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Is BJP's 'muscular' foreign policy the answer?

March 09, 2009 15:16 IST
Brawn triumphed over brain last week as the Bharatiya Janata Party announced, after "consultations" with "foreign policy experts", that it was for a "muscular" foreign policy so that "nobody thinks they can mess with India".

Sounds good when you're sitting down -- no pressure on the knees, you see. More so, when you're in the opposition.

Former foreign minister Jaswant Singh, one of the most important figures steering the BJP foreign policy in its early years after it assumed office, remained outside and pointedly refused to add his voice to the cacophony that is demanding, post-26/11, that India "do" something in the subcontinent and the world.

The call to show muscle becomes all the more ironic when you consider that this was conspicuously absent when former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, at his first rally in Srinagar in April 2003, made the historic announcement of a peace initiative with Pakistan.

Two months later in June the same year, India had to concede that Tibet was an integral part of China and, in August, 52 people died in bomb blasts in Mumbai. So where was the muscle then?

Nor is it a fact that foreign policy was flaccid or limp-wristed when Jaswant Singh was foreign minister -- from 1998 till 2002 -- when Vajpayee told him that he had worked such miracles in the ministry of external affairs, could he do the same in the finance ministry and made him exchange places with Yashwant Sinha.

Since then, from the time BJP went into the opposition, it has been pretty much smash-and-grab for the shadow foreign minister portfolio and never mind that a necessary prerequisite is to win the Lok Sabha election (which incidentally Yashwant Sinha lost in 2004).

The background to the assertion that India needed a muscular foreign policy is Jaswant Singh's own statement to Outlook magazine last week that he could not defend Operation Parakram, the extended border standoff between India and Pakistan in the wake of the attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001.

This was rather peculiar considering Singh was a member of the Cabinet Committee on Security at the time and the foreign minister of India.

The perception that he was disowning one of India's most defining actions in its relations with Pakistan has caused all this hand-wringing in BJP -- that if we had done more at that time when our troops were ready and primed at the border, maybe Pakistan would have been deterred sufficiently and the Mumbai attacks might not have happened. Hence the calls for a muscular foreign policy.

Experts will continue to be divided over what Operation Parakram achieved. But what Jaswant Singh was referring to parenthetically in his interview was what Operation Parakram prevented. When you consider what could have happened and didn't, it is then that the full appreciation of Parakram hits you.

The seat of democracy in sovereign India had been attacked. What should India have done? What followed was an exercise in coercive diplomacy through full-scale force deployment along the Pakistan border to force that country to stop cross-border terrorism and abandon the use of terror as an instrument of state policy.

Despite attempts by the international community to defuse the situation created by the mobilisation and deployment, the stand-off was aggravated by yet another terrorist attack on May 14, 2002 at the Kaluchak army camp.

There was rah-rah nationalism and the militarists were having a field day. At the same time, the Hindu lunatic fringe in India was baying hysterically for blood: Any blood would do so long as it was demonstrably spilled. There must be hot pursuit, they said, India must show such attacks could not go unpunished. And if the establishment was afraid to offend the world, well, we could go to Muslim settlements and tell them who the boss was....

So, on the one hand, India had to show the world it was a nuclear power, but it was exercising restraint in the face of severe provocation; and on the other hand, show the militant Hindus that the government was not just sitting back and twiddling its thumbs: That it could hit the enemy if it had to. If it had not kept these elements engaged, their attention diverted, there was the danger of widespread rioting within India.

What followed was a balancing act between threats of war and actual war. The threat of war had to be credible both at home and abroad, but needed to be controlled so that it did not escalate into actual war.

It was this complicated manoeuvre that Jaswant Singh had to negotiate. In other words, you needed to have the brains to tell when the brawn was necessary and when it had diminished utility: Without actually saying so.

India's response came in the shape of military and diplomatic actions and was justified as an act of self-defence under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. At the same time, when Chief of Army Staff Gen S Padmanabhan sought permission to cross the Line of Control, at least twice, Singh deflected opinion in CCS.

India came pretty close to going to war. Operation Parakram was very serious stuff and not a bluff. Perhaps India did miss an opportunity to teach a lesson -- Vajpayee did signal this when he said it was now an aar paar ki ladai at the time. But Singh stood firm. The Indian state was after all, responsible for the defence of all its citizens.

Operation Parakram had its loopholes. India failed to discern an exit strategy even when it was available. Eventually, the armed forces just stood down. But it brought home to both Pakistan and the US, the need to deliver on promises. Some new red lines were defined by India and Pakistan was made to identify and recognise them.

Operation Parakram made it easier for the United Progressive Alliance government to handle the Mumbai attacks in the way that it has done: Through a legal and internationally-defined anti-terrorist architecture.

Singh notes in his book, A Call to Honour, that the problem with coercive diplomacy is that it doesn't work with the irrational: Which is why although Operation Parakram succeeded in extracting at least five sets of pledges by Pakistan's former president Pervez Musharraf to prevent Pakistani soil from being used to launch terrorist attacks, 26/11 still happened. But is a muscular foreign policy the answer?

Aditi Phadnis
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