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Impressive foreign policy foray

Print edition : Oct 04, 1997 T+T-

Prime Minister I.K. Gujral's recent visit to Dar-es-Salaam, New York and Rome demonstrated a clear-sighted and well-crafted foreign policy at work, confirming a known strength.

N. RAM who accompanied the Prime Minister as part of the media team.

Thi khabar garam ke Ghalib ke udenge purze Dekhne hum bhi gaye the pa tamasha na hua. The hot news was that Ghalib would be torn to bits We too went to watch, but nothing at all happened.

WITH the bilateral meetings in New York, especially the one with U.S. President Bill Clinton, under his belt, it did not take long for Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral - given to Urdu couplets as mots justes - to recite this one from Ghalib and translate it for the benefit of this correspondent. And the presence of Pavan K. Varma, Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs and Ghalib biographer, helped eventually to arrive at a passable translation.

If foreign policy is, as is often argued in political analysis, an extension of domestic policy (more or less), then there is an interesting disjunction in the present Indian case. Domestic policy, as several recent articles in this magazine have made clear, is decidedly not an area where this second United Front Government has enhanced its stock and image. In any case, the new Congress Working Committee (CWC) in its recent New Delhi meeting has served notice on the country that it may pull the plug on the second United Front Government at any time, ostensibly on account of its inept domestic (including economic) policies and its "rudderlessness' and "drift" in office. Whether this notice represents posturing or serious political business is a question that cannot be answered yet.

Foreign policy, however, is the area of renewed bright performance for the U.F. In a Cover Story titled "Clear and Coherent: Foreign policy under I.K. Gujral" (April 4, 1997), Frontline characterised Gujral as "the most thoughtful and best External Affairs Minister India has had since Jawaharlal Nehru" and foreign policy under him, over a nine-month period (during the first United Front Government), as "the one really bright, exceptional area" of government performance. Prime Minister Gujral has proved this assessment sound through his first major foray in external policy, undertaken over eight days in September 1997. Its focus was a four-day New York visit during which he exchanged views with Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, the Foreign Ministers of China, France and Iran, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and other leaders of government, business and the intellectual world. If in the process the Prime Minister had occasion to cross swords with those who challenged India's basic interests or the principles of its foreign policy, he did it deftly rather than stridently or cuttingly. The consensus on board Special Flight AI 01, on the final Rome to Delhi sector, was that Gujral had done an impressive job, living up, inter alia, to the Ghalib couplet; more importantly, it seemed that the evaluation was widely shared in political India.

GHALIBIAN wit and irony notwithstanding, political India did well to keep a watchful eye, even an element of pressure, on the Prime Ministerial visit. This was partly a function of the somewhat murky atmosphere and background that surrounded the foreign policy exercise. One thing was the matter of dates.

The simple fact was that Gujral needed to advance the date of his arrival in New York, and consequently his address to the 52nd session of the United Nations General Assembly (originally scheduled for September 30), to accommodate Clinton's being in New York on September 22 - for his UNGA address on the opening day. Nawaz Sharif of course had no such problem, either in terms of dates (he too was scheduled to address the UNGA on the opening day) or domestic political sensitivities. But between themselves, the Prime Minister's Office and the Ministry of External Affairs had managed to create much confusion over a relatively minor procedural affair, putting the Government on the defensive over the purpose and substance of the meeting with Clinton and fuelling a political controversy over the whole visit.

After all, as Gujral pointed out to this correspondent over breakfast en route from Dar-es-Salaam to New York (the second leg of a long journey), top-level contact with the U.S. has been infrequent and why pass up the opportunity by not showing a little scheduling flexibility? But the way some sections of the press and political India have played it, "it is as if President Clinton can eat me up when I meet him. Or if I touch him, I will be a lesser Indian."

