PM has the opportunity to inject fresh momentum in the engagement with US and Pakistan. Will he take it?
If you compare Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s trip to America this week with that of his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee 15 years ago, a paradox stares at you. India’s economic weight and political standing in the world have risen remarkably over the last decade and a half. Yet, Singh’s diplomacy looks listless while that of Vajpayee radiated energy. Representing India at one of its most difficult moments, Vajpayee thought big and acted boldly to pull India out of a tricky diplomatic corner and alter the terms of its global engagement. Singh, who speaks for a much stronger India, appears irresolute.
In September 1998, Vajpayee arrived at the United Nations in New York to a hostile international audience, thanks to the five nuclear tests he had conducted four months earlier in May. In response, the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning the nuclear tests of India and Pakistan (which had followed a few weeks later), and demanding that the two countries roll back their nuclear and missile programmes.
Tensions with Pakistan were boiling over and there was a growing international perception that Jammu and Kashmir was the “world’s most dangerous nuclear flashpoint”. Any number world leaders, from America’s Bill Clinton to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, thought a forced mediation between India and Pakistan on Kashmir might be a good idea. Unlike Singh, Vajpayee was not invited to visit Washington. The US had imposed a range of nuclear sanctions against India in May 1998 and pressed Europe and Japan to intensify the economic pressure on India. Walking into this minefield, Vajpayee did two important things.
One was to leverage the shock of the nuclear tests to turn the ties with the US on their head. In New York, Vajpayee declared India and the US are “natural allies”. After the nuclear defiance of the US, Vajpayee was inviting Washington to a strategic re-imagination of bilateral relations. Vajpayee’s thesis offended not just the Left and sections of the Congress party, but also a large number of nativists