Revisiting Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy

Election season in India is about to take off. With 2019 General Elections less than a year away and Independence Day  around the corner, it is an appropriate time to revisit the foreign policy of India’s only full-term serving Non-Congress Prime Minister, Shri A.B. Vajpayee. It also makes complete sense to look back and evaluate his successes and failures because very soon the same debate about India’s current PM’s performance will also ensue, and comparisons between the two (Vajpayee and Modi) will inevitably be made. Therefore, the debate must begin by first analysing the performance of Mr. Vajpayee.

A Hostile Environment

The decade of 1990s was quite interesting, for both India as well as the world. While the world witnessed the end of cold-war rivarly with the disintegration of Soviet Union in 1991, India also made a massive leap forward when it decided to open its doors to the world by initiating the LPG (Liberalisation, Privatisation, Globalisation) reforms in the same year. For India, the outside environment, especially in the early part of 1990s, became quite hostile as it found itself almost friendless in an increasingly competitive international arena. Its only ‘friend’ (USSR) had ceased to exist while its successor (Russia) had embraced the US camp. In its immediate neighbourhood too, India faced several challeges such as the threat from growing China-Pak axis, political instability in the country, rise of communal politics after Babri Masjid demolition, etc. Overall, one can say that the decade of 1990s truly presented both massive challenges as well as unlimited opportunities to Indian people and its politicians.

Vajpayee’s first term as Prime Minister was rather bizarre as his government fell in just 13 days, but it was in his second tenure, that stretched from 1998-99, that he was put to real test. During this time India conducted its second series of Nuclear tests (Pokharan 2 in May 1998), which resulted in India facing US’s wrath in the form of stern economic and military sanctions. US even urged its closest allies like Australia, Japan and UK  to follow suit. This was India’s period of isolation as the world shut its doors on India. Yet, Vajpayee and his team resisted from taking any knee-jerk decisions and rather took mature and sharp decisions. One such decision was the decision to move against Pakistan’s infiltrators in Kargil in 1999. Even though Vajpayee was heading a care-taker government at this time, which usually is not required to take any ‘serious’ decisions, still, with the backing of the opposition parties, Vajpayee did what was necessary for safeguarding the core national interests of India. It was at this moment that Vajpayee actually gained prominence for showcasing his statesmanship. Even the US, for the first time, supported India’s stand in the Kargil conflict. Earlier, in a show of innovative diplomacy Vajpayee had enthusiastically taken a bus journey to Lahore as well.

Rich and Powerful Friends

The most remarkable thing about Vajpayee’s foreign policy was his efforts to forge strong partnerships with rich and powerful countries of the world. He made efforts to befriend the US, which ultimately culminated in the signing of what is famously known as the ‘Vision Document’ of 2000 by India and the US. This agreement emerged during the US President Clinton’s state visit to India in January 2000. It was after a gap of 22 years that a US President was visiting India. Vajpayee reciprocated it with a visit to US, the same year in September. Thus, Vajpayee’s administration could well be credited with laying down the foundation of what is today a very robust India-US partnership. Besides, during his time, India also cultivated strong ties with various other countries like,Russia, Iran and multilateral groupings such as ASEAN and the EU. The Moscow Declaration signed between Vajpayee and Putin in 2001 also marked the beginning of a close security, and trade relationship with Russia.

Besides these successes, there were certain missed opportunities as well. One notable failure was the unsuccessful Agra Summit with Pakistan’s then President General Pervez Musharraf in 2001. Within months of this meeting, an attack on Indian Parliament by terrorists allegedly supported by the Pakistani state soured the relations. In a final analysis, it could however be said that given the unpredictable environment of the 1990s, Vajpayee was able to steer the Indian ship through difficult waters. He laid down firm ground on which his successors could build robust relationships with a diverse group of nations. His style was a unique one of a blend of personal charisma and institutionalizing partnerships through formal mechanisms. As far as the question of what Modi can learn from Vajpayee’s experiences, one can safely say that the latter must try to learn the art of balancing personal diplomacy with the institutional diplopmacy, an art that the former undoubtedly mastered.

Contributed by Kunwar Suryansh

Picture Credits : Indiandefensenews

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