Review Article (From January 2005)
Strobe Talbott, Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb, Penguin, Viking, pp 268, Rs395.
A “transformation” is the term of art applied to the outcome of diplomatic processes between India and the U.S. over the last few years. That indeed was the theme of a brochure issued by the U.S. embassy in India late in the summer of 2004. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell introduced the publication with references to the pivotal roles played by Atal Behari Vajpayee as Prime Minister of India, and U.S. President George Bush, in effecting the change. Quoting Vajpayee with evident approval, Powell in effect endorsed the sentiment that the U.S. and India were “natural allies” in a range of commitments: “political freedom, tolerance, representative government and the fight against terrorism”.
In the official narration, the makeover in relations is a testament to the magical alchemy of the nuclear bomb. The irony of a country blasting its way into the diplomatic affections of the U.S., is not lost on the authors of the brochure. And in their excitement at this quirk of geopolitics, they mix metaphors with complete abandon: “When India blasted its way out of nuclear ambiguity in May of 1998, it would have taken more than an optimist to predict that in a matter of a few years, the chain reaction from the Pokhran tests would reach critical mass with the United States and India signing a landmark agreement to work together in the fields of civilian nuclear technology, space, high-tech trade and missile defence”.
In an interesting rendition of the nuclear fission process, a chain reaction comes after a blast, and in turn, is followed by a critical mass. If the tortured metaphor were to be retained for the sake of argument, then Strobe Talbott – the former Time magazine journalist who served as Deputy Secretary of State in U.S. President Bill Clinton’s second term -- was among the principal catalysts of the chain reaction.
In recording his experiences of engagement with India, Talbott admits that the outcome does him less credit than his principal interlocutor, Jaswant Singh, who served in the initial phase of the dialogue as Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, before assuming the more apposite portfolio of Minister for External Affairs. “As one of the architects of the Indian strategy”, Talbott writes, “Jaswant (Singh) came closer to achieving his objective …. than I did to achieving mine”. Talbott though, does not grudge India this seeming triumph. Indeed, the story he narrates is by his own admission, “an exception to (American diplomat) Dean Acheson’s maxim that the author of a memorandum of conversation never comes out second best”.
Talbott’s book deals with some of the most consequential discussions that Indian foreign policy has ever engaged in. And it is an eloquent comment on the spirit in which this bargain was conducted, that the first reasonably complete account should come from an American source.
Jaswant (as Jaswant Singh will be referred to here, not because of any social intimacy, but merely because the alternative of “Singh” is altogether too contrived in the Indian context) enters the strategic dialogue about a month prior to the Pokhran tests. As an indication of his keenness to improve relations with India, Clinton in April 1998 sent his ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, for a set of preliminary meetings with the newly installed Vajpayee government. Every top functionary Richardson met seemed eager to turn the page on past bitterness. Feeling his way around an unfamiliar milieu, Richardson sought to probe for the hidden significance of the campaign promise Vajpayee and his colleagues in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had held out, that the nuclear weapon would be inducted at an early stage into the Indian arsenal. The responses he got were in Talbott’s account, uniformly vague. But in a private conversation with India’s Defence Minister George Fernandes, the U.S. envoy did seek -- and obtain -- a firm clarification that a nuclear test was not imminent.
Outside the official cycle of his engagements in Delhi though, Richardson received an unscheduled visitor. Jaswant went alone to this meeting, with none of the supporting cast that is customary at formal meetings. And his message was simple. If there was anything the Clinton administration needed to convey in confidence to India, then he would serve as the conduit. He could bring any proposal to the attention of the highest political quarters. That would be a way of protecting any innovation in diplomatic thinking from entrenched habits of bureaucratic thought.
This was April 1998 and in Talbott’s reconstruction, Jaswant was one among a handful of functionaries within the Vajpayee government who knew that the Pokhran tests were imminent. Talbott attaches little significance to Jaswant’s formal designation then as Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission. With understandable naivete, he infers from the shared prefix with Jaswant’s designation, that they were equals in protocol terms. Eight months into the Vajpayee ministry’s tenure, when Jaswant was moved to the post of External Affairs Minister, Talbott spent not a little time worrying that protocol might force him to opt out of the dialogue in favour of the U.S. Secretary of State. This ignorance is understandable, but not Jaswant’s pretended magnanimity in seemingly waiving protocol to continue his dialogue with Talbott.
It may be immaterial from Talbott’s point of view that the shift from Deputy Chairman to Minister is merely a lateral movement in terms of status. The issue indeed, was not of protocol but of functionality. It was only eight months into the Vajpayee government’s tenure, that Jaswant was formally put in charge of an area of government functioning where he was till then an interloper. The formal jurisdiction of the Planning Commission does not reach beyond the territorial boundaries of India. In this sense, Jaswant functioned on the mandate handed down by Prime Minister Vajpayee, who held the external affairs portfolio in the months following the Pokhran tests. Yet, this still does not explain why he particularly, was thought suitable for the assignment, when others with functional authority and expertise, would have been more appropriate.
