'Bad domestic policy can never produce good diplomacy'

Print edition : August 03, 2002

K. Natwar Singh, Rajya Sabha member and Congress spokesman on foreign affairs, has been very critical of the National Democratic Alliance government's handling of foreign affairs. In an interview to John Cherian, the veteran diplomat discusses a range of issues relating to India's foreign policy and diplomacy. Excerpts:

The national consensus that had existed before the NDA came to power seems to be no longer there. What are your views on the conduct of foreign policy in the last three years?

India's foreign policy is nobody's private enterprise but India's recently removed External Affairs Minister treated it as his private enterprise. Contrary to the impression that has been created, he has been forced out from office. India remains a non-aligned country. Jaswant Singh was trying to jettison non-alignment till we prevented him from doing so. He was compelled to say in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha debates that India remains a non-aligned country. This he did when I asked him if India was a non-aligned country or not?

We are not asking for the non-alignment of the 1950s and the 1960s - that non-alignment is not very relevant now. Issues like imperialism, racism and colonialism have been resolved. We have run out of colonies, mercifully. But there is an agenda for the first decade of the 21st century - terrorism, AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), drugs, the problem of environment, refugees. These issues should be part of the agenda of non-aligned countries, and India should address these to revitalise the non-aligned movement. India should take the lead. Yugoslavia does not exist anymore. Egypt has its own problems, preoccupied as it is with the situation in West Asia. The OAU (Organisation of African Unity) has been replaced by the African Union (A.U.).

We have to re-invent non-alignment and while having the closest relationship with the U.S. in all fields, we must also tell them that we are a non-aligned country and that we are not their "natural allies", as the Vajpayee government has been saying. It is a meaningless phrase. If you are a non-aligned country you can't be a natural ally of a NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) power. If it is said that non-alignment is irrelevant, how is NATO relevant? The Warsaw Pact has wound up, the Soviet Union has collapsed but NATO continues to expand.

Has India in the last couple of years been bending over backwards to please the U.S.?

We are doing joint military exercises with the U.S. Who is the enemy? Mauritius, Sri Lanka or Malaysia? We are being dragged into a situation where we may come into conflict with the Chinese. No Indian government can do this because the people of India will not allow it. You see, 12 rounds of talks were held between Jaswant Singh and (former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State) Strobe Talbott. He was running after Talbott to Rome, London, Berlin, Washington, New York. It was humiliating. When Talbott went to Islamabad, he was met by the Pakistan Foreign Secretary - not the Foreign Minister. And then even after the U.S. Senate rejected the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty), Jaswant Singh continued to tout that we should sign it.

What do you say about Jaswant Singh's support for the Bush administration's national missile defence (NMD) plan and the new American military bases in Central Asia?

Jaswant Singh unilaterally took the decision while replying to a telephone call from Condoleeza Rice, the American President's National Security Adviser. After we questioned him on this he backtracked. When the Russian Foreign Minister questioned him in Moscow, he again backtracked. Igor Ivanov asked him, "what is the meaning of all this?" He (Jaswant Singh) has this compulsion to verbalise. Then he goes and welcomes the stationing of American troops in Central Asia and in Pakistan. After he came back from Lahore, he said that the Lahore Declaration was a "defining moment" in Indo-Pak relations. We had Kargil three and a half months after that. Indira Gandhi signed the Simla Agreement in 1972. There was no war till 1999 because Indira Gandhi did not lower her guard. Jaswant Singh and Vajpayee did.

Does the NDA government have a policy on Jammu and Kashmir?

They do not have either a policy on Jammu and Kashmir or a Pakistan policy. They said in 1999 that we would never talk to Musharraf till cross-border terrorism stops, till democracy returns to Pakistan. We said okay but also emphasised that sometime talks would have to start. The diplomatic doors should not be closed for all time. Then came the Ramzan ceasefire and the renewal of peace efforts. We gave our broad support. We agreed with the K.C. Pant mission but the government said that there would be no talks with Musharraf. Then, out of the blue, on March 23, 2001, it was announced that Musharraf has been invited to India for talks but cross-border terrorism had not stopped. Democracy had not returned to Pakistan. Flip-flop and a total absence of thought and deep analysis are evident. And we went to Agra without an agenda. Musharraf came with a one-point agenda - Kashmir. We had no agenda. This was obvious at Agra and India cut a very sorry figure at the summit. Agra was converted into a diplomatic chaotic mela with different people speaking in different voices. There were four positions in four days.

Jaswant Singh must be the only Foreign Minister in the world to escort three hardcore terrorists in his plane. This is not the Foreign Minister's job. This is the job of the Army, the Intelligence Bureau, RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) or the Home Ministry. Advani was against the jaunt of the External Affairs Minister. He said so. I have 49 years experience in diplomacy and foreign affairs and am still learning. Jaswant Singh was External Affairs Minister for three years and he thinks he is a foreign policy pundit. He totally neglected Asia, Africa and Latin America.

What about the excessive tilt towards the United States in the last three years?

I am very glad that his successor Yashwant Sinha is providing a corrective to Jaswant Singh's excessive enthusiasm for the U.S. The Congress has welcomed the improvement in Indo-U.S. relations but this NDA government can take no credit for it. It is the dynamics of the world situation that has brought about the change. Then the NRI (non-resident Indian) community is also playing a very important and active role. The foundation for the transformation in relations between the two countries was laid by Indira Gandhi in 1982 when she met Ronald Reagan in Washington. Rajiv Gandhi continued with this policy and so did P.V. Narasimha Rao.

