Debating India


A shaky start


Sunday 27 June 2004, by CHERIAN *John

After making a few controversial pronouncements initially, the External Affairs Minister has tried to reassure the nation and the world that the new government’s foreign policy will be based on broad national consensus.

EXTERNAL Affairs Minister Natwar Singh seems to have stirred up yet another controversy just weeks after taking office. On a visit to Washington, he said that the Indian government would take a "fresh look" at the question of sending troops to Iraq. During his first interaction with the media in early June, Natwar Singh had said that a seasoned diplomat always thought twice before answering questions. After taking over, he had virtually ruled out the despatch of Indian troops to Iraq, saying that many countries in the United States-led coalition had withdrawn their troops from that country.

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Rajan Devadas
External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell at the latter’s office on June 10.

It, therefore, came as a surprise when Natwar Singh, after a meeting with his U.S. counterpart Colin Powell, in Washington said: "Although there is a resolution of the Indian Parliament, in which we had given our opinion that we were against sending troops to Iraq, now the situation is changed." He went on to add that there is a resolution "unanimously passed and there are Arab members in it. We will look at it very carefully". However, the Minister did emphasise that he was part of a coalition government and that the matter "will have to be discussed by the government and by the Cabinet Committee on Security".

Natwar Singh was in Washington to attend the memorial service for former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. He had his first high-level contact with senior Bush administration officials during the visit. His comments on Iraq came after France and Germany refused the request of President George W. Bush at the G-8 summit for the despatch of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation(NATO) troops to Iraq.

Natwar Singh’s statement in Washington has come in for scathing criticism from the Left parties and also from parties like the Janata Dal (Secular), which support the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government from outside. "The Indian Foreign Minister’s ambiguous remarks in Washington have to be clarified. The Manmohan Singh government must make it clear that there is no question of sending troops to Iraq to bolster the American occupation," the JD(S) said in a statement. It added that the remarks of the Minister were "uncalled for".

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) Polit Bureau, in a statement, pointed out that for the past 14 months there had been an uprising going on in Iraq. "The Iraqi people have had no say in choosing their government. So, there is no change in the situation," said Prakash Karat, Polit Bureau member.

Congress spokesman Anand Sharma has, however, denied that the government is considering the despatch of troops to Iraq. There are reports that Congress president Sonia Gandhi has ticked off some of her senior Ministers, including Natwar Singh, for speaking out of turn on sensitive issues.

NATWAR SINGH’s comments on India-Pakistan relations immediately after taking over ruffled a few feathers, especially on the other side of the border. Natwar Singh was quoted as saying that the Simla Agreement was the "bedrock" of India’s policy towards Pakistan. In his interaction with the media on a visit to his home State of Rajasthan, he seemed to suggest that Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf should first consult his Foreign Minister before talking about the Kashmir problem and other issues relating to foreign policy.

Musharraf and the Pakistani establishment were taken aback when Natwar Singh suggested that the Sino-Indian border talks could be the model for the resolution of the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir. Top Pakistani officials immediately issued statements that the Sino-Indian dispute was in no way comparable to the dispute over Kashmir. Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid M. Kasuri issued a statement advising Indian government officials to "observe a rhetoric restraint regime to avoid misunderstanding and not conduct diplomacy through the media".

To his credit, Natwar Singh was quick to clear the confusion. Addressing the media in New Delhi in the first week of June, he clarified that while the Simla Agreement continued to be the "bedrock" of bilateral relations between the two countries, the Lahore Declaration of 1999 and the Islamabad Declaration of January 2004 would also be the basis of negotiations to resolve the Kashmir dispute. He also emphasised that the government had made no "policy statement" on adopting the Sino-Indian model of negotiations in its dealings with Pakistan.