The answer is to be found partly in philosophical belief and temperament, and partly in the public persona of the man. Like several of his peers within the Vajpayee ministry, Jaswant held the traditional precepts of Indian foreign policy – non-alignment and the dual commitments to peace and disarmament – in a fair amount of disdain. But he was different, in that he brought a gift for florid speech to the bargaining table.
Talbott pays grudging tribute to this quality and acknowledges its utility in diplomatic exchanges. His interlocutor, Talbott notes, was given to a “slightly orotund, yet elegant” mode of articulation, which took “some unpacking” to get to the bottom of. He also had a proclivity for using “double negatives” that did not quite add up to a positive. And for all that, Jaswant’s idiom served the vital function of deflecting public scrutiny for as long as it took. Talbott celebrates the many joint press conferences at which they “dodged and weaved to avoid providing much information about what was going on” between them “in private”. And he acknowledges his interlocutor’s formidable powers of mystification, for throwing the media off course with statements that “had no discernible meaning”. Journalists he records, “dutifully scribbled down” Jaswant’s “oracular utterances”, “never asking for clarification or amplification”. They then “reported them to their readers as though they provided insight into what was going on in the talks”.
But with all the effort, what was the objective? Jaswant was at pains to ensure that the process was never described as a “negotiation”, since the word conveyed a suggestion of shifting from “basic and immutable national positions”. But when asked how he intended to sustain the process and where he sought to take it, Jaswant served up a cryptic folk aphorism from Rajasthan: “Don’t ask the way to a village if you don’t want to get there”.
Once he had “unpacked” the term, Talbott realised the difficulties inherent in the journey his interlocutor was proposing. The village Jaswant sought did not exist on the American map. It was a destination in his Indian partner’s imagination, where the “estrangement” of the cold war would be left behind and a new global order forged, to replace the polarities of that phase of human history with a hierarchy of power and civilisational virtues. Among other things, this involved, in Jaswant’s reckoning, U.S. recognition of India as a “major power with an internationally recognised right to bear arms”. Though not unsympathetic, Talbott was realistic. Unfortunately, he says, the world of the U.S. was circumscribed by the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which accorded only five States the right to bear nuclear arms.
With all these constraints, Talbott was keen to take the dialogue forward with the single objective of securing India’s signature on the Comprehensive (Nuclear) Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). This was the central plank of the Clinton administration’s agenda to secure a global nuclear security regime that would consolidate on the gains of the indefinite extension of the NPT. U.S. good faith in sponsoring the CTBT was never evident, since it remained grossly in breach of its commitment under article VI of the NPT, to work “in good faith” towards global nuclear disarmament. But global opinion by near consensus, had accepted that the CTBT, though deeply flawed and limited as a contribution to disarmament, could be a modest and incremental step in that direction.
As early as September 1998 in Talbott’s account, Jaswant held out an assurance that India could sign. Vajpayee himself spoke of engaging with key global interlocutors and bringing India in line with the main stipulations of the comprehensive test ban. An initial deadline laid down for “a decision regarding adherence” was September 1999. In U.S. calculations, accession to the CTBT was to be the first of several steps that India would need to take, to acquire membership in the anti-proliferation fraternity. If this entailed the possession of nuclear weapons – and the U.S. came grudgingly to accept that it would – then it was keen on knowing the number that would be inducted and the state of their deployment.
A key moment arrived with the August 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. A fortnight later, the U.S. launched simultaneous air strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan, aimed ostensibly at Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network. Arriving in Washington just a few days after, Jaswant was not about to let the didactic value of the moment pass. At the fourth sitting in their “dialogue”, Talbott was treated to a “history lesson” that he had heard before, though not with the same “intensity and detail”. U.S. policy towards Pakistan, said Jaswant, had been premised upon “a grave error about its very nature”. Pakistan had never been a “cohesive nation or a viable state and never would be” -- it was “an artificial construct, structured out of hate, a stepchild of Uttar Pradesh”.
Talbott disagreed strongly and refused to countenance the Indian suggestion that Pakistan should be declared an outcaste among civilised nations. But Jaswant’s disquisitions were having an impact for reasons unrelated to his persuasive gifts. Among the many occurrences on the wings, influencing the events that Talbott recounts, was the progressive U.S. disillusionment with Pakistan. The U.S. had initially been favourably disposed towards the sponsorship of the Taliban in Afghanistan, eagerly sending its oil industry representatives to that country to negotiate pipeline transit rights from the Central Asian fields. But a few months into Clinton’s second term, a serious policy breakdown was signaled by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who chose a visit to a refugee camp in Pakistan, to denounce the Taliban and reject its claims to being a legitimate government in all of Afghanistan. Albright’s hosts in Pakistan were livid, and prominent editorialists commented – with no reference to the linkages – that the U.S. was shifting its favours towards India.
