A diplomat and a strategist

Published : Jan 28, 2005 00:00 IST

Jyotindra Nath Dixit, 1936-2005.

WITH the passing away of Jyotindra Nath Dixit on January 2 at the age of 69, the country has lost an astute diplomat and foreign policy expert. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that the nation had lost a "true patriot, a great diplomat and wise strategist".

"Mani" Dixit, during his illustrious career in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) witnessed momentous events in the region firsthand in the 1960s and the 1970s. Dixit himself played an important role in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

A Malayalee by birth, Dixit had his higher education in Delhi. From the outset, he was a keen student of international politics. After doing his masters degree in a Delhi University college, he got admission in the newly started Indian School of International Studies, headed by the doyen of international studies in India, A. Appadorai. In the late 1960s, the school merged with the Jawaharlal Nehru University. A prolific writer, Dixit wrote more than nine books on international relations and Indian foreign policy, besides hundreds of articles.

During his 36 years in the IFS, most of his postings were in India's immediate neighbourhood. He started his career when Jawaharlal Nehru was the Prime Minister. As a young IFS officer, he became a trusted aide of Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, during the tumultuous years that saw the break-up of Pakistan and the formation of the new, independent state of Bangladesh. Indira Gandhi appointed him India's first High Commissioner to Dhaka.

He was also High Commissioner in Islamabad and Colombo and Ambassador in Afghanistan. In between, he served as the spokesperson for the External Affairs Ministry from 1979 to 1982. His tenure in Sri Lanka coincided with the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) in the island republic. Sections of the Sri Lankan elite and the media described him as the Indian "viceroy" in Colombo. While serving in Pakistan he earned a reputation for being a tough interlocutor. Dixit had played a key role in the negotiations that almost led to a breakthrough on the "Siachen glacier" issue, in the late 1980s when Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto were at the helm of affairs.

Dixit's reputation for being a "hawk" in matters of protecting perceived national interests was reinforced after he became India's Foreign Secretary in 1991. He had an important role to play when certain basic tenets of Indian foreign policy were radically revised after P. V. Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister. The Soviet Union had collapsed and India suddenly found itself quite lonely in international forums like the United Nations.

During a recent informal meeting with a group of journalists, Dixit said that India was forced to review its foreign policy owing to the harsh realities of the times. As an illustration, he said that when the issue of Kashmir was raised in the U.N. Security Council by Pakistan and its backers, a Soviet veto was guaranteed along with the support of the Socialist bloc for the Indian position. After the demise of the Soviet Union, New Delhi could not take this support for granted any more. Dixit also emphasised that the Indian government had no other option but to look expeditiously for new defence relationship, owing to the growing unreliability of Soviet arms supplies.

Dixit played an important role in building close relations with the U.S. after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Washington started adopting a more nuanced position on Kashmir. By the mid-1990s, Washington had started distancing itself from Pakistan. Dixit is given a lot of credit for helping to preserve India's nuclear option in the early 1990s. The Clinton administration had wanted both India and Pakistan to "roll back and cap" their nuclear arsenals and missiles.

Joint military exercises involving American and Indian armed forces started being held at regular intervals from the mid-1990s. Dixit had said on many occasions that he considered the U.S. a "benign" world power and he gave the utmost priority to the emerging "strategic partnership" with Washington. To Dixit's credit, he also pushed for strategic relations with the European Union (E.U.) and continued to express strong support for a multipolar world. India's successful "Look East" policy also started during Dixit's tenure at South Block as Foreign Secretary. New Delhi rebuilt its bridges with Myanmar. Dixit made no secret of his suspicions about the growing Chinese economic and diplomatic clout in the region.

India started giving lower priority to the Non-Aligned Movement and generally to the concept of South-South cooperation as it tried hitching its wagon to the West.

Dixit had a big role to play in the building up of the close diplomatic and military relationship with Israel. Until 1990, New Delhi had taken a principled stand on the issue of Zionism and the state of Israel. This policy started undergoing a radical change after Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister. Today, Israel has emerged as the second biggest seller of weaponry to India. The relationship between the two countries intensified when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led alliance was in power.

The Left parties supporting the present United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, in which Dixit was the National Security Adviser, had called for the review of ties with Israel because of the country's continued occupation of Palestinian territories and human right violations. The new Congress-led government, on the other hand, seems keen to intensify the relations with Israel. Dixit held the opinion that there should be continuity in foreign policy and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government's policy on Israel was only a continuation of Narasimha Rao's foreign policy.

AS National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister, Dixit's duties included monitoring all important activities of the External Affairs Ministry, the Defence Ministry, the Department of Atomic Energy, the National Security Council secretariat and the two intelligence agencies - the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) and the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). The National Security Adviser's powers included the right to take notes relating to meetings of the Cabinet Committee on Security on subjects relating to either internal or external security. Observers of the diplomatic scene were of the view that Dixit was emerging as a "Brajesh Mishra". Brajesh Mishra, the National Security Adviser to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had a virtual stranglehold on foreign policy-related decision-making during the five years of the NDA rule. Dixit, like Mishra, was India's principal negotiator with China on the border issue. At the same time, he was conducting back-channel negotiations with his Pakistani counterpart, Tariq Aziz, on the even more thorny Kashmir issue. Dixit, a glutton for work, was also busy formulating the country's new military and nuclear doctrines. At the time of his untimely demise, he was coordinating the Indian government's response to the gargantuan tragedy triggered by the "Tsunami" in South and South-East Asia.

From available indications there seems to be a rethink about the role and powers of the National Security Adviser after the passing away of Dixit. M.K. Narayanan, the Special Adviser on Internal Security to the Prime Minister, has been assigned the duties of the National Security Adviser "until further orders". Narayanan has told the media that his additional assignment is only an "interim measure" taken by the Prime Minister. There are reports that the Prime Minister is seriously thinking of redefining the role of the National Security Adviser. The External Affairs Ministry could be given a freer hand in running the country's foreign policy with the National Security Advisor playing second fiddle, as is the case currently in the U.S. Tributes came in from many foreign capitals. The United States Ambassador in India, David Mulford, noted in a condolence message that Dixit "throughout his distinguished career, played a central role in improving U.S.-India relations, most notably as Foreign Secretary in the early 1990s and recently as National Security Adviser". The governments of Pakistan and China were also quick to send messages of condolence to the Indian government.

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