Blend of realism & restraint

Dr. D. K. Giri
Atal Bihari Vajpayee left
deep footprints on
Indian politics in the
six decades of his political
activism. A great deal has been
written about his rich legacy by
his associates and observers. It
is perhaps in order that we
recall his unique contribution
to India’s foreign policy as he
began his Ministerial stints as
Foreign Minister in 1977-79 in
the government led by Morarji
Desai. Twenty years later he
became the Prime Minister for
six years, from 1998 to 2004
deftly guiding foreign affairs.
Vajpayee’s foreign policy
was a wonderful blend of realism
and restraint. He was conscious
of the need for India to
be on the world stage as a great
power to reckon with, at the
same time, he was aware that
India should deal with its smaller
neighbours with restraint, not
to indulge in over-reach or
chest-thumping. He was also
conscious of the RSS world
view and positioning India, as
well as the Nehruvian legacy of
idealism, non-alignment, fencesitting,
Vajpayee, in fact, discarded
both, and created his own
approach to India’s foreign policy.
He repudiated the ‘exclusionary
nationalism’ of RSS
that fragmented the domestic
basis of national power drawn
from Hindutva canons, and
Nehruvian isolationism drawn
from non-alignment, by declaring
that India and America are
natural allies; non-alignment is
antithetical to alliance making.
During 1977-79, Vajpayee
was the Foreign Minister. He
brought creativity and intellectual
flair into the foreign office,
much to the chagrin of the conservative
foreign policy establishment.
He was the first
Cabinet minister to visit China,
two decades after Prime
Minister Nehru had been. He
surprised his Chinese counterpart
as he announced that “the
border problems should not
constitute a hindrance to
improving our bilateral relations.”
That was an offer of
friendship, although Chinese
did not reciprocate then with
equal warmth and sincerity.
Vajpayee did not give up.
In order to regain the prestige
while retaining the autonomy
in foreign policy making,
his Janata Government recalibrated
non-alignment as “genuine
non-alignment”. A journalist
once asked him in a press
conference, “Foreign Minister,
are you tilted towards America
or Soviet Union?” Vajpayee
quipped, “I am not tilted anyway,
please watch, I am standing
straight.” Vajpayee, for the
first time as Indian Minister
spoke in the United Nations in
Hindi, a symbolic manifestation
of Indian nativism.
It may be recalled that relationship
with our neighbours,
especially Pakistan was at its
best during Janata period. An
anecdote goes that, when
Morarji Desai, then Prime
Minister came to know of Ziaul-
Haq’s plan to expand his
army, he telephoned Zia and
said, “General, why are you
spending money on expanding
the army, if your country is
ever under attack, my army
will be at your disposal.” That
heartwarming gesture by
Morarji melted General Zia.
No wonder Morarji was given
the highest honour of
Pakistan, Shan-e-Pakistan.
Behind such friendly posturing,
was the Foreign Minister,
Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Twenty years later,
Vajpayee became the Prime
Minister with greater power
and determination to re-shape
India’s foreign policy. Three
initiatives taken by him during
his premiership were outstanding
– the second nuclear
test in 1998, the Kargil war of
1999, and the outreach to
Pakistan. Vajpayee, as soon as
he took over as Prime
Minister, went from conducting
the six nuclear tests
announcing India’s presence in
the world as a nuclear weapon
India was not a signatory
to Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Treaty (NPT), so technically it
could do the nuclear test. But
the reaction from the world
was expectedly to be excoriating,
hence it had to be
extremely brave decision that
one had to take and Vajpayee
did. The five nuclear powers
were too guarded to allow any
other country to acquire
nuclear weapons due not to
lose their nuclear privilege
and for the inherent dangers
nuclear weapons carry.
However, Vajpayee knew it
too well that the currency for a
nation’s power is the nuclear
capability. He did not want
India to lose out on its quest
for being a world power, especially
vis-à-vis China, a
nuclear weapon State. Those
critical of Vajpayee for not
standing up to China were
rebuffed when he went singlehanded
for the nuclear tests as
an answer to China’s bullying
and belligerence.
Having done the test,
shown to the world India’s
prowess, Vajpayee immediately
went down the road of moderation
and restraint. He
announced an informal moratorium
on further nuclear
tests, and committed to nofirst-
use (NFU). Such selfrestraint
mollified many, upset
by India’s nuclear bravado,
and looked at the incident with
understanding and empathy.
The second issue is
Vajpayee’s outreach to
Pakistan. Many expected a
toughening of approach
towards Pakistan by a BJP-led
government. Vajpayee surprised
all those by his extraordinary
realism. He famously
said, “You cannot change
geography, meaning you cannot
change or choose your
neighbours.” He tried to drive
the point home by building
peace with Pakistan. He
jumped into a bus and headed
for Pakistan to build bridges.
As per the custom a dinner
was hosted in his honour. It
was reported that the atmosphere
was a bit tense. He diffused
the tension in a simplistic
answer to a query by one
journalist accompanying his
When the journalist asked
what his impression of the
dinner-talks was, Vajpayee
said, in a lighter vein, “I do
not know about the talks but
you do not get the gajar ka
halwa (carrot pudding) as
good as in Islamabad. He then
turned to General Musharraf
and asked, “Is it not,
General?” Such was the sense
of detachment and the ability
to generate good-will. His
Pakistan visit, however,
turned out to be a ‘fiasco’ as
Pakistan attacked India to
avenge India’s occupation of
the Siachin glacier in 1984 at
Kargil-Dras sector of J&K.
That brings us to the infamous
Kargil war of 1999,
which India decisively won.
But the way Vajpayee conducted
the war was a remarkable
display of aggression as well
as restraint. He declared that
not an inch of territory could
be ceded at any cost but the
LOC would not be crossed.
Such restraint was admired by
many international actors and
earned India the support needed
at that juncture.
Vajpayee’s foreign policy
was one of relaxed realism, a
blend of pragmatism and idealism,
a balance which is the
hallmark of India’s culture