It was a moment that the United Front government then could not quite capitalise on. The BJP a few months later, sought not merely to build on the moment, but to smuggle in the tacit recognition of India as a nuclear weapons state into the bargain. Significantly, Jaswant also made a pointed reference, during his history tutorial with Talbott in Washington, of two Republican senators from the U.S. who had visited India in the preceding weeks, and “publicly gloated” about their ability to checkmate the Clinton administration on a variety of issues, including the ratification of the CTBT.
At a meeting in November 1998 in Rome, Jaswant continued with the tutorial, supplementing his lessons on Pakistan as the “avatar of evil” with instruction on the benign notion of governance that the BJP’s reigning philosophy of “Hindutva” embodied. Talbott was left unconvinced, particularly since attacks on religious minorities in India, had escalated sharply in the preceding weeks. The more Jaswant “elaborated on his thesis”, he records: “the more resistant to it I became”. Indeed, he found in the narration he was given, “either a denial of ugly facts… or a resort to casuistry to blur their ugliness and call into question the accuracy of published reports”.
April 1999, Vajpayee was voted out of office by Parliament and the U.S. itself was shifting its attention to other geostrategic threats, notably the civil war in the Balkans. With India in election mode, Jaswant had an alibi for deferring delivery on his promise to sign the CTBT. And the Pakistan military – operating by all accounts in defiance of civilian control -- was surreptitiously sending troops across the Line-of-Control in the Kargil sector, provoking a conflict with India that took a heavy toll in lives and destroyed whatever diplomatic credibility Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief had.
By October, Vajpayee had won a renewed mandate in national elections, and was ironically enough, ceremonially sworn in the same day that the civilian government in Pakistan was swept aside by a military coup, and the CTBT, denied even the dignity of a simple majority at the moment of its death, was overwhelmingly rejected by the U.S. Senate. It was a triple conjunction that miraculously unburdened Jaswant of the commitments he had made. The circumstances were ripe for a quite unequivocal U.S. tilt in favour of India, signaled formally in Clinton’s visit to the subcontinent in March 2000, when he spent six days in India and fewer hours in Pakistan.
Jaswant worked hard to have even this token concession to Pakistani sensitivities revoked. When that failed, Talbott records him as explaining that India had little objection to the U.S. seeking to retrieve Pakistan from the morass it had sunk into, though the effort had to be based on “realism” rather than “self-delusion”.
And yet for all the triumphs that came his way during the formal dialogue process, Jaswant had to perform feats of diplomatic calisthenics outside the reach of Talbott’s narrative to achieve whatever he did. He visited Israel in July 2000, and standing decades of commitment to the Palestinian cause on its head, decried the prolonged alienation from Israel as an outcome of “vote-bank” politics pandering to Muslim sentiment in India. In May 2001, with Clinton and his relatively benign vision of globalisation supplanted by the decidedly more menacing worldview of the second Bush, Jaswant reacted to an announcement on U.S. plans to deploy a “national missile defence” system with exuberant applause. A world which was grappling with scarcely concealed reservations with the prospect of a new upward spiral in the nuclear arms race, looked on in bemusement as India publicly tore up its long-standing commitment to the cause of disarmament.
The reward has come in the shape of a waiver of all hard questions on India’s nuclear intentions. But the U.S. has resolutely refused to deliver on the other side of the bargain that India has sought. Quite to the contrary, the U.S. has, far from banishing Pakistan from its attention, raised it to the highest status among its strategic partners. This has been a galling experience for Jaswant and the BJP, though they have concealed their bitterness reasonably well. Talbott’s book does not dwell upon the role the U.S. played in pushing India and Pakistan towards peace negotiations, first in February 1999, then in July 2001 and again in January 2004. But he does, without intending to, shed a rather unflattering light on the sincerity with which the Vajpayee government embarked upon each of these initiatives. It is much too early to say whether the peace process will be invested with a greater sense of purpose with Jaswant out of the way. But two of the principal premises of his stewardship of foreign policy – that the U.S. will decisively shift towards India in settling neighbourhood disputes, or at the very least, favour India’s claims as the regional power with presumptive rights to dictate terms to Pakistan – have been rather rudely exploded. Going beyond his quite transparent and authentic sense of esteem for Jaswant, this seems finally to be the upshot of Talbott’s narration.