February 22, 2020
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Rogue Letter

How did Vajpayee’s missive to Clinton get past the MEA?

Rogue Letter

IT was meant to be a letter to explain India’s strategic reasons for the nuclear tests. But what it did was to set off a fiery exchange with China, so what if the epistle wasn’t even addressed to the Chinese. If Indian diplomats are baffled by the letter Prime Minister Vajpayee wrote to President Bill Clinton after the tests, the government is angry with the US Administration for leaking it to the media. But, who drafted this poorly written letter? And how did this letter get past the ministry of external affairs?

Vajpayee explained to Clinton that India was concerned about the deteriorating security environment, especially the nuclear scenario in the region. Without naming China, he said, "we have an overt nuclear weapon state on our borders, a state which committed armed aggression against India in 1962" and that this country had helped "another neighbour of ours" to become a covert nuclear state.

While it is still not clear who penned it, MEA officials are aghast at the way it was written. Says J.N. Dixit, former foreign secretary: "The specific reference to China should not have been there. The letter, read in conjunction with Fernandes’ provocative statements, has contributed to the process of reversing the relations between India and China." Argues another former foreign secretary, Muchkund Dubey: "In projecting the imperatives that drove us to conduct the test, it was necessary to spell it out. That China poses a threat is a strategic reality. However, the language that was chosen could have been a bit diplomatic."

 Giri Deshingkar, China specialist, is harsher: "The letter could have talked about our insecurity in a nuclearised world without citing China or Pakistan. But some whizkid might have thought it better to appeal to the US Congress because Clinton is seen as pro-China. Otherwise, how does one explain something which is so patently foolish."

As for informing the MEA, it is now clear that foreign secretary K. Raghunath was not consulted. But the government seems to have learnt its lesson. Sources say the letter sent to other governments held a balanced viewpoint—and was worded infinitely better.

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