Natwar Singh downplayed talk about his alleged hawkish tendencies and said that he had a deep commitment to the peace process with Pakistan. He said that the Congress-led government would follow a more consistent policy towards Islamabad as opposed to the policies of the National Democratic Alliance government. He affirmed that his government would not talk about a "decisive" war with Pakistan and then change tack by offering the diplomatic olive branch. He reminded the media that the Congress did not support the snapping of sporting links, the banning of overflights and the scrapping of train and bus links with Pakistan following the attack on Parliament House in December 2002.

The External Affairs Minister said that New Delhi was not "shying away" from discussing the Kashmir issue. At the same time, he was critical of Islamabad’s insistence on focussing primarily on Kashmir. He said that the government would avoid the "booby-traps and the high tension wires" that were characteristic of the relations between the two countries in the last five years. Natwar Singh also said that New Delhi would avoid the "personalised" style of diplomacy of the recent past. He pointed out that unlike in Pakistan, there is a "national consensus" in India on important foreign policy issues.

He said, rather undiplomatically, that India should not put all its eggs in one basket, in a reference to the NDA government’s excessive dependence on personalised diplomacy involving Prime Minster Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Musharraf.

Natwar Singh said that Musharraf was under threat from his own people. "If God forbid that something happens to the General, Pakistan does not have a back-up."

He announced that the Foreign Secretary-level talks between the two countries would be held in the last week of June to be preceded by an experts-level meeting on nuclear confidence building measures (CBMs) in New Delhi on June 19 and 20. It has also been announced that he will attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Foreign Ministers’ meet to be held in Islamabad in the third week of July. Natwar Singh is expected to meet the Pakistani leadership during the visit.

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Vino John
Prakash Karat, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member.

Interestingly, Natwar Singh reacted positively to the question of the gas pipeline from Iran. The previous government had misgivings about the project as the pipeline had to pass through Pakistani territory. He said that India would be willing to consider the project if Pakistan provided India with security guarantees. Islamabad has always been keen on the project, looking at it as a major CBM and also a revenue-generating enterprise. The Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman reiterated in the second week of June that his country was ready to provide the guarantees necessary to expedite the project. Major Indian companies such as Reliance are said to be more than interested in the project. The United States may not be too enthused with this particular India-Pakistan CBM. It would have preferred the project to be undertaken by the U.S. company UNOCAL, which wanted to pipe gas from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan and Pakistan. UNOCAL had, in fact, hired certain influential former Indian diplomats as consultants. One of them today is holding a pivotal position in the United Progressive Alliance government.

During his first formal interaction with the media, Natwar Singh also mooted the idea of India, China and Pakistan having a common nuclear doctrine. He was replying to a question regarding security in the region in the context of the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in 1998. Though he clarified that it was still at a "philosophical" stage, his public articulation on the subject caused some diplomatic ripples. The Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman politely described Natwar Singh’s idea as "a new and innovative proposal requiring examination". Beijing too reacted with caution.

DIPLOMATIC observers are of the opinion that Beijing will not be too happy with the Indian Foreign Minister equating the two South Asian countries’ nuclear programmes with that of China. China is a de jure member of the exclusive nuclear club. New Delhi’s proposal also puts the three countries indirectly in the same political league. Beijing perceives itself as a superpower-in-waiting. Natwar Singh, however, clarified that his proposal was based on the plan put forward by former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in the late 1980s for global disarmament.

Beijing, however, should be happy with Natwar Singh’s outright rejection of the previous government’s hurried welcome to the controversial anti-ballistic missile shield programme proposed by the Bush administration for Asia. It has been widely acknowledged that the plan is targeted at China. Natwar Singh, however, chose to absolve the NDA government of a foreign policy lapse; instead he placed the blame on "an individual". The External Affairs Minister at the time was Jaswant Singh. Natwar Singh said that the question about the country’s nuclear doctrine should be directed at National Security Adviser J.N. Dixit, but added that India’s nuclear programme was very transparent while Pakistan was running a clandestine proliferation programme.

