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Interview: full text

"BJP Couldn’t Tell Foreign Policy From Diplomacy"

Monday 7 June 2004, by SUDARSHAN*V.

India’s new minister for external affairs brushes aside those who see him as a relic from the Cold War era. As for being a hawk—or a dove—he says we’re running a foreign policy, not a bird sanctuary.

Two days before Indira Gandhi was assassinated, K. Natwar Singh went to her to discuss his political plans after taking premature retirement from the Indian Foreign Service. He told Mrs Gandhi that his first task would be to acquire a new wardrobe-khadi kurta-pyjama, Nehru jacket, the Congress livery. Mrs Gandhi responded, "Now that you are coming into politics, a thicker skin would be more useful." Natwar Singh seems to have taken her advice seriously. On his second day as India’s new minister for external affairs, he met V. Sudarshan at his residence in Teenmurti Lane and brushed aside those who see him as a relic from the Cold War era. Interview over, he sat on the swing for a photo session to show that he is still young at heart.

First of all, their ministers didn’t know the difference between diplomacy and foreign policy. Foreign policy is what you do; diplomacy is how you do it. The handling of Pakistan was very erratic. In five years Mr Vajpayee made five U-turns. And the Congress Party had given the Vajpayee government broad support on policy towards Pakistan, security and defence.

Whenever they terminated the dialogue, we always said you must keep the diplomatic door open, don’t cut it out.

"They say Natwar Singh is a hawk. I don’t understand this language of hawks and doves. We’re running a foreign policy, not a bird sanctuary ."

One day he goes to Lahore in the bus, we welcome it. His foreign minister comes and says in the Lok Sabha, on 27th Feb, 1999, that the Lahore meeting was a turning point in Indo-Pak relations. Well, after four months, you had Kargil. Some defining moment!

I can give you any number of examples. The fuss he made about going to Islamabad—no, I will not go; I will not meet Musharraf, I will only shake hands with him; it will not be a substantial meeting, nothing will come out of it. Who are you kidding! Look at the fiasco at Agra. These are professionals. No foreign minister in the world takes down little notes and tells the press that "I am coming back in five minutes" but doesn’t return for five hours.

They went into Agra without an agenda. Musharraf came with a one-point agenda. No foreign minister in the world has escorted three hardcore terrorists in his own aeroplane to release them. It is unheard of. The neglect of Africa, the neglect of Latin America...

And the tilt towards Israel...?

The Congress Party upgraded relations with Israel to ambassadorial level in 1992. We are all for having close relations with Israel but not at the cost of ignoring the legitimate rights of Palestinian people. This has been the Congress stance on Palestine before Independence.

What about the appointment of Bhishma Agnihotri as ambassador-at-large for NRIs?

Here again, no understanding of what foreign policy or diplomacy is. Just to accommodate one of their—whatever he is—favourites in the United States. It’s unheard of that there should be two ambassadors of any country in India. Even when the Americans said that they wouldn’t give him a diplomatic passport, we persisted. Now we are going to close it.

Are you going to close down the office?

Of course.

And scrap the post?

Of course

Are you also going to go into the overseas funding of the VHP and the Bajrang Dal?

I have no idea. I haven’t yet looked into any papers. But there is going to be no witch-hunt. We don’t believe in that. But we are going to put things that went wrong, right. We have to do things in the interest of India, not in the interest of a political organisation or a particular party. The foreign policy of India is not anybody’s private enterprise.

What about the exercise of Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas? Are you going to modify it anyway?

We have now appointed a ministry which is under Jagdish Tytler, and he’s going to look at it.

I will tell you, in the first meeting that took place, Mr L M Singhvi was the moving spirit. Sir Sriddath Ramphal —a most distinguished person from the West Indies, Guyana, of Indian origin, who was the secretary-general of the Commonwealth for 15 years, and had been foreign minister—was not invited till Manmohan Singh reminded Singhvi: please do something. A booklet was brought out about those who visited Trinidad, Tobago, Guyana. There was just no mention that Indira Gandhi visited in 1968. I went with her. The only Indian Prime Minister to visit Trinidad, Tobago and Guyana was in 1968.

"f NAM’s irrelevant, is NATO relevant? What is it doing in Afghanistan? " This is distortion, and displays a total lack of historical knowledge, and of understanding the roots of India’s foreign policy.

Do you agree with the joint statement that was issued when Vajpayee met Musharraf in January?

