[The Dalai Lama and Vajpayee, PM)
Amidst the paens of praise and hossanas being sung to honour the memory of the recently departed former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, it may be churlish to bring up the wrong things done during his time at 7, Race Course Road, especially in the foreign-cum-national security policy fields.
That Vajpayee needs to be justly admired for his Nehruvian grace and forbearance of the political opposition, and in particular his political instincts to do the right thing at the right time to avert crises that his coalition government of disparate ideological elements in the country (including the cantankerous Mamata Bannerji) was prone to, is a political commodity of immeasurable value. But that said, it must also be candidly admitted that he tried too hard too become the Prime Minister Jawaharlal had hoped he’d become in terms of hewing a little too close to Nehru’s external follies — chief among these being China given much too much rope to hang India with. Indeed, no greater damage was done the country’s “permanent” national interest than his decision during his 2003 state visit to formally recognize the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) as an inalienable part of China in exchange for, get this, Beijing’s acknowledging Sikkim as part of India! (The always clever Chinese put one over the Indian Foreign Service genuises, with Brajesh Mishra, Vajpayee’s National Security Adviser and also Principal Private Secretary and, for all intents and purposes related to the functioning of the Indian government — the unelected, de facto prime minister, in the van.
To make matters worse, while the mention of Delhi’s acceptance of TAR as inalienably Chinese was straightforward in the joint communique issued at the end of the Indian PM’s state visit, Beijing’s supposed “concession” on Sikkim was ambiguous at best. This was diplomatic surrender subsequently dressed up as a foreign policy coup! It left the Dalai Lama ever since twisting slowly in the political winds rifling through the Sino-Indian relations, and India without its prime diplomatic leverage. The Dalai Lama’s strategic utility was thus willfully zeroed out once the status of TAR was so shortsightedly stamped. It helped India’s ‘Tibet card’ go up in smoke.
Whatever Brajesh Mishra’s machinations, why did Vajpayee agree to this dastardly act? To improve the prospects of warm ties with China — a country that swears by India’s adversarial position. How is such levels of Vajpayee’s strategic foolishness and gullibility different than Nehru’s bending over backwards to lift China’s status, promote it as a power in the 1950s at India’s expense. Nehru was convinced that China would behave responsibly if only it was accorded all the rights and privileges of great power, whence he handed over the permanent seat in the UN Security Council offered India (to replace Generalissimo Changkaishek’s Taiwan) by both the US and USSR to Mao’s China instead. It was the first instance of national self-abnegation that has since become Delhi’s policy norm. It was an example of astonishing foreign policy generosity that Mao — ever the arch realist, reacted to by calling Nehru an “imperialist running dog”! China has never looked back, and India has not moved forward strategically from that point.
Now consider the equally problematic courting of the US at any cost that served as Vajpayee’s policy. It resulted in the Next Step in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) that paved the way, in a short period of time, to the 2008 India-US civilian nuclear cooperation deal that Manmohan Singh, who otherwise had no great foreign policy successes to his credit, insisted upon even as Sonia Gandhi, his political master and regime driver, was less convinced about its merits. But Manmohan made it a prestige issue and Mrs Gandhi held out for as long as she could without compelling her man to lay down his “mukhota” role and terminate the Congress government. Being out of power was apparently too high a price for Sonia to pay. The NSSP then was the decisive breakthrough that America desired and obtained, and which led in slow stages to the overt US tilt of Narendra Modi’s foreign policy 20 years later.
The question to ponder is, how come Vajpayee so readily accepted Brajesh Mishra’s pushing this line of India’s needing to make peace with the US on Washington’s terms? Especially when, it may be recalled, that in May 1998 Vajpayee’s attempt in a secret letter to US President Bill Clinton to justify India’s nuclear test explosions as a means of acquiring the “absolute” weapon and deterring China, was promptly leaked by the Clinton White House to the Chinese and the New York Times. So much for a trustworthy America. In that letter to Clinton, Vajpayee reiterated his moratorium decision, and in essence sealed the future of the Indian nuclear arsenal as a half-cocked deterrent.
Vajpayee met once formally with the National Security Advisory Board of which I was member in end-1998 and chiefly distinguished himself with his trademark pause and pause some more before mumbling some banality or the other (that I can’t for the life of me remember). I met with the PM in a passing sort of way on two other occasions at his Race Course residence, once I clearly recall, for the launch of DP Mishra’s biography, or collection of speeches or something equally unmemorable. (The former Congress Madhya Pradesh chief minister DP Mishra was, of course, Brajesh’s father). On no occasion did Vajpayee do other than confirm he had no deep insight into anything remotely foreign. Indeed, as relayed in my 2002 750-page tome ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’, Vajpayee almost seemed a sap for any one who was advising him at the moment.
During his days as external affairs minister in the Morarji Desai regime, for example, he was advised by the US ambassador Robert Goheen no less, and almost gave away the whole store by agreeing to sign the 1968 non-proliferation treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state. He was prevented from going ahead with this policy of devastating self-inflicted damage only because of an MEA secretary, MA Vellodi, who with some inspired bureaucratic runarounds and flim-flammery that has been insufficiently appreciated by the nation to-date, held off his minister until PM Morarji in a fit of hard-headedness for a change nixed it altogether!
This is the point I am making: How can Vajpayee be seen as other than a foreign and national security policy liability when he could so easily be influenced by his adviser(s) of choice? Such a doubtful record as Vajpayee’s has, it turns out, a simple enough explanation. Vajpayee was intellectually lazy, did not seriously apply his mind, and gave Brajesh Mishra and that advisory caboodle too much freedom and leeway to set the policy course, chart out particular policy details and he did not really care about the costs to the country of ill-advised initiatives put up for his consideration. (In my writings, I have delved into how seriously Brajesh Mishra damaged India’s national interest.)
This state of affairs was buttressed by Vajpayee’s near complete lack of insight into, and interest in, global power politics — a lacunae undergirded by surprising innocence of anything remotely strategic. (Why else would he cutoff testing at six tests — one of them the failed thermonuclear test explosion and then be convinced that India was now a thermonuclear weapons power that thereafter needed to do nothing more with regard to testing?) And why did the PM not have confidence that his own undoubted talent for political management at home could be transferred to international affairs, and that he had to rely on so-called “professionals” such as the IFS-er, Brajesh Mishra?
This is to say that however one slices the foreign and military policy record Vajpayee comes up short. In the event, performance ought to be the metric to judge his prime ministership rather than his obvious and notable talent for “feel good” folksiness and poesy.