EVEN defence minister George Fernandes, a strident anti-China campaigner, must have been surprised at the rapid-fire slanging match between India and China post Pokhran. More so because the man who precipitated the row was none other than Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.
Once Vajpayee shot off a letter to President Clinton, explaining the rationale behind the nuclear teststhe broad hint to a threat from Chinathe Chinese exploded. And just when Vajpayee, who also looks after external affairs, should have mouthed a few diplomatic words, he took a vow of silence. Suddenly, everyone other than the external affairs minister were waxing eloquent on foreign affairs. Consider the list: home minister L.K. Advani, Fernandes, political advisor to the PM Pramod Mahajan, principal secretary to the PM Brajesh Mishra. Even parliamentary affairs and tourism minister Madan Lal Khurana pitched in with a war-mongering statement on Kashmir. Vajpayee, as Outlook had once said about former prime minister Gujral, was missing in action.
The end result was that Sino-Indian relations, on the mend despite problems, dipped dramatically. "It came like the cyclone and took the form of a public brawl," says Giri Deshingkar, a China expert at the Institute for Chinese Studies, referring to the sudden slide in relations. Just two months ago when the BJP came to power, it was widely assumed that there was a general consensus on foreign policy issuesand that the coalition only squabbled over domestic issues. After all, Vajpayee had headed Parliaments standing committee on external affairs in the last session. If anything, he was hailed as a man with considerable expertise in foreign policy.
But two months down the line, thats what seems to be lacking. The result: the Indian...