the Prime Minister on 14-16 July 2001. Once again, the Indian public was caught by surprise. Only weeks earlier, and indeed going back to the Kargil war, the government had insisted that it would not talk to the Pakistani leader until he had stopped aiding militant groups operating in Kashmir. After the coup in October 1999 which brought Musharraf to power, New Delhi had also suggested that it did not favour talking to military rulers. The May announcement, therefore, went against the grain of everything that India had been saying in public about relations with Pakistan.



The government’s announcement gestured at the context in which the invitation occurred. First, the ceasefire in Kashmir, or what New Delhi chose to call ‘non-initiation of combat operations,’ had failed to bring the terrorist groups and organizations to the negotiating table. The ceasefire phase was therefore over. Second, the Line of Control had been ‘relatively’ peaceful for the previous six months, and India and Pakistan had both exercised restraint in terms of the exchange of artillery fire. Third, the K.C. Pant initiative in seeking a dialogue with Kashmiris was going forward. Fourth, India’s invitation was consistent with its earlier initiatives – the Vajpayee visit to Lahore in February 1999 and the declaration signed by the two sides on that occasion and, going further back, the Simla Agreement.

Once again, there was criticism of the government on the grounds that the invitation contradicted earlier public pronouncements and that enough thought had not gone into this abrupt change of direction. Critics charged that if the ceasefire had failed, this was because Pakistan had ensured that it would fail. While there was relative peace and tranquility along the LOC, terrorism had not appreciably abated. The Pant initiative had hardly begun and would be stillborn if the government now shifted its attention to relations with Pakistan.

Pakistan in any case was not in any mood to concede anything, and there was little chance that an agreement such as Simla and Lahore could be achieved. Musharraf would exploit the opportunity given to him by India to enhance his position both domestically and internationally. His sudden decision, just three weeks before the summit, to make himself President and to shed the nomenclature of ‘Chief Executive’ was an indication of how he could use India’s invitation for his own purposes.



To counter these kinds of criticisms and also to condition Pakistani and international public opinion, the government began a peace offensive against Islamabad. There were to be scholarships for Pakistani students in Indian technical institutes, and Pakistani high school students were to visit Indian schools. Pakistani artists and intellectuals were to spend a month in India. Travel was to be eased by issuing visas at the border, and additional check-posts were to be opened along the border as well as LOC. Straying Pakistani fishermen were to be politely sent home rather than arrested. Any Pakistani ‘civilian prisoners’ languishing in Indian jails were to be released. Tariffs were to be reduced or eliminated on 50% of the tariff lines in order to encourage bilateral trade. The Directors General of Military Operations (DGMOs) were to meet. And consultations on security and nuclear CBMs were to be instituted. There was little opposition to these initiatives, but quite a lot of skepticism: would this help or hurt the summit given that the Pakistanis are opposed to normalization with India until Kashmir is resolved?

In the event the Agra summit was in large part a failure, at least in the sense that no agreed upon text emerged from it and no dramatic breakthroughs were achieved. In addition, Musharraf’s masterful handling of the press and television turned Agra into a public relations disaster. Accusations and counter-accusations between the two countries mocked the hopes of the Indian government that a bold opening to Pakistan would improve relations.



The government’s own assessment of the outcome of the summit, contained in the Foreign Minister’s press statement on 17 July, indicated that the talks had broken down due to basic differences over how to approach bilateral relations: India preferred an inclusive approach that dealt with Kashmir as well as other matters; Pakistan insisted on a much narrower approach focused on Kashmir. India wanted to build on the Simla and Lahore agreements, Pakistan did not. Lastly, there was apparently little agreement on the issue of cross border terrorism, with India maintaining that there must be an end to violence in order to make progress on other issues and Pakistan insisting that the violence was freedom fighting and not terrorism and that one should not mix up cause and effect.

The Indian public was once again left bemused. Between the charges of the critics and the statements of the government, what was the truth? Had the invitation turned out to be a serious misjudgment? Had anything been gained? Had Pakistan scored a victory of sorts? Would all this cause more violence in Kashmir? While the government defended itself in Parliament, it clearly had lost a lot in the court of public opinion. Most thought that the summit had been a serious setback if not a disaster.