NATWAR Singh, while emphasising the continuing relevance of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in international affairs, said that there was a need to draw a distinction between the concept of non-alignment and the Non-Aligned Movement. He pointed out that India was non-aligned even before the creation of NAM. He said that those who question the relevance of NAM should ask the West about the rationale for the continuing expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to Central Asia, more than a decade after the end of the Cold War. NAM, he said, should focus on the issues of the day, such as terrorism, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), poverty and important problems faced by developing countries.

Natwar Singh stressed that the new government would continue with the Vajpayee government’s policies towards Pakistan and China and would "improve" on them. The government, he revealed, was encouraging Chinese professionals to go to Bangalore to study software. He foresaw a huge increase in Sino-Indian bilateral trade. He also spoke positively about the idea of India, Russia and China getting closer in the international arena. He announced that J.N. Dixit would take over from Brajesh Mishra as the Special Representative for discussions with China on the border issue.

Natwar Singh has been going out of his way to dispel notions that he is by temperament anti-American. He has been telling the media that he wants to have the strongest of relations with the U.S. He seems to be willing to go the extra mile these days to show that his government values relations with the U.S. deeply. India was quick to accept the new United Nations Security Council resolution on Iraq passed in the second week of June. When the Congress was in the Opposition, the Bush administration had taken care to keep it in the loop on important issues. When Congress president Sonia Gandhi visited the U.S. along with Natwar Singh before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the two leaders were given a high-profile welcome in the corridors of power. It is no secret that the Congress was wavering initially on the question of the despatch of troops to Iraq. Sonia Gandhi had, in fact, refused to give an audience to the then Iraqi Ambassador in New Delhi for more than two years, despite repeated requests.

SENIOR diplomats who interacted recently with the new External Affairs Minister came back with mixed feelings. Many Arab diplomats were impressed with Natwar Singh’s openness and willingness to discuss issues on a one-on-one basis. His two immediate predecessors had time only for Western envoys. Many envoys from developing countries finished their terms in New Delhi without getting the privilege of meeting the Minister. African diplomats said that Natwar Singh was generally in a nostalgic mood when they met him as a group. He spent time talking about the heyday of Indian diplomacy during the eras of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.

However, they said that he had no concrete proposals to offer to sub-Saharan Africa. Some European diplomats added that he had also nothing much to say about India’s relations with the European Union. The envoys from Latin America were surprised when they were called for a meeting with the Minister along with diplomats from the U.S. and Canada. Natwar Singh then spent a considerable amount of time talking about the importance of India-U.S. relations. He did not delve into subjects such as NAM, though the next chairman of NAM is going to be from Latin America.

Many countries, especially those that won their independence after waging liberation struggles against colonial occupiers, were upset when the NDA government without any warning, de-recognised the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). The SADR is a full-fledged member of the African Union. The Indian government’s move at that time had disappointed liberation movements such as the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO), the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo), the People’s Liberation Movement of Angola (MPLA) and the African National Congress (ANC), which today are running governments in Namibia, Mozambique, Angola and South Africa. They, as well as most of the political parties in power at the Centre, would like the Polisario Front fighting for the liberation of Western Sahara be invited to open an office in New Delhi. A diplomat currently based abroad recalled that Natwar Singh had expressed shock and anguish at the NDA government’s decision to derecognise the SADR when they had gone to call on him. He was the Congress’ foreign policy spokesman at that time.

The Left parties criticised the government after President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s address to Parliament in the second week of June. They said that on some key issues of foreign policy, the text of the speech had meandered away from the Common Minimum Programme (CMP). The CPI(M) said that "undue importance" was given to ties with Israel in the President’s address.

The party is also of the opinion that the new government has been taken in by the U.S. hard sell on Iraq and the promises of restoring "full sovereignty" to that country. Polit Bureau member Prakash Karat said that the CMP, agreed upon by the ruling coalition and the Left parties, had only talked about extending "unqualified support to Palestine". He said that his party was against the continuation of the "special relationship" with Israel.


in Frontline, volume 21, Issue 13, Jun. 19 - Jul. 02, 2004.

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