India was among the first countries to offer the U.S. use of its bases after September 11.

After September 11, Jaswant Singh announced that he would give every help to the U.S. They had not asked for any help. The Arab Ambassadors were not even able to meet him. Then his great phrase - Indo-Pak relations are not hyphenated. Now they are, thanks to him. (U.S. Secretary of State) Colin Powell goes to Islamabad, then he comes to Delhi. Richard Armitage (U.S. Deputy Secretary of State) comes to Delhi, then he goes to Islamabad. (Defence Secretary) Donald Rumsfeld goes there and comes here and Jaswant Singh said that the relationship was not hyphenated. The Prime Minister realised he had to go. Jaswant Singh did not want to leave External Affairs. The broad foreign policy framework left behind by Nehru has stood us in good stead. There is no other foreign policy India can follow without becoming a satellite. The people of India will not allow this country to be a camp follower of any country, howsoever powerful.

The transformation of Indo-U.S. relations took place only in the last year of the Clinton presidency. When President Clinton arrived in India, he became the only head of a foreign government who said that Kashmir was a disputed territory. He said it in the Central Hall of Parliament. He repeated it at a press conference with Vajpayee. Why did Vajpayee not object? When Nelson Mandela, a great admirer of India, mentioned Kashmir among eight other areas where there was tension, at the Durban NAM summit in September 1998, they jumped down his throat and told him to apologise. When Clinton tells you that Kashmir is disputed territory, in the Central Hall of Parliament, you keep silent. What was the result?

When Mandela retired as President of South Africa in 1999, he went on farewell visits. He went to Russia, China and Pakistan. He did not come to India. This is the great achievement of Jaswant Singh. The Congress party is not saying that we should not take into account the present realities. Yesterday's enemy can be a friend today. All what we have been saying is that we continue with the country's independent foreign policy, emphasising on a re-invention of the non-aligned movement to deal with the problems of the next two decades.

The morale in the Foreign Office is so low. The former External Affairs Minister was reported to have said that there was no expertise available on Pakistan and China in the MEA. I have been saying that the expertise India has on China and Pakistan, no other country has. And here is your Foreign Minister showing disdain for people who have spent 35 years studying China and Pakistan. Jaswant Singh is an amateur and a novice and I think Vajpayee has to be congratulated on replacing him. He had a perfect opportunity to learn on the job by consulting Brajesh Mishra, a professional diplomat who has had more than 50 years of experience. I am glad that Yashwant Sinha has started with a visit to the neighbours like the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Should we restart talks with Islamabad?

They should send back our High Commissioner to Islamabad. They should let the PIA (Pakistan International Airlines) operate flights to Delhi and Mumbai. Every day Musharraf keeps saying he wants to talk to India. We keep saying no. What is your policy? Without talking to him how do you resolve this impasse? You have your troops along the border for the last eight months. How long will they continue to stay there? And why is this government giving excessive importance to Pakistan? The result is that Jammu and Kashmir is getting internationalised whether you like it or not. America is the third party. Britain is the fourth party. Musharraf is very pleased. You can deal with Jammu and Kashmir effectively and at the same time also practise the policy of benign neglect with Pakistan in certain areas. Pakistan has become an obsession with the NDA government.

Has the NDA government's handling of domestic politics had an adverse impact on the conduct of foreign policy?

Yes it has. Look at the damage Gujarat has done to our foreign policy. Had the Congress governments in Rajasthan and Maharashtra not been able to contain the communal fires, the consequences would have been disastrous for us in the Islamic world, particularly in the Gulf. It would take the governments there only 24 hours to pack off the Indians working there. They have no citizenship rights. If 40 lakh Indians are sent home, India and Indian Airlines will go bankrupt. The economy of Kerala will go down. Indians have good jobs there. Suppose the Arabs stop your oil supplies. And if we lose the billions of dollars in remittances from the Gulf, will Mr. Narendra Modi compensate us from his savings account?

They should know about the linkages between foreign policy and domestic policies. A bad domestic policy can never produce good diplomacy or good foreign policy. Rath yatras are products of an antediluvian mind. The country will have to function within the foreign policy framework laid down by Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao. And they have no right to inflict injury on the national consensus on foreign policy that has existed for over 50 years. We must further strengthen our relations with the U.S., the European Union, Russia, China and Iran.

Do you see any change in India's traditional West Asia policy?

Lukewarm responses have come out from the government when questions were asked in Parliament on the Palestine issue during the Jaswant Singh regime. Then he went to Jerusalem and said that India's West Asia policy was based on votebank politics. He has no idea that India's support for the Palestinian cause dates back to the days of our struggle for independence. We should have very good relations with Israel. It was Nehru's government which allowed the Israeli consulate to be opened in Bombay (Mumbai) and it was Narasimha Rao's government which raised relations to the ambassadorial status. But you cannot abandon the Palestinians.

I think that under the new dispensation things will change for the better. Yashwant Sinha was an IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer for 30 years. He is a very level-headed and balanced person. He will undo the damage done by his predecessor.

The distortions in diplomacy and foreign policy that had been introduced have to be corrected. He (Jaswant Singh) did not know the difference between foreign policy and diplomacy. Appointing B.K. Agnihotri as super ambassador was bad diplomacy. Escorting terrorists to Kandahar was bad foreign policy. Foreign policy is what you do, diplomacy is how you do it. I have a feeling that Yashwant Sinha understands this. So good luck to him.

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