How Vajpayee met foreign policy challenges, made India a nuclear power

Atal Bihari Vajpayee | Photo: Wikipedia
How does the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) want India to be seen by the rest of the world?

There is a stark contrast between the styles of the two Prime Ministers the BJP has given to India.

Under Narendra Modi, India’s currency of power is the capacity to conduct surgical strikes against neighbours who have been out of line. At multilateral fora, it is about proximity to and familiarity with the powerful, that opposition leader Rahul Gandhi derides as ‘hugplomacy’. The messaging is that India has arrived as a socio-cultural soft power with a strong diaspora outreach. This is at a time when in terms of the international climate, India has everything going for it.

But it was Atal Bihari Vajpayee who had a really hard time of it. Two incredibly disruptive events and one American regime that had little sympathy for India made for an unfriendly international environment.

It was a late afternoon on 13 May 1998 that the phones began ringing. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was going to address a press conference.  Everyone knew the government was unstable and not likely to last long. So what was the crisis?

Reporters arrived at Race Course Road to a single chair with a podium, the Indian flag draped behind it. Information Minister Pramod Mahajan barked instructions (later, upset at the reportage, he was to tell reporters: ‘barked? Mein kutta hoon kya?’). Atal Bihari Vajpayee walked in. He read out a few lines in Hindi and English, took no questions and left. The world gasped. India had tested its nuclear device.

Unsurprisingly, all hell broke loose. The additional twist in the tale was a letter written by Defence Minister George Fernandes to US President Bill Clinton: citing, not Pakistan but Pakistan aided by China as the reason for the nuclear tests. The letter leaked via the US to Indian newspapers. Later half-denials were issued. But the phrase ‘rough neighbourhood’ became current as the justification for the tests.

The BJP leadership was half-elated, half-defiant, half-afraid. As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright waggled her finger in India’s face and said India had dug itself in a hole, Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh rebutted this with his characteristic sardonic half smile. “We don’t dig holes, not even to bury our dead,” he said. The nuclear tests gave rise to multiple rounds of dialogues between Singh and US Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott and the two even co-authored a book. The Draft Nuclear Doctrine was followed by an official nuclear doctrine in 2003 that suggested that India might use nuclear weapons to retaliate against attacks using chemical and biological weapons (CBW); and that Indian retaliation to any nuclear attack would be massive.

In 2014, the BJP, in its manifesto, promised to “revise and update” India’s nuclear doctrine to “make it relevant to challenges of current time.” As the government enters the last lap of its tenure, not much has been heard about revisions. This is in stark contrast to the richness of the intellectual debate over security, strategy, outreach and power during the Vajpayee years when foreign ministers were still foreign ministers and not last responders for Indians in distress in various parts of the globe.

If Vajpayee’s BJP saw a chance to redefine India’s nuclear theology, Modi’s BJP has scarcely paid any attention to it. Both BJP governments faced the what-to-do-with-Pakistan challenge. Modi responded with an unannounced visit to Raiwind, and when the soft touch failed, followed it with surgical strikes. Vajpayee responded with a conventional half-war called Op Vijay that did not cross the Line of Control but did lead to a wave of nationalism with some political resonance. This was followed by Operation Parakram when Indian Parliament was attacked on 13 December 2001.

With elevated levels of nationalism, the BJP was so confident it would win the 2004 elections that it called them early. It was rudely, bitterly disappointed, leading to a debate on whether wars win elections. They didn’t for Vajpayee.