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NATION'S PRIDE 

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BY K.P. NAYAR   |   Published 12.07.00, 12:00 AM

In the history of every nation, there are occasions when difficult times are remembered with pride for the way one leader or person in high office stood up for the country or its policies and upheld the nation's self-esteem. Indira Gandhi's years in office were replete with incidents when, faced with the most trying circumstances internationally, she refused to short-change the nation's pride or honour. The many crises which Indira Gandhi had to cope with during her long years in South Block have been surpassed only by the critical period that Atal Behari Vajpayee's government had to face following the nuclear tests in Pokhran two years ago. Two men in Vajpayee's administration stand out for the way they have helped steer the country out of the diplomatic challenges thrown up by the Pokhran tests. Without Brajesh Mishra, national security adviser and principal secretary to the prime minister, the outcome of India's post-Pokhran diplomacy might have been totally different. But his role as the prime minister's conscience-keeper - not to speak of a life-time of training as a diplomat - prevents him from speaking out in public about these achievements or even acknowledging them. Most Indians, for instance, calmly assume that Russia played a very supportive role after the nuclear tests and helped break the unity among the five permanent members of the United Nations security council in their collective opposition to Pokhran II. Such an assumption is far from the truth. One of Mishra's first visits abroad after the nuclear tests was to Moscow where he was received by Yevgeny Primakov, then foreign minister. Primakov, a KGB stalwart and a product of the Soviet system, had a reputation for being sympathetic to India. If Primakov was expected to receive Mishra with a warm bearhug, what Mishra got instead was a lecture on how wrong the Pokhran II nuclear tests were. It speaks volumes for Mishra's presence of mind and equanimity that he listened to Primakov in silence, but only for five minutes. The prime minister's principal secretary silently interrupted the Russian foreign minister by standing up and signalling that the meeting was over. As a stunned circle of officials from both sides watched, not knowing what to expect next, Mishra told Primakov that he did not go to Moscow to listen to a lecture of this kind. Had he wanted to be lectured to, he would have gone to Washington and met Madeleine Albright, Primakov's counterpart in the United States.Under the circumstances, Mishra said, there was little point in continuing the meeting. During all those years of 'Hindi-Russi' friendship, no Indian had ever spoken to a foreign minister in Moscow thus. Primakov knew he had reached a dead end and he immediately thawed. From that point onwards, the Russian attitude towards the Indian nuclear tests changed. It is anybody's guess what the Russians may have done along with the rest of the permanent five had not Mishra put his foot down in Moscow on that fateful day. A few months after this incident, Mishra went to South Africa, which was evangelical in its opposition to Pokhran II. Mishra had to go to South Africa because that country was to soon host the nonaligned summit and take over the chairmanship of the nonaligned movement for three years. A meeting of the Commonwealth heads of government was to follow. Mishra met an array of South African officials and ministers, most of whom were expectedly nasty. The situation was compounded by the ugly fact that Mishra did not know where L.C. Jain, the Gandhian appointed by I.K. Gujral as high commissioner to South Africa, stood although Jain was accompanying Mishra to all his meetings in Pretoria. Jain was against the Pokhran tests and made no bones about telling the South Africans as much. A point came when Mishra decided that enough was enough. The South Africans were planning to push NAM at its Durban summit into taking a stand against India - the very NAM which India had, for decades, considered to be part of its diplomatic fiefdom. It had to be stopped at all costs. At one meeting with the South Africans, Mishra abruptly threatened that if Pretoria persisted with its wholly negative attitude towards New Delhi, the Vajpayee government would break off diplomatic relations. How would it look, he asked, if Mahatma Gandhi's India broke off relations with apartheid-free South Africa? The South Africans were suitably stunned. If the Durban summit went off without any of the anti-India convulsions that Pretoria had planned with its friends outside NAM, it was because Mishra had the courage to stand up to South African bullying. The second person in the Vajpayee administration to have stood up to international bullying on the nuclear issue with creditable results is George Fernandes, the defence minister. Unhonoured and unsung, Fernandes contributed more than anyone else in the government towards stabilizing India's post-Pokhran relations with central Asia. Many of the countries in this volatile region were so confused by the Indian tests that while they were willing to go along with sanctions on India as long as it brought them benefits, they also did not want to lose out on the lucrative arms business which India offered. But more recently, Fernandes outdid himself on a visit to London. One of the programmes on the defence minister's itinerary in London was a meeting with Stephen Byers, chief of the United Kingdom's department of trade and industry, who did to Fernandes what Primakov did to Mishra. The minister had to listen to a lecture from Byers and Fernandes' reaction was typical. He bluntly told his young British interlocutor that he did not have to be told about British values, policies or compulsions. The minister told the British official that he had made his first visit to london when Byers was just three years old. Having said that, Fernandes turned on his heel and walked out on Byers without any formal goodbye. If Britain is now in the process of clearing 65 of 70 licences for arms sales to India, some of which have been pending since the May 1998 nuclear tests, it is at least partly because Fernandes refused to be cowed by someone whom he considered an upstart, to put it mildly. After the two year long successful run of its foreign policy, the Vajpayee government's external relations are being undermined by its desire to be all things to all people. The Mishra-Fernandes kind of responses based on self-confidence and conviction are being given the go-by in favour of a please-all policy, which involves compromises that strike at the root of what Vajpayee and his party have all along stood for. The ministry of external affairs is bending over backwards to prove that there is a quantum jump in India's friendship with the outside world and that leaders from all over the world are falling over each other in offering their hand of friendship to New Delhi. Such a policy is fraught with serious pitfalls. It is bound to unravel the moment there is a serious crisis or even a challenge nowhere as critical as the one that faced India after the Pokhran II nuclear tests. India cannot be and need not be friends with everybody at all times, an expectation which is wholly unrealistic. Take, for instance, South Block's reaction to the British decision to partially lift arms sales to Pakistan. The real challenge for New Delhi in this case is not the licences being cleared for Pakistan, but the highly successful visit made by General Pervez Musharraf's foreign secretary to London a fortnight ago. After that visit, the Tony Blair government has clearly concluded that Musharraf is a better option in Islamabad than another fundamentalist general - or mujahid - and that the only way to avoid such an alternative is to constructively engage the present junta there instead of isolating it. It is not the arms sales, but the British commitment to the foreign secretary to provide electoral assistance to Musharraf's programme of local elections in Pakistan, which actually cuts at the very root of an Indian campaign that the general needs to be isolated because he dons an olive green uniform instead of a trademark politician's apparel. Sadly, this is yet another case of South Block missing the woods for the trees. The coming week will similarly show, as Chinese foreign minister, Tang Jiaxuan, begins his talks in New Delhi, that China is another case in point where convictions have given way to expediency. Very little has changed since mid-1998 when Vajpayee wrote to President Bill Clinton citing China as the reason for India's nuclear tests. Nor is there anything to suggest that the defence minister's descriptions of China during that period have altered. If anything, the strategic threats to India from China have only worsened. In pursuing a please-all policy, South Block is only fooling the Indian people who will eventually have to bear the consequences of South Block's failure to stand up the way the Vajpayee government did in the months after the Pokhran tests.    


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