Well, you see the thing is this. Vajpayee went to Kathmandu where he was like a sour individual. When Musharraf shook hands with him, Vajpayee did so reluctantly. We should have the bigness to say, fine, we are a bigger country. Then the flip-flops. On May 16, 2003, Atal Behari was in Gangtok. There he said that he will have no talks with Pakistan until cross-border terrorism ends. Forty-eight hours later, Vajpayee was in Srinagar and said, ’I want to extend the hand of friendship.’ What has happened in 48 hours? No answers.

Take Iraq. Mrs Sonia Gandhi wrote to the Prime Minister on June 5 last year. She said: "We hear you are sending troops. You can’t do this unless we have a national consensus and unless they are under the United Nations flag." Supposing the troops would have gone, what do you think would have been their fate now? The BJP has not said a word until today.

Do you think under the BJP government the Americans have managed to insinuate themselves into the matrix of Indo-Pak relations and the neighbourhood?

The Congress Party is committed not from today but from the time of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao to have very close relations with the United States for obvious reasons. In the last decades very talented, gifted Indians have settled down there, made a mark and they are playing a role in the American national scene. It’s wonderful... in science, technology, defence, education, everything. There were certain hiccups, sanctions in 1998, dual technology. But I think they will be ironed out.

And the Americans have also realised that India is essentially a very strong country, and it is in their interest to have good relations with us. We welcome this, and we will carry this further. This idea that there may be a third-party interest in all that ... but there is no doubt that Americans have influenced Pakistan with regard to having a dialogue with India. They have used their good offices. It is not necessarily that they are a third-party. But they needed Pakistan for Afghanistan, and since Gen Musharraf turned 180 degrees, they persuaded him to be more realistic when dealing with India.

You know, we can sit it out. I don’t think Pakistanis can sit it out indefinitely. It is in our mutual interest to have good relations with Pakistan. We have welcomed the improvement in the last few months. And we have always been emphasising on this. Now you see the Lahore declaration of 1999 produced Kargil in four months. The Shimla Agreement signed in 1972 ensured peace till 1999. The Shimla Agreement and subsequent agreements and declarations provide the framework in which we can discuss everything including Jammu and Kashmir and the nuclear question.

A new dimension has been added since 1998 when both countries became nuclear powers.And now it is absolutely essential that we have best of relations. And the Manmohan Singh government has already made it clear that we look forward to continuing the process, we will take it forward and it will be multi-faceted.

And the differences we have will be ironed out through negotiations, friendly talks and cooperation. How quickly will we restore the original staff strength of respective Indian and Pakistani High Commissions?

It’s a matter of detail. We will just find out. It’s not a major problem.

Do you have any new initiatives that you will put into the dynamics of Indo-Pak relations?

You see I have been in for only two days. I’ll have to look at the papers. But we were never in favour of stopping cricket matches. We were not in favour of the train being stopped, bus service being stopped, airways... Why? Now they want to take credit on the cricket. This is no way to conduct foreign policy.

Aar-paar ki ladai: why is this kind of verbal overkill resorted to? You had Operation Parakaram, we were there at the border for eight months. Then we came back. Why did you send your troops? Why did you come back? Didn’t you ever think about it? What did you achieve? What were these great people doing? Every pronouncement that came from the United States, even before anybody discussed it, we welcomed it.

Like our response on the National Missile Defence?

I know people in the BJP themselves were not too happy about it.

Are there any aspects of the relations with the United States that you will like to think through before going forward?

We will have the closest relations with them. We will enlarge them, we will widen them, we will expand them, we will deepen them. If there are any differences, these will not be aired in public. Because if you are really friendly with each other, as friends we have the right to tell them when we think they are doing wrong, and vice versa. There will be no public pronouncements. We had a different role when we were in opposition. We have a different now that we are in government. The bottom-line is, nothing will be done which adversely affects India’s vital national interest.

Will we make our feelings plain on the new UN resolution on Iraq?

We are not member of the Security Council, so we are not directly involved. But we are involved as an important member of the UN. When the American ambassador met me, he spoke about this resolution. And when UK foreign secretary Jack Straw spoke to me over the phone, he too referred to the resolution. The resolution text has just come, it hasn’t been tabled in the Security Council. We will have a look at it. If our views have to be conveyed, we will convey it. But we have to study the resolution carefully.

If I understand you correctly, we would send troops to Iraq only if there is a national consensus and under a UN mandate.

And also it should be asked by the duly elected government of Iraq.

How do you respond to the criticism that you bring an old world view to the new world order?