Looking back on it, this would seem to be too harsh a judgment. First, the two countries, for the first time in 30 years, discussed all the basic issues head on at the highest political level. Second, there was unprecedented coverage of India-Pakistan issues in the press and television – whatever the deficiencies of the media, no one can say that they did not come out wiser in terms of an appreciation of the range and complexity of issues. Third, many Indians and Pakistanis who had nothing to do with their governments came and went and talked, and of course argued – reasonably for the most part, sometimes heatedly, but almost always frankly.



A fourth gain from the summit was that the outline of a peace process became more visible than before. It seems clear enough now that there are three baskets of issues that any dialogue must be built around: Kashmir (cross-border terrorism plus Pakistan’s claims to the state); nuclear weapons and security; and non military issues (trade, travel, exchanges). We know too that the question of whether or not and how Kashmiri opinion is to be factored into the dialogue will arise and must be confronted. We have a sense that progress was made on a variety of matters and that the Agra formulations could be resurrected and built upon in future talks. While Jaswant Singh said after the summit that ‘the slate had been wiped clean’ and everything would have to begin de novo, this is neither believable nor desirable.

We have learned some lessons for the future as well. One lesson is that public diplomacy via the media is here to stay and will be part of the problem and the solution, whether governments like it or not. A second lesson is that India simply has to improve its handling of the media and its ability to get information and ideas out – to its own public, to Pakistanis, and to the international community. Third, there must be an agenda for India-Pakistan summits, and pre-negotiations between senior officials and leaders (perhaps a special envoy) should help define that agenda. We cannot negotiate with the Pakistanis without doing a lot of homework. In particular, we must know how far we are prepared to go: it is not clear that the Prime Minister and his team had done enough on this score in the lead up to Agra.

India has just indicated that at the upcoming SAARC summit in Kathmandu, the first one since the Kargil war (1999), Vajpayee will not be averse to meeting Musharraf. The question that once again is in the air is, to what purpose? Under what conditions? The government has not explained why, after saying some harsh things about Musharraf and insisting that it would not talk to Pakistan unless cross-border terrorism is ended, it is prepared to hold talks. The government undoubtedly has its reasons for resuming the dialogue, and one can conjure up rather good reasons for going ahead with it, but the impression South Block gives is of ad hocism and uncertainty. This is the wrong way to go into a mini-summit.



September 11 and India-US Relations: The third and perhaps the most important decision taken by the Indian government in respect of its external relations was to support the US in its fight against global terrorism. At one level, this is not terribly surprising: given the events of 11 September, India’s own history of terrorism, and its deepening relations with the US, New Delhi’s decision was logical. However, the fact remains that the government came in for criticism, allegedly for offering too much too quickly.

Within an hour of the attacks on the WTC towers, India had expressed its willingness to cooperate with the US. The Foreign Minister apparently conveyed this sentiment to US officials personally. In the ensuing days, his statements suggested that India would be willing to consider cooperation on a scale that it has never countenanced before. On the US side, there was a deafening silence in response to India’s offer, preoccupied as Washington was with the aftermath of the attacks and mindful, as it must have been, that Indian participation in the campaign on terrorism would complicate the US’ attempt to get Pakistan and the Islamic countries to rally round.



This silence undoubtedly was the instigation for much of the criticism that came to be directed at South Block. Critics charged that India had gone too far, that it would lose independence of decision making, that the US was tilting to Pakistan, that Pakistan would cut a deal with the US to leave the Kashmir problem alone or conversely to intervene on Pakistan’s behalf on Kashmir, that India’s Muslims would not tolerate any kind of Indian participation in the fight against Afghanistan, and that the US really did not need India and therefore the Indian offer had made the country look foolish.

Under criticism, the government parried, pulled back, and diverted. It had not given the US carte blanche. It had not offered bases and other vital military installations or capabilities to the US. It would examine requests from the US and do what it could that was commensurate with national interest, and so on. Indian policy now moved away from talking about the global fight against terrorism to emphasizing how the US and India could quicken the pace of cooperation that had begun before 9/11 in various military and other areas.

