A defence minister should be a defence minister. But India is faced with an unusual situation. Defence minister George Fernandes has particularly strong views on foreign policy—which is all very well. The problem is, he makes it a point to articulate these views publicly, with nary a thought on whether they are in keeping with carefully maintained diplomatic nuances.
Rarely has a cabinet minister whipped up as many spells of turbulence for a ministry not under his charge as Fernandes has in his five months in office. In fact, as far as the external affairs ministry is concerned, the irrepressible Fernandes can take credit for single-handedly straining relations with China.
The result: polemical exchanges between the two countries. Says a former Indian diplomat well-versed in Sino-Indian ties: "For nearly two decades or even more, there has been an absence of polemics between India and China, in spite of the fact that the problems have not been solved. Frequent reiteration that problems exist does not help the atmosphere and the mutual understanding of each other's point of view. It is certainly a negative trend that is marked by this outbreak of polemics. The action/reaction sequence does no good. When you get into polemics, larger questions are raised which destroys the atmosphere".
South Block sources say when Chinese foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan met the prime minister's special representative, Jaswant Singh, in Manila on the sidelines of the ARF ministerial meeting in Manila, he dwelt at length on the Indian defence minister's fulminations against China. But South Block mandarins say they are helpless. How can they contradict a cabinet minister? "It is for the Prime Minister to say what he wants to on this subject," they note.
Fernandes' propensity for talking on his pet subjects is well known. And China is one of his abiding interests. Days before the nuclear tests in May, Fernandes had described China as India's threat number one, only to later blame the media for distorting his views. Before that he raised the issue of the Chinese helipad in Arunachal Pradesh, which on some inquiry turned out to be a 10-year-old temporary structure. Prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had to publicly distance himself from these comments, but he put an official seal on Fernandes' outlook on China by writing to US president Bill Clinton after the nuclear tests in which he rather crassly described the threat from China to India to justify the nuclear tests.
The strong Chinese reactions to these statements from New Delhi cooled off Fernandes. But of late he's been back on the dragon-hunt. Now he wants the J&K territory in POK that has been handed over by Pakistan to China back with India. Well, there's nothing wrong with articulating this position. But why do it when the two countries are engaged in smoothening the rough edges created in recent months? Says China expert and dean of School of International Studies, JNU, G.P. Deshpande: "Purely in terms of legalese, it is true India lays claim to that part of Kashmir under Pakistani control. Likewise when Pakistan ceded parts of that to China, India did raise objections. But the fact that there is a part of J&K effectively under Pakistani control, some of it under Chinese control, is a well-known ground reality and merely reiterating this position does not help much. It seems a political view of the matter hasn't been taken."
But what does it reflect on the functioning of the cabinet in which the foreign policy portfolio is held by the prime minister? "Fernandes as a member of this cabinet is not a team player," says former foreign secretary J.N. Dixit. "In a coalition there has to be a deliberate effort at ensuring cohesion in defence, finance and foreign policy. George has a separate agenda on foreign policy. It is rooted in the ideology of Ram Manohar Lohia and has nothing to do with the changing realities or nature of national interests. Like Lohia, who was totally opposed to China absorbing Tibet, George is a firm believer in liberating Tibet from China." Concurs Deshpande: "Fernandes' comments seem to me to be spur of the moment, off the cuff remarks. It's another indication that there is no meeting of minds, no unity of vision among the present coalition partners. Hence there are far too many disparate voices. If the government is to last its full term, it must play by the rules of the cabinet."
Another foreign secretary, S.K. Singh, also thinks that it is Fernandes' Lohiaite background that is responsible for his anti-China stance. "George's problem has been that he has been a bit of an agitator rather than a builder of institutions. He is a man of great ability, but whatever prejudices he has, those are very important in his life. And on Tibet and China he has strong views." Singh also feels that as defence minister Fernandes should be careful. He feels that the defence minister's statements have reduced the "possibility of a flexible response by India to China, but we must also acknowledge that the Chinese are not blameless either". He points to Beijing's help in building Islamabad's conventional armament industry and the nuclear and missile arsenal.
ACCORDING to reports, it was the Chinese who had sought the bilateral meeting with Jaswant Singh in Manila last month. They have been insisting that since the Indians were responsible for the deterioration in bilateral relations, New Delhi should "undo the knot". But what can India do? Says C.V. Ranganathan, former Indian ambassador to Beijing: "There has to be a resumption of a structured dialogue where we can talk on all issues of concern to each other." Agrees N.N. Jha, former diplomat and now member of the BJP's national executive: "It is pointless to dwell on the immediate past. The Chinese want India to make the first move. They are making positive statements like the one that Kashmir should be solved bilaterally between India and Pakistan. The Chinese ambassador too has said positive things. We have to build upon this." Jha, however, refrains from directly criticising Fernandes, though he admits that the BJP's own views on China are milder than the defence minister's. "Fernandes' statements are more for the Indian audience," he states.
Yet another former diplomat feels neither side should make irresponsible statements, but right now it is high-level Indians who are more prone to such rhetoric.
Dixit, who had negotiated the 1993 agreement with China, thinks while Fernandes was entitled to speak his mind when he was in the opposition, as defence minister his pronouncements impact on actual policy. "Without any reference to the facts relating to the Sino-Indian boundary question, Fernandes is of the view that this settlement should be purely on the basis of our claims and therefore wants all the territory given by Pakistan to China back. It is an ideological mindset which does not relate itself to tangible foreign policy and strategic interests of the country," he notes.
The upshot, according to the former foreign secretary, is that not only have bilateral relations been set back, but the agenda of the Joint Working Group regarding demarcation of the boundary and disengagement of troops has also been effectively scuttled. Not to mention "further strenghtening the political equation between Beijing and Islamabad". Dixit adds that Fernandes' accusations against Burma could push the Burmese into purchasing trainer jet fighters from Pakistan, "a linkage that we could have had with them".
Interestingly, in his D.R. Mankekar Memorial lecture last week, Fernandes stressed the need to forge better ties with both Pakistan and China. He made no mention of the Kashmir territory in Chinese hands. But in the TV interview where he raised this issue, he was wrong on at least one thing, according to China expert Giri Deshingkar: "He didn't mention that the Sino-Pak agreement agreement ceding a part of Kashmir is provisional and that it will be renegotiated after the Kashmir dispute is settled. Whoever owns that area will then hold talks with China." But he is hopeful and charitable: "Our ties with China are nearly frozen at present and this latest outburst by George is unlikely to affect the ties more than it already has. Hopefully time will heal the hurt, but it's going to take a long, long time."