'We should have a consensus'

Print edition : July 18, 1998

Former Minister of State for External Affairs and diplomat K. Natwar Singh is the convener of the foreign policy cell of the All India Congress Committee. Shortly before Parliament convened to resume its Budget session, he spoke to Sukumar Muralidharan on the foreign policy implications of the Vajpayee Government's decision to adopt an overt nuclear posture. Excerpts:

The nuclear tests in May have irrevocably altered India's position in the world. Could you summarise your views on the diplomatic fallout from these tests?


When we detonated our device on May 11, the Congress party welcomed the scientific effort involved. With regard to the other aspects, we questioned the Government, saying please let us know what are the threat perceptions and why has this been done at this time. However, from May 13 till 28, the BJP was on a high - they had lost all sense of balance and restraint. They didn't really pay any attention to what the world was saying.

Then Prime Minister Vajpayee's letter to President Clinton, in which he had mentioned China and Pakistan, was leaked to The New York Times. There was an immediate reaction from the Chinese, but I do not think the Government took this too seriously, because they were on a high. Then when Pakistan exploded on May 28, the situation changed.

What happened with all this and with George Fernandes going on his own trip is that a parity was established for the first time between India and its neighbour. This is not a gain for the country. Secondly, from September 1965 till the first week of June, Kashmir had never been discussed in the U.N. Security Council. Kashmir has now come centre-stage. The BJP Government opened four fronts where we had closed all of them. Take China, they had not said a word about Kashmir since 1988. The border was quiet, there was peace and tranquillity. And President Jiang Zemin came here in 1996, after which he went to Pakistan and told them that Kashmir should be settled bilaterally.

Now, ten years of diplomatic work have been thrown in the dustbin. We have opened the Pakistan front, we have antagonised the U.S., and we have the possibility of having a China-U.S.-Pakistan axis, so much so that Clinton in his speech says that when India and Pakistan sit down and talk, China should also have a place at the table. Then we have the P-5, the G-8, the European Union - how are we going to cope with these? Obviously, no contingency planning had been done by this Government...

So you think this was an impetuous decision by the Government?

Yes, and Mr. Advani says that we will have hot pursuit. There are 55 Islamic countries in the world, with whom we have good relations. Let him try hot pursuit. The Security Council will be convened the same day, and we will be condemned. Islamic countries will simply switch off trade worth billions of rupees and 1.5 million Indian workers living in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia will be sent back. Who will foot the bill? The Sangh Parivar?

They talk about a proactive foreign policy. But they have not thought these things through. They had taken this decision in 1996 apparently, when they had a 13-day Government. But then there was no Ghauri, there was no Ghazni, there was no George.

So they are responsible for destroying the foreign policy consensus of 50 years. And it is their responsibility to try and reestablish this consensus. We have told the Prime Minister that we will help you on this. If pressure is put on us we will speak unitedly. But you got us into this mess. Everybody knew we had nuclear capacity, but we had not exercised the option for very good reasons. They have not been able to give any good reason for the change in their stance. If they take us into confidence, the Congress party is willing to cooperate.

In what way?

He should take us into confidence. He should call all the political parties and say, diplomatically we are in a bind. We need the cooperation of all the political parties. So we could send special emissaries to Pakistan and to China - not necessarily at the Secretary level. Look at our isolation today. Now the Prime Minister said that the Non-Aligned Movement at its conclave in Cartagena has taken a different stand. But there are eight non-aligned countries in the Security Council, and they have condemned us.

Has NAM as an organisation taken a different stand?

Eight non-aligned countries which are members of the Security Council have condemned us. So to say that NAM has done something else is neither here nor there. In terms of foreign policy, this Government has created a horrendous mess. Now they are acknowledging that they do not have experience, they do not have a full-time Foreign Minister.

It is reported that the diplomatic corps is very upset at the tone and contents of the letter to Clinton.

It is not done. Here is a large country with whom we are improving relations. And when did the Cabinet discuss this matter? As Gujral said in the House on March 19, when he handed over charge there was no threat. What happened between March 19 and May 11?

The inference could be drawn that the Ghauri missile was tested on April 6 and the go-ahead for the tests came on April 9 or thereabouts.

The next question is, will the Government sign the CTBT? And if they do, on what terms? We can wait till September 1999. But having tested now, are they planning to sign? Do we want to enter the nuclear club on equal terms with all the other five? I am saying that these five countries have no moral right to tell us what to do. They have broken all the rules. But what do we do now on the CTBT, because the treaty cannot be amended and it cannot come into force till India signs. The U.S. Senate has not ratified it. So where do we go from here? Are we going for weaponisation or not? We have a moratorium in place - a purely voluntary one. But how long does it last?

