Twist in the Tale-October 2004
With the nuclear test of 1998, India set the tone for imbalanced partnership
By Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab
The cat is finally out of the bag: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led Vajpayee government had two objectives for doing the May 1998 nuclear tests, one political and the other diplomatic. In its election manifesto, the BJP had made it clear that if brought to power, they would do the big bang. But before they did it, Vajpayee told the visiting high-level US delegation headed by Bill Richardson, the US ambassador to the UN and a friend of President Bill Clinton (who obviously was not listening) that they meet Jaswant Singh. Forcing his appointment two weeks before the tests, Jaswant Singh met the Richardson delegation at the US ambassador’s house in New Delhi. His mission was to tell them that ‘he was under instructions from Vajpayee to serve as a discreet — and if necessary, secret — channel to Washington. It would ensure prompt, high-level consideration of any matter that the American president regarded as important for moving the relationship (Indo-US) forward.’ Clearly, the Vajpayee government believed that by nuclear tests it would shock the US into a relationship with India. In his recently released breathtaking book, the US deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration, Strobe Talbott has revealed more than one suspected about the 14 rounds of secret talks he had with Jaswant Singh following the May 1998 blasts.

India under the NDA government compromised national security in return for better relations with the US. Interestingly, in doing so, the core political leadership, as represented in the Cabinet Committee on National Security was divided. Writes Talbott, ‘I (Talbott) also spent time with two members of Vajpayee’s inner circle — his experienced, taciturn principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra, and the home minister, Lal Krishna Advani — both of whom were cool to the very idea of the US-Indian dialogue insofar as it entailed any suggestion of compromise on anything. There were certainly no echo from them of Jaswant’s talk about harmonizing or reconciliation of the US and Indian positions.’ The Prime Minister obviously backed Jaswant Singh, and defence minister George Fernandes was, probably, an outsider who, even two weeks before the tests, was unaware of what his government was about to do. What exactly was meant by ‘harmonizing’ of Indo-US relations and how was it accomplished? After his first meeting with Jaswant Singh, Talbott says that further talks were required to address, ‘the overriding need to reconcile India’s security concerns with Washington’s nonproliferation agenda.’

Explaining India’s security concerns in their maiden encounter, Jaswant Singh said that ‘India regarded the Pokhran test as an exercise of its sovereign rights and an act of military necessity.’ Elaborating, he lamented that ‘India has been denied the right to defend itself against its enemies. Foremost among those was China — the principal variable in the calculus of Indian foreign and defence policy.’ Expounding further, Jaswant Singh, ‘did not take seriously — or at least he did not want me (Talbott) to think he took seriously — the chances of nuclear war between India and Pakistan, a relatively small, incurably troubled, and incorrigibly troublesome country that dreamed of a parity with India it would never attain or deserve. China was a power and a threat worthy of India’s strategic attention, not Pakistan.’ This left little doubt that India was single-mindedly embarked to achieve nuclear deterrence against China.
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