India’s Foreign Policy during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s era. The nuclear tests in Pokhran, carried out with utmost discretion, shook the global order at the time.
By Arunima Gupta, Former Senior Manager, Strategic & Foreign Relations at Rashtram
The article was originally published in Modern Diplomacy
The source of this image is Modern Diplomacy
About two decades ago, India entered an elite international club when it conducted nuclear tests for the second time in its history in 1998. The detonations in Pokhran, which were carried out with utmost discretion, shook the global order at the time. They attracted immediate and sharp criticism from the international community at first, but eventually the world acknowledged the reality of India’s rise as a geopolitical power. All of this happened under the leadership of none other than the former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
A stalwart statesman, Vajpayee’s vision for India and his worldview was characterized by realism on one hand and idealism on the other, both prefixed with a pragmatic approach that was used to further India’s interests at the global stage.
As a realist, he justified India’s nuclear tests of 1998 as a means of safeguarding security interests amidst increasing geopolitical instability in South Asia coupled with the rise of China. New Delhi’s decision to stay firm on its ground, of possessing nukes as well as agreeing to a “No First Use” policy, eliminated India’s nuclear ambiguity that existed in the earlier regimes of Indira Gandhi and Narasimha Rao. But this challenge to the global status quo by India, met with widespread criticism from the international community. The most serious repercussions of all were on relations between India and the US, wherein the latter imposed economic and military sanctions on the former.
It took astute diplomacy from both sides to diffuse these tensions. India’s foreign minister Jaswant Singh and the US deputy Secretary Strobe Talbott engaged in a series of back channel meetings, which in hindsight laid the foundation for the future upswing in bilateral relations. Vajpayee’s conviction that a strong India will have to be respected by all, was indeed proved right. India had received genuine and respectful attention from the world, particularly the US, of the kind never seen before.
The nuclear tests were indeed a response to potential threats rising from India’s two neighbours, China and Pakistan. While Vajpayee realized this as a geopolitical reality, he also rendered the efforts to strengthen Indo-China relations as a strategic necessity. The first Prime Minister to visit China, a decade after his predecessor Narasimha Rao, Vajpayee’s optimism led to various confidence-building measures. As India and China affirmed their commitment to revive Panchsheel, Vajpayee’s initiative of a dialogue between diplomats of both countries as Special Representatives was seen as a remarkable step towards resolving the long-standing Indo-China border disputes. The most prominent outcome of this was the recognition of Sikkim as an Indian state by China. The borders between India and Pakistan were also opened for passenger movement by the Vajpayee government, when the Prime Minister inaugurated the Delhi-Lahore Bus Yatra in 1999 and went on to sign the Lahore Declaration to strengthen India-Pakistan relations.
The Lahore Declaration, an unprecedented peace-building measure, was soon followed by the misadventure by Pakistan in Kargil. Even as the Prime Ministers of both India and Pakistan were welcoming peace initiatives, Pakistan’s army led by General Pervez Musharraf made illegal intrusions into the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, thus sparking off the Kargil War of 1999. India, under the leadership of Vajpayee, promptly responded by mobilizing its army and air force.
Despite operational challenges, particularly owing to the difficult geographic terrain, Vajpayee was firm to not allow Indian forces, especially fighter planes to cross the Line of Control (LoC). At the same time, he was clear about not withdrawing Indian forces or accepting a ceasefire without pushing back the Pakistani intruders. The war, which lasted for two months, caused heavier casualties to the Pakistani army than the Indian forces. It brought considerable international pressure upon Pakistan, which eventually resulted in Islamabad to give up its position in Kargil. Vajpayee and his close aides Jaswant Singh and Brajesh Mishra played a pivotal role in convincing the international community, particularly the US, to back India’s case.
The success of Kargil is the best example of Vajpayee’s pragmatism that allowed him to navigate India through the turbulence of peace and war alike. Vajpayee’s diplomatic finesse and unfettered approach to deal with situation averted a hostile international intervention in Kargil as well as garnered support for India’s position worldwide. On the other hand, his optimism in the ability of his security forces translated India’s intervention “Operation Vijay” into a decisive victory. It is notable that the Lahore bus service was not halted during the Kargil war. Even after the conflict ended, Vajpayee soon invited Musharraf for a peace dialogue in 2001 and then again in 2004. Even as he put India’s security interests first, Vajpayee also realized peace cannot be achieved only through military prowess alone, but by also investing in the establishment of strong people-to-people relations and institutional frameworks.
As Vajpayee sought to reaffirm relations with China and Pakistan, his vision was not limited to the neighborhood but extended both east and west. It was with West Asia, that Vajpayee’s diplomatic approach led to forging new relations, realizing the strategic importance of this region to India. Vajpayee’s visit to Iran in 2001 led to the ideation of a gas pipeline between the two countries via Pakistan. Though this never fructified, Indo-Iran diplomatic relations gained a new dimension when the former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami visited India as the Chief Guest of Republic Day celebrations in 2002. Vajpayee, being a strategist that he was, also strengthened relations with Israel. In 2003, Ariel Sharon became the first Prime Minister of Israel to visit India. Indo-Israel strategic partnership has been significantly strengthened ever since.
The first non-congress External Affairs Minister and later as a Prime Minister, Vajpayee’s strategic vision and his worldview balanced out the idealism of his predecessors and the realism of strengthening India’s military and economic clout for his successors to follow. Indeed, the foreign policy legacy that Vajpayee left behind, has served as foundational pillars in India’s rise as a responsible and influential global power.