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Atal at UN

September 11, 2002

The Pioneer

Atal at UN
By Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

When Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee addresses the 57th session of the UN General Assembly later this week, it would also mark a quiet 25th anniversary of Mr Vajpayee's emergence as an international statesman. This is because in 1977 he made his debut on the international arena by becoming the first Indian Foreign Minister to address the 32nd General Assembly in Hindi. While the anniversary coincidence is sure to be lost in the din of the orchestrated remembrance of the events of 9/11, the occasion nonetheless provides us with a chance to take stock of how the world has changed from Mr Vajpayee's perspective. This is also the opportune juncture to note the national priorities and regional concerns of the ruling establishment in India.

Back in 1977, Mr Vajpayee was somewhat subdued in conceding that he was a "newcomer to the United Nations", and that he felt a "special sense of exhilaration in attending this assembly of nations for the first time". At that point, India had a marginal role in a bipolar world and despite a change of regime in the country, New Delhi's foreign policy had yet to witness a decisive shift as a result of which non-alignment was still referred by Mr Vajpayee as "a projection of national sovereignty in international relations" and "its essence" was "not neutrality but freedom".

In the past 25 years, Mr Vajpayee has clearly shed his hesitation but this is more on account of India's growing global role than any other factor. Because despite being an important Indian voice in the area of foreign relations, Mr Vajpayee has spent the bigger part of the quarter century waiting for his turn to come again. But having secured that in 1998, he has been more forthright and has not been weighed down by the occasion and the venue. Instead, he has comfortably converted the weight of the Indian democracy to his advantage. In all his interactions it is evident that Mr Vajpayee conveys the impression that it was imperative for the international community to listen carefully to him because his concerns had the backing of more than one billion people dwelling on Planet Earth.

A major shift that has taken place in the past 25 years is in the central thrust of Mr Vajpayee's address at New York. While earlier in 1977 (and 1978) disarmament and a nuclear weapons free world were central to his speeches, the core concern since 1998 has been arming states against terrorism and this has become more pronounced since 9/11. The other area in which there has been a significant shift is in the fact that Mr Vajpayee's addresses since he became the Prime Minister are much more Pakistan-centric than the time when he was the Foreign Minister.
Though this is understandable given the fact that Islamabad's policy of using terrorism as a state instrument has been chiseled over the past quarter of a century, it also underscores the fact that while in his avatar Mr Vajpayee wanted to be remembered as a Foreign Minister who made peace with Islamabad, in recent years, especially post-Kargil, his thrust is to be remembered by history as the man who finally said "enough is enough" in regard to cross-border terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir.

There has also been a dramatic shift in India's foreign policy in the years since Mr Vajpayee's emergence on the international stage. In his first address, the main international concerns of India's first non-Congress foreign minister were restricted to a few issues out of the NAM charter: Apartheid in South Africa; autocracy and continuing colonialism in Zimbabwe; the unstable situation in Namibia; the conflict in Cyprus and the lack of progress towards a comprehensive test ban treaty. The Indian position in 1977 as reflected in Mr Vajpayee's speech on the conflict in West Asia was also in sharp contrast to New Delhi's current position. At that point, Mr Vajpayee stated that there could "no recognition of the territories illegally occupied by Israel through the use of force and aggression, and they must be vacated."

Mr Vajpayee had further added that the "the Arab people of Palestine who have been forcibly evicted from their hearths and homes must be enabled to exercise their inalienable right to return to their land." The question of establishing diplomatic ties with Israel simply did not arise while today Tel Aviv is one of our closest economic, defence and political aides. It would be argued that the India with Mr Vajpayee at the helm of affairs is much more pragmatic than the time when Nehruvian hypocrisy ruled the roost. But then does this mean that Mr Vajpayee the foreign minister was also cast in the Nehruvian mould?

But then it is not just Indian foreign policy that has changed since Mr Vajpayee took to the podium one October morning in 1977. From being a world dominated by a Cold War where the theatre of action was national boardrooms, last year's world has been dominated by one of the most one-sided of military conflicts in history. Sworn enemies of yesteryears are also now engaged in discussions on how to launch a strike against Mr Saddam Hussein. With non-alignment of little concern, India after making some noises of striving for creating an alternate pole in an increasingly unipolar world, has chosen to nosedive its concerns with that of the nation setting the global agenda.

The world that Mr Vajpayee would address this week is clearly dramatically different from the one he talked to in 1977. There has also been a major shift in the regional balance: From a nation that had undergone a process of dismemberment just a few years ago, Pakistan today has a sharper anti-India focus. The tools in use by Islamabad in its campaign to weaken the Indian core have also been sharpened in the past 2 decades. Despite the US-led campaign against Al Qaeda being the dominant issue over the last one year, General Pervez Musharraf has managed to make space for his regime in the international coalition.

In such a situation, the need for Mr Vajpayee to do a tightrope walk is all the more necessary. It is evident that despite the double speak by both Islamabad and Washington, New Delhi would have to continue exerting pressure to take its moral victory further. It is now evident that the Bush Administration opts for a tough posture only when religious extremism is ranged against the US. In such a situation, questions have naturally risen as to why India did not do an Afghanistan in its neighbourhood. But then it needs to be understood that if India were to adopt the US strategy, then it would immediately have to grapple with two issues.

First, that Pakistan is situated on our doorstep; and, second, unlike Afghanistan, India is dealing with a nuclear capable adversary where the triggers are controlled by a regime that has not been answerable to the people. Despite the end of the Cold War and a clearer focus of the adversary that the majority in the world faces, the situation for India has become more complex. That and the weight of other burdens would surely be on Mr Vajpayee's shoulders when he walks up to the podium on September 13.


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