But this was not all. The proximity of the Clinton-Sharif, Clinton-Gujral and Gujral-Sharif "bilaterals" raised the spectre, in media and political India, of the U.S. muscling into the problematical India-Pakistan relationship - above all, into the Kashmir dispute - as a third party intervener or mediator. There was also background speculation that Clinton might favour Pakistan's demand, in the context of the recently stalled Foreign Secretary level talks, for a Working Group on Jammu and Kashmir. There were even fanciful suggestions that the U.S. might prod India in the direction of formalising the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir through an international treaty (actually, something that Pakistan is guaranteed to fight tooth and nail and that, in balance, will clearly be to the advantage of India). There was little doubt in any political commentator's mind that should Gujral signal to Clinton any compromise on Jammu and Kashmir along the speculated lines, his Government would fall immediately after the visit. (Except in conspiracy theory readings, there was no question of keeping any such move a secret, since there would be fairly comprehensive official briefings from both sides - not to mention what Pakistani officials or journalists, or Indian journalists, might pick up about such a dramatic development.)

THE apprehensions in political India did not seem entirely baseless. After all, according to informed and high-placed official Indian sources, "mixed signals" had been received from Washington about U.S. policy towards the India-Pakistan equation, the Kashmir question in particular. One signal had been that the Clinton-Gujral meeting would discuss bilateral matters and exchange world-views. The conflicting signal was that the U.S. wanted to "muscle in with a little bit of trilateralism", offering some kind of 'good offices' role between India and Pakistan, presumably on the question of Kashmir.

The stated U.S. policy views Kashmir as a disputed territory, the final status of which is to be determined through negotiations between India and Pakistan while taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It has welcomed the resumption in March 1997 of India-Pakistan official level talks and has formally reiterated that it does not wish to act as a mediator in the resolution of the problem. Simultaneously, Clinton administration officials have welcomed the application of the "Gujral doctrine" in the all round improvement of relations with all of India's neighbours, including presumably Pakistan.

The visit to India in early September of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, Karl F. Inderfurth, did make a difference to the interpretation of these "mixed signals". In New Delhi Robin Raphel's successor, an astute, low-key but accessible diplomat, is seen to be part of a new State Department team trying out, if not a new policy towards India, then a reoriented or re-tuned policy that will aim at a "strategic dialogue" and minimise the play of contentious issues which have created tensions in the bilateral relationship. What the U.S. wants India to do on Kashmir, non-proliferation and the missile programme has by no means disappeared from the bilateral agenda, but the intimation of differences, which are in themselves major and quite profound, has been less contentious, more polished, in lower key.

In case what was apprehended in some official and political quarters happened, Prime Minister Gujral was resolved to "steer clear" of anything suggesting a third party role on Kashmir or any 'good offices' between India and Pakistan in their problematical relationship. Had Clinton pursued the second of the "mixed signals" received in New Delhi, he would have heard something like this from the Indian Prime Minister: "We have established a working relationship with Pakistan and started bilateral discussions at a useful level. I'm following this closely myself and will be meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif tomorrow to see how a positive momentum can be imparted to this process. There are some hiccups now, but we want to be left to ourselves to sort these out. We do not want any third party role in our relationship with Pakistan."

As it turned out, the Gujral-Clinton meeting was non-contentious and quite positive in tone. (So, incidentally, was the Sharif-Clinton meeting, according to the Pakistan Prime Minister speaking at a press conference.) It helped, as Prime Minister Gujral noted factually to this correspondent, that "the word Kashmir was not uttered once in the meeting." A senior State Department official, walking across the road to brief the press minutes after the forty-minute meeting in the Presidential suite at Waldorf Astoria ended, revealed that while attempts to put the India-Pakistan dispute behind figured in the discussion (without Kashmir being specifically mentioned), President Clinton told Prime Minister Gujral: "We are very careful not to interfere in any way with the issues you have with Pakistan." It is this specific negative gain from the discussion - what was not said or pressed on the India-Pakistan relationship or on Kashmir - that enabled the Indian Prime Minister to recite Ghalib in the ironic mode to his advantage.