IT was an eagerly awaited speech. Global leaders were curious about what prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had to say on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Especially after Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif had offered to sign on the dotted line, subject to the lifting of sanctions imposed on Islamabad after its nuclear tests in May.
In his speech to the UN General Assembly on September 24, Vajpayee offered a cleverly nuanced statement of intent not to delay the treaty coming into force by September next year, but making it contingent on the "successful conclusion" of the discussions India is having with "key interlocutors" (read the US) on "a range of issues", including the CTBT. Vajpayee left no one in doubt that while India would not stand in the way of the treaty coming into force on schedule, the onus was on "other countries" to adhere to the treaty "without conditions".
The message was clear. Now that India had harmonised its national imperatives and security obligations, it was involved in a dialogue with the US on a range of issues. This, he indicated, must end satisfactorily before India accedes to the treaty. Apart from the CTBT, the issues under discussion include suspension of sanctions and easing of technology transfers and export control restrictions.
More interesting was Vajpayee's hint that while India was willing to fall in line by September 1999, "other countries" could trip up in ratifying the treaty on time. Indian officials explained the reference was essentially to the US, given the difficulties the Clinton administration faces in the Congress. Officials noted that Senator Jesse Helms, the powerful chairman of the Senate International Relations Committee, has been credited with the statement that the test ban treaty would be ratified "over my dead body".
Indeed, observers say even if the administration does hammer out a deal with Congress, Capitol Hill may once again seek to ratify the CTBT with conditions, as happened with the Chemical Weapons Convention, though this is not permitted under the treaty. Bill Clinton, who stands politically weakened by the sex scandal, may find it even more difficult to get the Senate on his side. Hence, by saying, "we expect other countries...will adhere to this treaty without conditions", Vajpayee chucked the ball into the US' court. But many observers, especially the American media, saw Vajpayee's statement that India would become part of the treaty as a response to the Pakistan prime minister a day earlier, who had urged that India too be brought within the ambit of the treaty.
Vajpayee's statement was a carefully crafted formulation, with Indian officials working on it till just before it was delivered. Indian officials have been closely monitoring Clinton's difficulties and factored these in when reviewing the progress of the negotiations with the US. The prime minister has repeatedly pointed out that the CTBT will depend on the outcome of the talks with Washington.
But this nuanced statement also was meant for Vajpayee's critics back home, who question the wisdom of negotiating on the CTBT. In the light of what the prime minister said, one can see a method in claims by the scientific advisor to the defence minister, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, and Atomic Energy Commission chairman R. Chidambaram that India need not conduct any more tests and that there was nothing wrong in signing the test ban treaty.
Congressional sources from both sides of the political aisle here welcomed the Indian decision not to upset the CTBT ratification schedule. One congressional analyst said: "I have seen some reports that the Indian atomic scientists have no objections to the CTBT and that they are capable of subcritical simulation. If that's the case, then the Indians have got it all wrapped up—they perhaps have a few tactical points to swing their way in their discussions in Washington." Another congressional aide who tracks South Asian affairs remarked: "We seem to be in the season for some good news from South Asia. We have the Indians and Pakistanis talking; Vajpayee and Sharif seem to have gotten over their objections to the CTBT; but the concern in my mind is: is Washington ready to give these developments some real momentum? Clinton is crippled—he's a lame duck. And that to me is pathetic."
Commenting on Vajpayee's presentation, secretary of state Madeleine Albright said: "Obviously much remains to be done." She mentioned, for example, the actual signing and ratification of the treaty, as well as the strengthening of export controls by both countries and other steps needed to bring India and Pakistan into full compliance with global arms control agreements.
UN secretary-general Kofi Annan too welcomed Vajpayee's statement that India would not delay the entry into force of the CTBT. Annan had reacted similarly to Sharif's pro-CTBT address to the General Assembly.
THE New York Times, meanwhile, reported that some Senators had accused Clinton of bargaining away sanctions on India in return for New Delhi's support for the CTBT. In a letter to Clinton last week, three Republican senators—Jesse Helms, Trent Lott (who is the majority leader) and Jon Kyl—said they opposed lifting sanctions as a price for adhering to nuclear agreements. "As the recent Indian nuclear tests demonstrated, the CTBT is not adequately verifiable," they wrote. They also opposed the export of high-tech goods to India and sharing scientific information that can be used in nuclear programmes. However, it was unclear whether the letter was written before or after Helms and some of his Senate colleagues met with Jaswant Singh on September 22.
