Originally Published 2015-01-05 00:00:00 Published on Jan 05, 2015
Former NDA prime minister Vajpayee kept the professional hawks in the national security establishment and the conservatives in his own party BJP at bay in the making of India's foreign policy. It is not clear if Narendra Modi can sustain a similar freedom of action for his government.
An unclaimed legacy
Turning Atal Bihari Vajpayee into a national icon does not necessarily mean the BJP and RSS appreciate his diplomatic legacy, especially towards the neighbours. In opposition during the decade-long UPA rule (2004-14), the BJP did everything to undermine former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's pursuit of Vajpayee's bold international agenda. Whether it was the attempt to end India's prolonged nuclear isolation, deepen the partnership with the United States, normalise relations with China or improve relations with the neighbours, especially Pakistan and Bangladesh, Manmohan Singh followed in Vajpayee's footsteps. If the Congress party was reluctant to support Manmohan Singh, the BJP turned hostile. During the election campaign, Modi invoked Vajpayee's name when talking about India's foreign policy. Modi's critics saw this as a tactic to rebrand the Gujarat chief minister as a moderate. While Modi continued to surprise with his broad adherence to the contours of Vajpayee's foreign policy, his capacity to persist is being tested by the extremist trends in the extended RSS family. When the BJP manifesto generated some confusion on the question of India's nuclear doctrine, Modi moved in quickly to insist that his government would abide by the principles of nuclear restraint outlined by Vajpayee. Unlike the BJP in opposition, Modi has recognised the dangers of playing politics with the historic civil nuclear initiative. The PM has affirmed his determination to find a way around the nuclear liability act that has prevented domestic and foreign suppliers from participating in India's atomic energy programme. Modi, like Vajpayee, sees a strong partnership with the US as central to the pursuit of India's international interests. Despite the decade-long denial of an American visa, Modi took the first opportunity to visit Washington and arrest the slide in bilateral relations that had occurred during the UPA's second term. In inviting US President Barack Obama for the Republic Day celebrations next month, Modi is being true to Vajpayee's surprising proclamation in 1998 that India and the US were "natural allies". Modi has also followed Vajpayee in departing from Delhi's conventional wisdom on China and Nagpur's long-standing hostility towards Beijing. As the external affairs minister in the Janata government of 1977-79, Vajpayee began the effort to normalise relations with China that had frozen after the 1962 war. When he became prime minister two decades later, Vajpayee worked out a new political framework for negotiating the boundary dispute with Beijing. Modi has now added a new dimension by making China a critical element of his strategy to accelerate India's economic development. He also seems ready to emulate Vajpayee's policy of improving ties with the neighbours. As foreign minister, Vajpayee was the first senior Indian leader to travel to Pakistan after the 1971 war. He pressed for normalisation of relations with Bangladesh that went into a deep chill after the assassination of its founder, Bangabandhu Mujibur Rahman, in 1975. Modi's special outreach to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and his promise to implement the important land boundary agreement that Manmohan Singh had negotiated with Bangladesh, suggested that the new PM was acutely conscious of the strategic imperatives of a good neighbourhood policy. The bonhomie between Modi and Nawaz Sharif, however, did not last too long as tensions continued on the border and Delhi suspended the dialogue with Pakistan. It was protesting against the contact between Pakistan and the Kashmiri separatist groups on the eve of formal talks between Delhi and Islamabad. Vajpayee faced a much more difficult situation than either Manmohan Singh or Modi when dealing with Pakistan. He had to fight a limited war to repel Pakistan's aggression in the Kargil sector in the summer of 1999. When he took charge, cross-border terrorism was rampant. No major power in the world was willing to support India's contention that Pakistan was sponsoring terrorism across the border. Against great odds, Vajpayee persisted with the normalisation of bilateral relations with Pakistan and the exploration of a framework for the resolution of the Kashmir question. Vajpayee's patience and a constructive approach to Pakistan paid off in the greater international support for India's position. There was widespread expectation that, as a strong leader, Modi was in a better position than Manmohan Singh to pursue the peace process with Pakistan. But those hopes receded as Modi put the brakes on the engagement with Pakistan. He also appears to be having problems in keeping his word to Bangladesh on the ratification of the LBA, given the opposition from his own party units in Bengal and Assam. Vajpayee kept the professional hawks in the national security establishment and the conservatives in his own party at bay in the making of India's foreign policy. It is not clear if Modi can sustain a similar freedom of action for his government. Vajpayee was convinced that Delhi's pursuit of hegemony over the subcontinental neighbours was counterproductive. Even more important, he understood that India's foreign policy must be deeply sensitive to the multiple tragedies triggered by the Partition of the subcontinent along religious lines. Vajpayee also saw the profound interconnection between religious harmony at home and relations with Pakistan. His opposition to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and deep dismay at the 2002 Gujarat riots, his efforts to bring peace to Kashmir and normalise relations with Pakistan and Bangladesh were part of one important recognition: India's hopes for peace and prosperity, and its aspirations for a larger role in the world are deeply tied to the restoration of the subcontinent's strategic unity. This in turn, Vajpayee knew, depended on overcoming the bitter consequences of Partition. Despite Modi's claim to Vajpayee's strategic legacy, the latter's understanding of the subcontinent's past and his vision for the region's future appear to have little resonance within the BJP and RSS.  
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation and a Contributing Editor for The Indian Express)
  Courtesy : The Indian Express, December 30, 2014
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