Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb
Dipankar Banerjee ·       

Strobe Talbott's much awaited book is a classic of contemporary diplomatic writing, as racy as fiction and particularly riveting to the initiated. There are nuggets of information of the workings of the US Government, insights in to the psyche of nations and peeks in to key personalities of our times. But, the essence of the book lies in the fascinating account of how relations between the most powerful democracy and the most populous, were turned around through a process of interaction between two highly competent interlocutors.

It all began with the bomb. The nuclear tests of May 1998 and the US concerns to preserve the nuclear non-proliferation regime were really the reasons for this long awaited engagement. It needs a crisis to focus one's attention even to a country with one sixth of the world's population. The nuclear tests provided that impetus and from an Indian point of view was its most significant achievement.

The story is of the fourteen rounds of interaction and dialogue that followed in different parts of the globe and with a combination of different supporting cast. Intertwined with them were other developments of major consequence. The apparently successful US pressure to thwart the tests in 1995 before the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was extended indefinitely. The Kargil War and Nawaz Sharif's curious petition in Washington and the sharp US response and finally, Clinton's visit to India in March 2000. Over all this was the principle US objective at the dialogue, to get India's signature to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and to spell out clearly its doctrine of 'minimum credible deterrence'.

The issue of nuclear tests in 1995 is relevant. If India tested before the NPT extension, would it have come under similar pressure as later? Was India's economy, just four years after the 1991 liberalization strong enough to resist these pressures? Was it really Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's indecisiveness that was ultimately the reason for not testing? No one will know for sure, but they remain tantalizing questions.

The US pressure on Nawaz Sharif at the time of the Kargil crisis is well told in all its brutal frankness. Talbott's lack of sympathy for the Sharif brothers and his views on the political culture in Pakistan and its foreign policy establishment is also well articulated. The fact that it was the Pakistani Army that actually operated in Kargil and not the Mujahid, were known to the US even before the Indians. Hence US support might have been expected, but the riot act read out to Nawaz at Washington in July 1999, is easily the strongest the US administration has leaned against Islamabad. This was also without any promise of help on the Kashmir question. Such a quid pro quo would of course never be contemplated in Delhi. On matters of national security there should of course be no complacency, but at the same time we need to accept the strength of our position in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) while considering the possibility of good offices from well meaning outside powers. That there have been other pressures subsequently for a dialogue on J&K from Washington at a bilateral level is without question, but the pressure was never such that New Delhi would find difficult to resist.

The culmination of the dialogue was in a sense Clinton's visit to Delhi in March 2000, even though very little time is spent on describing it except for the Delhi part of the visit. In my mind will remain etched the India Today cover photograph of Clinton alone in the midst of a group dancing with Rajasthani ladies in gorgeous colour celebrating Holi. The rapturous look in the President's eyes and his obvious delight in playing the role of Krishna, symbolized the possibilities in mutual relations between the two countries. A promise that began unfolding from then onwards and which has lasted over the years till now.

The question of signing the CTBT is the enduring theme running through the Book. Finally, of course nothing came of it, for the treaty itself was mired in controversy. There was insufficient appreciation in India that the Republican Senate would never ratify it and in fact the Treaty was doomed even from the moment of its signature. The Book suggests that the Indian government seriously considered this option till the end. But, it is a tribute to Indian establishment that it was determined from the beginning to act responsibly, a course from which it has never wavered. The doctrine of 'minimum credible deterrence' was also in line with this thinking. Though the exact nature of this capability or its precise parameters can not be clearly enunciated particularly at this stage, such a posture will be in keeping with India's national interests and at lowest levels of affordability.

There are two heroes in the Book, Strobe himself and Jaswant Singh. Presently, the President of the Brookings Institution, the world will hear much more of Strobe in the future depending on the fortunes of political parties in the US. Jaswant's political career may have come close to an end depending once again on the vagaries of domestic politics. But, by all accounts his performance during the dialogue was awesome. Almost single handedly, with distant though total support from Prime Minister Vajpayee, he developed a winning combination from an indifferent hand. There should never be winners or losers in a diplomatic engagement and truly in this extended encounter both sides won.

Finally, the story may well end in irony. The expectations of India's leaders at the time of the nuclear tests were that it would finally allow India a seat at the top table. The whole world laughed at the notion. Global power, they said, came from economic and soft power and the era of hard power and nuclear weapons. The book suggests that the Indian government seriously considered this option till the end. Merely six years from then, with the possibility of UN Security Council reforms on the agenda, who will indeed have the last laugh?