If there were a diplomatic equivalent of the sensitive index which reflected the reactions of foreign governments to developments in India, by now it would have crashed more precipitously than the fall of the Bombay Stock Exchange over the past few days.
China was the first country to respond to the election results in India, which saw the National Democratic Alliance move to the Lok Sabha’s opposition benches.“No matter who takes office, I hope China-India relations will continue to enjoy further development,” the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao, said within hours after it became clear that there would be a new government in India. “I know that the Indian government and Indian people and the Chinese government and people share the common spirit for furthering the relations between our two great countries — India and China,” he said.
There are no surprises in what Liu said. His comments are the sum of what to expect from any foreign office — for the record. What is surprising, though, is the uncharacteristic alacrity with which China responded to the poll results. It is not difficult to see why.
Some time after the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government ordered nuclear tests in May 1998, the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, called in opposition leaders for a briefing on his decision to take India on the road to nuclear status. Somnath Chatterjee, leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the Lok Sabha, came out after the briefing and told reporters that Vajpayee had “assured us” that the nuclear tests were not aimed against China.
On June 8, 1998, the CPI(M) politburo member, Sitaram Yechury, delivered the ninth V.P. Chintan Memorial Lecture in Chennai. He lambasted the Vajpayee government for damaging India’s relations with neighbours by ordering Pokhran II. The very next day, with the characteristic haughtiness of the Middle Kingdom, China demanded that “India must immediately and unconditionally accede to NPT [Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty] and CTBT [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty].” As if he was elaborating on the Chatterjee-Yechury thesis, the Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesman insisted that “India conducted its nuclear tests in an attempt to seek hegemony in south Asia. Moreover, it spread the ‘China threat’ argument everywhere. India’s aim is clear to all.”
Although India has scored impressive economic progress in the last five years — which even detractors of the BJP cannot dispute — it is no threat or even serious competition to China. But the leadership in Beijing, which is doggedly pursuing its objective of becoming a superpower — hoping eventually to catch up with or even overtake the United States of America — is not so sure if that is, indeed, the case. The Chinese are fearful of some of India’s strengths. In any case, they do not want any competition from New Delhi, especially in southeast Asia, which it considers to be its backyard. On Sunday, the China Daily hit the nail on its head when it recalled that “the outgoing Vajpayee government has shown…an undisguised resolve on many occasions to pursue more powerful status for the country”.
Despite the recent progress made in Sino-Indian relations, Beijing has never been comfortable with the BJP-led government, which in many ways, is cast in China’s own image and policies. Yet China has engaged India in a variety of ways during the NDA rule precisely because it believes that the best way to know and influence India is to do so.
But China knows that it can rest easy when there is a government in New Delhi in which the likes of Chatterjee and Yechury have the veto power. While the official Chinese reaction to the change in government in New Delhi is standard diplomatese, it masks the sense that the true feelings in Beijing are somewhat similar to those in Moscow when Indira Gandhi was returned to power in 1980. The crucial difference is that the Soviet Union was a friend and ally — like Russia in the post-Soviet era. China, on the other hand, is India’s strategic competitor at best, a potential enemy at worst. And judging by what the foreign policy bigwigs in the Congress are already saying, the incoming government’s China policy will be dictated by a single point agenda: the need to prove that the process of improving Sino-Indian relations was started by Rajiv Gandhi in 1988.
Election time in a host country is when diplomats have to be at their schizophrenic best. They have to tell their governments the home truths: not just the poll prospects, but also what they truly think about the players at the hustings, especially those who are likely to be in the next government. Yet, these diplomats have to pretend — so do their bosses back home — that they are hands-off, mere dispassionate observers of a process being played out in front of them.
Right now, the diplomats having the biggest heartburn in New Delhi are at the Israeli embassy on Aurangzeb Road. Indo-Israeli relations blossomed under the NDA government. P.V. Narasimha Rao recognized the potential of the relationship with Tel Aviv, and, as prime minister, set in motion a truly historic initiative to change course in dealings with Israel. But he was a prisoner of his “secular” party, Muslim lobbyists and their vote-bank, in his inability to even openly acknowledge some of the things he started with Israel.
Indo-Israeli relations under Vajpayee have been characterized by give and take, but on balance, there has been more take than give. When the history of relations between these two countries is chronicled, it will be recorded that the outcome of the Kargil conflict in 1999 may have been quite different if it were not for what Israel did for India. Unfortunately, Ariel Sharon has made it easy for those in the incoming government who are looking for excuses to put the clock back in ties with Israel. Any such blunder would have serious consequences for Indo-US relations as well. If Sonia Gandhi has doubts on this score, Siddhartha Shankar Ray could give her a few tutorials: it was during Ray’s ambassadorship in Washington that the seeds of friendship with Israel were planted, neither in Tel Aviv nor in New Delhi, but in Washington. Not even a fraction of what has been achieved in India’s engagement of the US would have been possible without help from the Jewish lobby in America.
Like the Chinese, the Americans have paid the usual diplomatic lip-service to the change in India. But to find America’s true feelings about the change in New Delhi — and its fears — one must look elsewhere. Some of it found its way into print in The Washington Post on Sunday. Two-times-Pulitzer-Prize-winning columnist, Jim Hoagland, wrote that “positive outcomes — integrating India into the global economy or improving New Delhi’s relations with Washington, for example — may still be attained under the new coalition government to be run by the Congress party. But the prospects for either are less promising than they would have been under Vajpayee, who was president [George W.] Bush’s most unlikely strategic partner abroad.”
And then, Hoagland put into words thoughts that would have crossed the minds of many presidential and prime ministerial advisers around the world when they learned about India’s electoral verdict. “A personal regret is that the BJP defeat removes from office the wise and patient Brajesh Mishra, Vajpayee’s national security adviser, who was key in implementing India’s belated but rapid opening to the world,” wrote Hoagland.
“Mishra was one of the first important Asian security officials to be invited to speak at the annual Munich Conference on National Security, also known as the Wehrkunde conference, about five years ago. In our chats there and elsewhere since, his gravelly voice, gentle manners, wise words and shining pate reminded me of the Yoda character in ‘Star Wars’. But this time the force was not with him, nor with his boss.”