Interestingly, Vajpayee pointed out that India had already accepted the basic obligation of the CTBT by announcing a voluntary moratorium on further underground nuclear tests. But by referring to the September 1999 deadline, he signalled that India was in no hurry to rush into the treaty. Besides, as Jaswant Singh, who is spearheading the talks with US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott, pointed out later, Vajpayee's statement was "sufficiently indicative of the movement of the discussions with the US". It was a rejection of the resolutions passed by the P-5, G-8 and the Security Council soon after the nuclear tests condemning India and Pakistan for the tests. Indeed, Indians have given enough hints that the Americans have since come around to accepting a minimum nuclear deterrent and India's security concerns. But the Americans have also given enough hints that their dialogue with Pakistan is making better progress than with India. Their national security advisor said as much a few days ago in response to a question on why Clinton had met Sharif and not Vajpayee.
But addressing the UN, once again in Hindi, was not the only important engagement of the Indian prime minister. Equally important was his meeting with Nawaz Sharif on September 23, where they agreed to restart the stalled bilateral dialogue.
In fact, Vajpayee took everyone by surprise when he suddenly walked in to address the international press immediately after his meeting with Sharif. His upbeat and optimistic persona was in sharp contrast to his fatigued look after his meeting with Sharif in Colombo. He handled the press with elan, rarely evading any question. He spoke of the new route being planned between India and Pakistan in the Rajasthan sector between Monabao and Kho-khrapar, the need for improved economic cooperation, the direct road route between Lahore and Delhi, relaxation of visa rules, and the revival of the hotline between the two prime ministers. He said the dialogue heralded a new chapter in bilateral ties.
He made it clear that New Delhi wants Clinton to visit India, "but we would like him to come in a positive atmosphere"—that is, when the sanctions issue has been resolved. Washington is bound to note this because various US officials have been saying the president's visit is still under review. It is also a message from the highest quarter in India that Clinton's visit could not be held out as a bait to entice India into signing the CTBT. It is also a recognition by New Delhi that an embattled US president may be in no position to get the sanctions lifted and export control regimes eased.
Unfortunately, Vajpayee's optimism about restarting the dialogue was not matched by the Pakistani delegation. Pakistani foreign minister Sartaj Aziz told Outlook after the Sharif-Vajpayee talks that it had to be seen whether bilateral talks would lead to the resolution of the Kashmir problem through substantial discussions or whether it "was a dialogue for the sake of a dialogue".
Aziz said that for Pakistan Kashmir remained the core issue and talks could not proceed if India stuck to the position that it is an integral part of India. He disagreed with Vajpayee's statement to Indian journalists that Pakistan had failed to link Kashmir to the nuclear issue. "Read our prime minister's address to the UN," Aziz said. Sharif devoted considerable space to India, Kashmir and the tensions in South Asia, linking them to the nuclear issue.
But these reservations could be seen as a natural defensive mechanism on the part of the Pakistanis about the possible failure of the dialogue. You don't have to be very insightful to realise the two sides have an inflexible position on Kashmir and no easy solutions are possible. It helps to express reservations, especially when Sharif agrees to talks with a BJP prime minister, what with the political tinderbox he faces back home in Pakistan.
IN fact, the agreement to restart the dialogue marked a change from the stand taken by New Delhi at Colombo, where the talks had ended on a rather acrimonious note. Indian officials were loathe to concede that India had changed tack. At Colombo, the Indians had emphasised that its "approach all along had been for a broad-based and composite dialogue which will move the relationship forward across a broad front". That is, New Delhi was against restricting discussions to Kashmir and peace and security, the first two items of the June 1997 agreement between the foreign secretaries. The fear then was that if India were to start discussions on these two issues, leaving the others for a later period, as demanded by Pakistan, Islamabad would have leeway in discrediting the whole process by saying that since no progress could be made on these issues, third party involvement was advisable.
Since then, there has obviously been a rethink. Critics back home are bound to ask what the government has got in return. But it is also argued that for the BJP to agree to the talks is good policy, because of the way it is perceived by the Pakistanis, whatever the end result. In fact, Jagdish Bhagwati, professor at Columbia University, points out that only the BJP could arrive at a worthwhile deal with Pakistan. Says he: "It's like only Nixon could make the deal with (communist) China. In the same way it's only the BJP that can pull off an agreement with Pakistan."
According to the schedule worked out by the two foreign secretaries, they will meet from October 15 to 18 in Islamabad to discuss peace and security, CBMs and Kashmir. In the first half of November, other issues will be taken up—Siachen (defence secretaries), Wullar barrage/Tulbul navigation project (secretaries, water and power), Sir Creek (additional secretaries, defence/surveyor generals), terrorism and drug trafficking (home secretaries), economic and commercial cooperation (commerce secretaries) and promotion of friendly exchanges in various fields (culture secretaries).
But India still faces some severe tests—in one of the UN committees dealing with disarmament, it is likely that the nuclear tests may be brought up in a way posing a formidable challenge to Indian diplomatic skills. The seat in the Security Council that India is seeking is almost out for the moment. Vajpayee has taken two decisive steps in two action-packed days. He has clearly put his stamp—perhaps for the first since the tests—on foreign policy. But this is just the beginning.
Sunil Narula with Narayan D. Keshavan in New York