February 25, 2020
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George In The China Shop

The defence minister puts the PMO and the MEA in a spot with his hard-hitting utterances on the threat posed by Beijing

George In The China Shop

AT least George Fernandes is consistent. He has held strong views on China's occupation of Tibet and its growing threat to India. His views on Burma are equally strong. And he has been expressing these for years. Only difference is, now he is the defence minister and his views on security and foreign affairs have the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and the ministry of external affairs (MEA) running for cover.

Prof. G.P. Deshpande, a China specialist and dean of the School for International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, recounts an amusing tale of the time he landed in Beijing just after V.P. Singh came to power. One of the first things Fernandes did on becoming railway minister was to make a statement on the independence of Tibet. "After that I spent the first few days explaining to my Chinese interlocutors that the statement was made by the railway minister, not the prime minister or the external affairs minister. I had to tell them that there was no change in India's Tibet policy. Everywhere I went the conversation would begin with this," says Deshpande.

But now that he is defence minister, Fernandes' utterances are being taken more seriously. Indeed, they seem to have left the PMO and the MEA somewhat shell-shocked, so much so that with both him and prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who also holds the external affairs portfolio, out of town early last week, it took the government more than two days to issue a statement politely distancing itself from the defence minister's views.

In the process, the incident has strengthened the impression that Vajpayee is too busy managing the problems of his coalition to be able to devote sufficient time to foreign affairs. Says former foreign secretary J.N. Dixit: "The major problem is that though the PM is in charge of the MEA,he can't focus on it completely because of his manifold responsibilities. The lack of a hands-on foreign minister is a major handicap."

 Agrees Congress spokesman Salman Khurshid: "The MEA is too important a ministry to be left understaffed at the top." Having himself been minister of state for external affairs, Khurshid feels the MEA needs at least two, if not three, full-time ministers. The foreign affairs portfolio being kept with the prime minister is not the problem, he clarifies; it's a fact that, given the current political situation, the time devoted to foreign affairs by Vajpayee has been marginal so far. "The MEA has traditionally been a prime minister-driven ministry. It's a very political ministry and Fernandes, being vocal and articulate in his political opinions, has been making statements which are a bit out of place and which no government can endorse," he adds. Agrees another former foreign secretary, S.K. Singh: "Vajpayee is very preoccupied with the government's internal problems."

 Indeed, a perception is gaining ground that there has been little political management of foreign affairs in the first few weeks of the BJP-led government, despite Vajpayee's keen interest in this area. Former prime minister Inder Kumar Gujral, while appealing to Vajpayee last week to rein in Fernandes, reminded his successor that he had assured Parliament that he would "sustain the consensus-backed foreign policy. But his (Vajpayee's) silence either by purpose or design, is imparting a different signal", which he warned could damage the national consensus.

DESHPANDE also discerns a degree of disarray in the government. "Things seem to be falling apart in the last six weeks," he says, adding that Fernandes' comments have compounded the confusion. "The government has made no major statement on foreign policy," he notes. "Besides, the day Vajpayee denied Fernandes' claim about the Chinese helipad in Arunachal Pradesh, he should have had a meeting with him and told him to be circumspect." In fact, that's what happened. Vaj-payee met Fernandes and told him to hold his horses, particularly as the chief of the general staff of the Chinese army, Gen. Fu Quanyou, was coming to town.

Just then Fernandes had recorded his now famous TV interview with Karan Thapar. Soon after his meeting with Vajpayee, the defence minister reportedly rang up the producer of the show and requested him to hold the interview till the Chinese official left town because the PM did not want any controversy. The interview was not telecast for two weeks and carried soon after Gen. Fu left India. In this the defence minister described China as the main threat to India.As it happened, the interview coincided with his Krishna Menon memorial lecture, where too Fernandes reportedly expressed his strong views on China.

To be sure, what the defence minister is saying is not new. The only difference is that now he is not in the opposition. His comments have put the cat among the pigeons, thereby suddenly charging up the atmosphere in Sino-Indian relations, which had been moving placidly, at least on the surface, over the last few years.

But Fernandes seems to have ruffled more feathers in the PMO and the MEA than in Beijing.An embarrassed PMO source, close to Vajpayee, quickly distanced the government from the defence minister's views: "His remarks do not reflect the government's considered view on ties with China." Asked if the PM himself would contradict Fernandes, he retorted: "How often do you think can the prime minister contradict him? He did it once when the defence minister spoke of the helipad in Arunachal Pradesh." He admitted that the defence minister's remarks were "uncalled for and unprovoked". As for any mechanism to prevent such diplomatic faux pas in future, the PMO source sighed: "Well, he is the defence minister. How much can you do? A man has the right to make new mistakes." And as another source conceded: "George is doing everything on his own."

South Block functionaries are peeved at Fernandes and would rather that he left Sino-Indian ties to the MEA. Especially as it sends wrong signals about the PM's handling—or the lack of it—of the foreign affairs portfolio. But all said and done, in this controversy, it is the PMO and the MEA which have cut a helpless figure. The government, Deshpande says, is caught in a peculiar dilemma: "It can't completely disown what the defence minister is saying because that would send a certain signal. It can't completely own up to it because it would send another kind of signal to the Chinese."