There is some talk of converting this voluntary measure into a de jure obligation.

The moratorium was announced by the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, who is not answerable to Parliament. It should have been announced by a Minister.

How do you think this de jure commitment could be formalised? Could there be - in the absence of accession to the CTBT - an Act or a resolution of Parliament?

When the grants for the External Affairs Ministry come up for debate in Parliament, we are going to have a full debate, and ask the Government what is your foreign policy. How is the damage going to be contained? And how are the consequences of sanctions going to be faced?

But normally the guillotine is applied on the parliamentary debate on grants.

On foreign affairs we can have a discussion under Rule 193. This is the most important issue facing the country. We have to work very hard to regain the ground we have lost since May 28. The Foreign Office proposes that we are willing to have talks with Pakistan on June 20. The Pakistan side says no, the date is not convenient. The sensible thing to say would have been to say we are willing to talk - so please tell us the date and venue that is convenient.

It also seems to be the case that they cannot agree on the basis for the discussion - there seems to be a conflict between the June 1997 agenda and the January 1998 agenda.

Now Mr. Clinton says that one of the main subjects that you will discuss will be Kashmir. How do we get out of this situation without any kind of coherent direction in the Government's policies, outlook, plans?

This is obviously a situation that cannot be undone. But what do you think would be a reasonable basis for a domestic political consensus? Is a renunciation of the weapons option a reasonable platform?

On this there has to be a national debate. There is the Rajiv Gandhi action plan - this could be updated. Then we could tell the nuclear weapon states - okay we will sign the CTBT and the NPT, provided you give us an assurance that you will never explode a device and you will start your disarmament along with us. All this has to be discussed. A political party with 170-odd seats in Parliament cannot take these kinds of decisions. They have to take all parties into confidence. We should present a united voice. I have told this to my European friends - that whatever our differences may be, when it comes to your pressuring us, then we are all one.

But the Government can utilise that spirit of unanimity to push through its own unilateral agenda.

We are telling them to put it on the table: what do you have in mind? The statement the Prime Minister made has nothing in it. Okay, he has said that we will have discussions with Pakistan. Let us see what happens when they meet in Colombo in July. One of the first issues they will raise will be Kashmir.

The last debate was not very productive in terms of building a consensus.

No, they kept oscillating. They could not answer any of the points the Opposition raised.

Meanwhile, the situation in Kashmir deteriorates.

Then you have this idea that only the BJP is patriotic and the rest of us are not. This is not mere presumption, this is the height of arrogance.

The letter to Clinton has been subjected to some scrutiny. It is well known that Clinton is facing a challenge from the right wing of the Republican Congress over his China policy. So was this letter an effort to recruit the sympathies of the right wing in America - a too-clever-by-half strategy that backfired?

I don't think they even thought these things through, because no Prime Minister would write a letter in that tone. These have to be extremely carefully drafted. Now in the letter you name China, but at the same time you say you want friendship and good relations with China.

You have also said that the 1962 conflict (with China) has never been fully understood or analysed.

There is no deep analysis, there is a tremendous amount of disinformation. The Chinese have not made available the records. There was a difference of opinion within the Chinese Government itself over why it happened.

Has the Indian Government been fully transparent about that event? There have been reports and evaluations which are yet to be made public.

That is what I am saying - for example, the Henderson Brooks report has not been made public. I think it was a disastrous decision on the part of the Chinese to have precipitated the 1962 events. But even in 1962, Nehru said that this matter would have to be sorted out through discussion. And we have been making progress in recent years. The Working Groups have been meeting, and discussing all these matters that George Fernandes has been raising.

What about the nuclear matter? There is a suspicion that the nuclear trigger used in the Pakistani test is essentially the same that China used in a 1966 missile test.

Then they should have prepared this country and they should have written in that letter to Clinton and ensured that it did not leak out - that this is what is happening. But there is no mention of this. They are now discovering new things every day.

There are certain national security matters which have never been dug out and debated - there is usually no question of even parliamentary scrutiny or Cabinet discussion on nuclear matters.

We are not saying that they should divulge all. Now that they have taken this step, Parliament would like to know what is the policy of this Government. They cannot go in for weaponisation privately - that is not possible. And if they are going in for weaponisation - will there be similar weaponisation in Pakistan? The Americans were able to destroy the Soviet Union because for all of 40 years, 25 per cent of the Soviet GDP was going into defence. So are we going to do that - are we going to try and do that to China? Are we going to try and match the Chinese arsenal? Or is it Pakistan that is the problem?

Do you think this is an adequate basis for consensus - that we renounce weaponisation or commit ourselves to a policy of no-first use?

What I am saying is that these issues have to be raised and debated. We should have a consensus - this is an important issue.

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