National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra went to the US for consultations. The US Secretary of State and Secretary of Defence were received in Delhi in quick succession. The Indian Prime Minister turned his UN General Assembly visit into a brief Washington stopover. Admiral Denis Blair, Commander of the US Pacific Fleet came calling, and a slew of US officials including Richard Haass arrived in Delhi to talk to India. The theme of India-US relations noticeably changed. In the war on terrorism, India was to be involved basically in how post-Taliban Afghanistan was to be constituted. For the rest, India and the US would continue to deepen military, diplomatic, economic, and other ties in an effort to build an unprecedented strategic partnership.



It would be fair to say that in this case too the Indian public remains somewhat mystified. It has gradually understood that India cannot play much of a role in the fight in Aghanistan. It has also seemingly come to accept that the US had to enlist Pakistan in that fight. There remain suspicions about the US’s role in South Asia after Afghanistan. Will the US stop terrorism in Kashmir by putting pressure on Pakistan? Will it twist India’s hands on Kashmir instead? Will the Americans cut and run after the Afghan operation? What is a strategic partnership as distinct from an alliance? Will India get high-technology defence items from the US? Or is the government exaggerating the extent to which India and the US will do things together?

The Vajpayee government typically has not been terribly communicative in this regard. It seeks to convey the feeling of brisk, business-like relations with the US under the rubric of a larger strategic map, but it has been unable to tell the public what that map is like. Expectations have once again grown, and the government will face growing opposition if it cannot deliver on something substantial with the Americans after all this.



What can we say from this review of the year 2001 and these three major episodes? Let me note just three things.

The most basic lesson is that NDA government continues to be rather poor at conveying its larger intentions and purposes. It is not clear why this is so. Is the Ministry of External Affairs not doing its job? Are there differences between the leadership? Or between the BJP and RSS? Or between Jaswant Singh and Brajesh Mishra? Or between the Foreign Minister and his own officials?

Are the members of this coalition just poor communicators and too aloof? Is a visibly tiring Prime Minister unable to put his stamp on policies? Are there deeper problems? The BJP has never before governed at the Centre for any length of time. Many observers notice that, contrary to expectations and to its own boasts, the party is not particularly good at administration and governance. This may well be the problem in foreign policy as well.

Second, the government seems to have taken a decision to build a strong, long-term relationship with the US, indeed to make the US relationship the centrepiece of its grand strategy. The statement on missile defence was in large part motivated by the desire to build a relationship with Washington. Jaswant Singh’s instantaneous reaction to 9/11 was also intended to send an unambiguous signal of India’s wish for a more thoroughgoing relationship with America. Even the invitation to Musharraf, some would say, was essentially directed towards softening US opinion.

The problem is that the NDA government does not have the courage to say that it wants to fundamentally change India’s foreign policy. Nor does it have the courage to say what exactly a defining relationship with the Americans would mean: a military alliance, partnership over a range of international economic and political issues, a growing process of consultations on key international strategic trends and challenges? What does the government want the US to do for India, and what does it think India can do for the US? Until we get answers to questions such as these, the government will find that it will not get strong public support for the strategic shift it seeks.



Finally, this review of the year in foreign policy suggests that the government has been so focused on the US, Pakistan, and now the events in Afghanistan that it has neglected two vital areas for India – China and our smaller neighbours. There has been some progress with China on a number of issues including the border, but New Delhi has to give its China policy more attention, especially now that the Afghanistan situation is clarifying. So also it must pay more attention to Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, where internal changes could play havoc with regional stability.

Much in foreign policy depends on stability and strength at home. What the new year will bring in this regard is impossible to say, but the auguries are not particularly good. The NDA government seems to be more intent on saffronising textbooks and worrying about the glories of the Indian past than coping with the present and the future. The Ayodhya issue could throw the country into the kind of turmoil that we witnessed in 1992, making Pakistan look stable! And by all accounts the economy is in middling to bad shape. Good luck Mr. Foreign Minister!