I don’t have to respond to such criticism. Such criticism means nothing to me. I keep myself intellectually and scholastically upto date. I am more aware of the complexities and the intricacies and the hazards of the 21st century than all of these people put together. If I am not mistaken, most of them have stopped reading books after passing their college exams.

Is there any specific way that you work NAM more relevant?

Let’s be very clear. The non-aligned movement needs to be restructured and renovated to make it relevant to the agenda of the first decade of the 21st century. The non-aligned movement and non-alignment are not synonymous.We were non-aligned before NAM was born. Non-alignment means you have an independent foreign policy. And you take steps to safeguard your vital national interest without injuring the interests of other people.

This needs a great deal of skills.

NAM needs reform and change. The international agenda of the 1940s was different from the 1960s and 1970s. Forty years ago the great questions were apartheid, colonialism and imperialism. It is all over. You have a new agenda now. These are financial, terrorism, ecology, AIDS, population. Non-aligned countries should get together and assert their view in the UN etc.

In the Organisation of African Unity and the Commonwealth, we must engage other countries in this, in a peaceful and cooperative manner. We must engage G-8. Let us engage them in the reform of the Security Council. Asia, Latin America and Africa are represented by one country—China. The western world has USA, France, UK and Russia. This is totally undemocratic and unrealistic. Let us all get together and talk about it.

If non-aligned is irrelevant, then how is NATO relevant? The Warsaw Pact has disappeared, but NATO been extended to the border of Russia. NATO troops are in Afghanistan. What has the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation got to do with Afghanistan, where 99 per cent of the people have never seen a sea, let alone an ocean? They say Natwar Singh is a hawk. I don’t understand this language of hawks and doves. We are running a foreign policy establishment, not a bird sanctuary.

Do you think it is time to remove the ban on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam?

We have to examine it very very carefully. Because the leader of the LTTE is implicated in the Rajiv Gandhi murder case, and the Supreme Court has indicted him. And this has to be looked at very very carefully.

Could you identify priority areas you will focus on immediately?

I already have. I have invited heads of High Commissions and Embassies in the SAARC countries. They are coming in four days. Our ambassador to Nepal is already here. I have invited our ambassadors in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they will be here in three days. And ambassadors in ASEAN countries will also be here in a month. We have been out of office for eight years; the world has changed since then. So we want to hear their assessments and we want to put across our views as to how the Manmohan Singh government looks at the world as it exists today.

Take, for example, China. We can take some credit for the breakthrough in 1988 when Rajiv Gandhi went there. I was also there. Panditji had gone there in October 1954. When Rajiv Gandhi was there, the Chinese, master diplomats as they are, said, ok, we have this border problem, let us put it aside, let us go ahead in other areas. This has worked. Even on the border, we have had peace and tranquility for 15 years.

Let us remember that in 2000 years of our history, India and China had one conflict in 1962. An in-depth analysis of why this happened hasn’t been done by either side. We will now celebrate 50 years of Panchsheel. I keep telling our Pakistani friends, you are very friendly with China, why don’t you follow their example? They put the border aside, there’s a mechanism for dealing with that issue of border. Why are you harping on Kashmir and blocking everything? Let us put Kashmir aside; it doesn’t disappear, but let us get on with everything. Now the atmosphere is such that public opinion in Pakistan is ahead of their government. The public opinion of India was also ahead of the Vajpayee government.

Under the Vajpayee government the focus of talks with China shifted to the Prime Minister’s office. Will there be a course correction there?

The MEA, if I am not mistaken, was bypassed to some extent—on major issues, it was bypassed.We didn’t need a National Security Adviser till the May 10, 1998. On May 11, we became a nuclear power, so did Pakistan two weeks later. A whole new dimension appeared on the horizon of India’s foreign, defence, security and strategic policies.It’s so important a question that you need a fulltime person dealing with these aspects,. JN Dixit is just the right person for it—he is intellectual, he is experienced, he is cerebral. He understands this. So there will be no crossing of wires. He will be a great asset.

What will be the Natwar Singh stamp on India’s foreign policy?

The stamp that Jawaharlal Nehru had put, stays. We are small people, standing on the shoulders of a giant.

As India’s new foreign minister, what do you think are the main qualities that should guide you?

An accomplished diplomat thinks twice before saying nothing. It is the duty of every foreign minister and every ambassador to increase the number of friends and well-wishers of India, and reduce the number of critics. And that we shall try to do.


Edited excerpts from this interview appeared in the print issue.

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