April 04, 2020
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Win Some, Lose Some

If Vajpayee's American visit could have been better utilised, the Paris stopover was a success

Win Some, Lose Some

AS soon as Air-India One took off from Paris' Orly Airport, a tired but happy prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee walked out of his suite to 'thank' the journalists who had accompanied him on the eight-day trip to New York and Paris. He was clearly satisfied with the visit. He said India had come a long way since the nuclear tests, and that there was a visible change in the way other countries viewed India. Now, the PM explained, opinion-makers accepted the fact that India needed to go nuclear because it had legitimate security concerns.

As Vajpayee gloated over the visit, the Americans prepared to announce the 'postponement' of president Clinton's visit to the subcontinent later this year, essentially because India and Pakistan hadn't done enough to move towards nuclear non-proliferation. They didn't want the 'postponement' to look like a punishment, which seemed a rather presumptuous remark.

Earlier, a day after Vajpayee's address to the UN General Assembly where he showed a willingness to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and not delay its entry into force beyond September 1999, another important—but downplayed—event had taken place in Vienna. The International Atomic Energy Agency passed a resolution expressing "grave concern and strongly deploring" India (and Pakistan) for the nuclear tests in May 1998.

A resolution India and Pakistan had tried to block, protesting against its overtly political nature. After all, the IAEA is an organisation concerned with technical matters. In the end, the P-5 also chose to abstain, for the resolution called on them to fulfil their commitments on nuclear disarmament under the NPT and to intensify their efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally. But this was small comfort for India. Fact is both India and Pakistan came in for some rough treatment. Obviously, Vajpayee's statement in the UN had had no impact in Vienna.

This is a warning bell. New Delhi should prepare to face more flak in the UN, where its First Committee is likely to debate the N-issue in some detail beginning next week. In all likelihood, it will pass another unpalatable resolution. Already, there are countries gunning for India and Pakistan.

As for Clinton's thwarted visit, two points are noteworthy. First, that Indian officials are not particularly unhappy about the postponement, and privately admit that a presidential visit can't be held as a bait to rush India into any non-proliferation commitments. Second, and the more significant point, is that the US administration chose to make public Clinton's plans after Vajpayee had left US shores and after he had sent positive signals on the CTBT.

In New York, Americans made no attempt to engage Vajpayee in any interaction, the Indian side also didn't show too much interest. This despite the fact that secretary of state Madeleine Albright was there the same time as Vajpayee. Indian officials offer a rather simplistic explanation for having no meetings with Americans—"it was a scheduling problem".

The postponement also belies the optimistic spin put on the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott talks by the Indians. It's an indication that Singh isn't making headway as far as removal of sanctions or easing of controls on technology transfer is concerned. The PM himself noted that the US was not agreeable to any technology transfers yet.

If any more evidence was needed, White House press secretary Mike McCurry was quoted by a news agency on October 2 as saying that there could be no quid pro quo, that the administration would consider lifting sanctions only if the two South Asian neighbours sign the CTBT, improve bilateral ties and meet other US terms 'unconditionally'.

HAVING said this, there is no doubt that a major gain of the bilateral dialogue has been that the US is believed to have come round to accepting the Indian need for a minimum N-deterrent. It is also not insisting on India abandoning its nuclear programme. But India still has a long way to go.

Vajpayee's stay in New York was dominated by meetings with Indian Americans, particularly of a saffron hue. He did hold meetings with leaders of several countries, but Nawaz Sharif apart, there was nothing substantial in them. The resumption of dialogue with Pakistan suits both countries, because both were under tremendous pressure to clear the air. Otherwise, nothing explains why India changed tack and agreed to resume the dialogue on virtually the same terms as demanded by Pakistan in Colombo during the SAARC .

Only one day, the last in fact, was set aside for Vajpayee's meetings with American opinion-makers, journalists and businessmen. In fact, his meeting with the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations had to be cancelled because the council was sending a very low-level delegation. This was certainly not a scheduling snag, but a problem of finding "influential" Americans to meet the Indian PM. Indian officials countered this by handing out the list of participants at the PM's three meetings on the last day, starting with a breakfast organised by ex-secretary of state Henry Kissinger, followed by meetings with the Asia Society and American businessmen. But this was just not enough. A much more aggressive and focussed strategy is required to influence American opinion-makers. That is what they understand.

They also understand plainspeak, which is what Vajpayee did at the Asia Society. "I must confess to being baffled by the unsatisfactory current state of relations between our two countries...all of us here would agree that the full potential of our relationship has not been realised in the last 50 years." He pointed to the American reluctance to accept India as a responsible member of the international community, whether in Afghanistan, or the AsiaPacific, or the UN or the NPT, in which "the US does not appreciate and accommodate India's interests and concerns". But this was only the Asia Society and Vajpayee's visit could have been utilised better to bridge the gap with the US.

 Vajpayee had reason to be happier with his Paris stopover. Originally billed as a transit stop on his way back home, it turned into a full-fledged state visit. In fact, the initiative shown in Paris gives a lie to the argument that scheduling was the only problem in New York in setting up important meetings. It also speaks for the nature of Indo-French relations in recent months. The ties have seen a definite upswing in the last couple of years.

Vajpayee met president Jacques Chirac and prime minister Lionel Jospin—both sides decided to initiate a strategic dialogue. Chirac and Jospin often don't see eye to eye, but seem to have no difference where India is concerned, say Indian officials. The French have their reasons, largely commercial. They are keen to sell civilian nuclear technology to India; India is keen to buy it. With the US having grabbed the Chinese market, India is the next best option. But the French, who have always maintained a fairly independent foreign policy, would want India to take some steps as far as the CTBT is concerned, before they could ease their regulations to supply this technology. For the moment it's tied down by the various N-control regimes to which its party.

India needs French help at the moment. It's the only P-5 country which did not condemn India. But it would be unwise to forget what the French did to Pakistan in the mid-'70s. The French had tied up with Islamabad to sell reprocessing technology only to back out under US pressure. Of course, quite hypocritically, the Americans turned a blind eye to Pakistan's N-programme because by 1979, the Russians were in Afghanistan and Pakistan was a frontline state.

So, while Vajpayee may feel satisfied with his trip abroad, foreign affairs need more focus—but for that we need a foreign minister, to begin with.

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