 After the denunciation by the Chinese foreign office spokesman, Zhu Bangzao, in Beijing, the PMO and the MEA were forced to start fire-fighting operations. Zhu accused Fernandes of "seriously sabotaging" the atmosphere for improving bilateral ties between the two neighbours. About Fernandes' comment that China, not Pakistan, is a bigger potential threat to India, Zhu described the remarks as "absolutely ridiculous and unworthy of refutation".

The defence minister himself, then in Port Blair, issued a relatively conciliatory statement, presumably after a chat with Vajpayee. "It appears that there is a feeling in certain circles that I am not keen on an India-China dialogue to resolve the outstanding issues," he said. "During the Krishna Menon Memorial lecture on May 3, my emphasis was precisely on creating peace and amity between India and China and between India and Pakistan. Of course, I put the spotlight on the contentious issues with our neighbours with the purpose of making the Indian people conscious about them. This is because I believe that matters of national security must become people's concern." He denies that the PM spoke to him before he issued this statement.

BUT Fernandes is unstoppable. On his way back from Port Blair, on a question from a journalist in Calcutta whether India would reduce troops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China, Fernandes says he simply said "no", which was interpreted out of context. He told Outlook there is a process on between India and China for redeployment and reduction of forces which will continue. He has no problems with that. He denied that Vajpayee had pulled him up. More importantly, he has made it clear that he was expressing his personal views. He has told his confidants that he would continue to speak his mind on Tibet, China and Burma.

That is bound to create problems for the BJP-led government because Fernandes' views are completely in conflict with the government line. And perhaps sometime in future lead to political conflict. The Samata Party has of course announced that it is completely behind their president on China. And that's a problem for the BJP. "How do you control the president of a coalition party", asked BJP leaders.

The MEA has been kept busy watching every statement of the defence minister. Its May 6 statement, steeped in bureaucratese, was only a reaction to his comments in the TV interview and the lecture. New Delhi, it clarified, remains committed to the process of dialogue and "development of a friendly, cooperative, good neighbourly, mutually beneficial relationship with China, our largest neighbour". It also emphasised the growing economic ties with China.

Seeking to distance Vajpayee from Fer-nandes, it pointed to the fact that as external affairs minister in the Janata government, Vajpayee "had taken a personal and active interest in the normalisation of relations with China. It was at his initiative that the first understanding regarding maintenance of peace and tranquility along the India-China border was reached", a process which continues to this day. Whatever be the gloss put on this, Dixit notes the fact remains that the government has been forced to "eat George Fernandes' words".

The curious thing is that no one disagrees with the Fernandes formulation that China is a big threat to India. He has articulated a deep-rooted fear and suspicion of China in the Indian mind. In fact, his utterances have tremendous support among the bureaucrats in his ministry, the armed forces, particularly the army, strategic affairs analysts and the public at large. They are thrilled that he is calling "a spade a spade", as a senior defence official puts it.

But it is the manner in which he has gone about that has been seen as objectionable. An exasperated official described the spat between the defence ministry and the PMO and the MEA thus: "First you wake the sleeping dragon. When the dragon wakes up, you show the red rag; and as soon as the dragon spews fire, you run for cover."

Gujral, who has complimented Vajpayee for being a good student of foreign affairs, describes the "defence minister's diatribes" as smacking of adventurism. "His utterances and chauvinism are straining the country's foreign policy and generating a psychosis, particularly when neither the PM himself nor the MEA articulate the official policy to end the confusion," he points out. Says Dixit: "You may have a certain assessment of China, but if you want to counter it, do something about it instead of shouting from the rooftops. There is no point in making threatening noises, unless you have the coercive force to carry through your threats." Agrees Deshpande: "The whole exercise which started after the test of Ghauri missile, where Fernandes blamed the Chinese, is very speculative. There is a limit to speculation. The need is for action, not words." Yet another Indian diplomat also wonders if Fernandes' 'bluster', which can only raise temperatures, is necessary and if India has the necessary wherewithal to handle it.

While commentators agree that Fernan-des is being dictated by his personal agenda, some ask if he is playing the US game on Tibet. They warn that India should not fall in the US trap on Tibet as the US has long-term goals on Tibet and China. China's biggest worry about India is its potential for mischief on Tibet because the Dalai Lama is based here. It is not a coincidence that following that sooon after this entire controversy, Fernandes has received an invitation from the US defence secretary William Cohen to come to Washington for talks.

Fernandes certainly seems to have shaken up the Indian political and foreign policy establishment. The Congress has accused him of having a "super-agenda" of reversing the foreign policy consensus on building bridges with China, while the CPI(M) asked Vajpayee to explain how within six weeks the threat perception had changed. The Chinese are, of course, watching carefully. As Prof. Tan Chung, a former JNU teacher and now co-chairman of the Institute of Chinese Studies, says: "The Chinese have a long memory. Indians make statements casually, the Chinese don't." And the Pakistanis must be laughing all the way. A BJP government is at least busy paying more attention to the Chinese than to Islamabad.

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