04 January 2005

Dixit leaves foreign policy void that is hard to fill

4 January 2005
The Hindu

Dixit leaves foreign policy void that is hard to fill

By Siddharth Varadarajan

NEW DELHI, JAN.3. A hard-nosed strategist with a keen sense of diplomatic history, J.N. Dixit was arguably the most important player in the foreign policy establishment of the Manmohan Singh Government. While the day-to-day conduct of diplomacy has remained the preserve of the External Affairs Ministry and its leadership, Mr. Dixit, as National Security Adviser, played a decisive role in defining India's evolving terms of engagement on three key fronts: its relations with Pakistan, the United States and China.

Unfortunately, Mr. Dixit's departure comes at a time when this process of definition is incomplete.

On all these fronts, crucial issues remain unresolved. India's relations with Pakistan are more precariously poised than the crowded calendar of bilateral meetings suggests — or the Foreign Office bureaucracy is prepared to admit. On China, talks on the guiding principles for resolving the boundary dispute are only now entering the stage of hardball. And as for relations with the U.S., the central problem that Mr. Dixit was grappling with — harmonising India's long-term quest for a multi-polar world with the imperatives of a `strategic partnership' with Washington — has still not been satisfactorily resolved.

Mr. Dixit's back-channel contacts with Tariq Aziz, Adviser to General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, played a key role in producing a breakthrough on at least two occasions: first, on the eve of the talks on nuclear confidence-building measures when India and Pakistan made a huge conceptual leap in declaring each other's possession of nuclear weapons a factor for stability, and again before Gen. Musharraf met the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September. Since then, this back-channel process has been less effective — something, Mr. Dixit recently told The Hindu , that was directly linked to the Pakistani establishment's tendency to leak details of forthcoming meetings and agendas.

Even so, Mr. Dixit was aware of the role he and Mr. Aziz would have to play in keeping the composite dialogue ticking along — by discussing different scenarios on the big questions of Kashmir and peace and security while producing "deliverables" on some of the smaller issues from time to time. Mr. Dixit, for example, supported the Prime Minister's call for "out-of-the-box" thinking on Kashmir and refused to back those in the Home and External Affairs Ministries who had reservations about last month's Pugwash meeting in Kathmandu between the Hurriyat leaders and politicians from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Tempting though it is to read Mr. Dixit's role as that of a balancer — many saw his realpolitik and pragmatism as the perfect foil to the Nehruvian internationalism of the External Affairs Minister, Natwar Singh — the truth is that both Mr. Dixit and Mr. Natwar Singh had pivotal roles to play in helping India restore a sense of balance in the articulation of its diplomacy towards the big powers.

If the United Progressive Alliance's victory set off fears in Washington of an "anti-American" turn in Indian policy, the appointment of Mr. Dixit as National Security Adviser was seen as a sign that the new dispensation in Delhi was keen to continue doing business with the United States. Mr. Dixit helped shepherd the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership process along by advising the Government to agree to a set of export restrictions that his predecessor, Brajesh Mishra, had baulked from signing. Yet, Mr. Dixit had no intention of putting all of India's eggs in Washington's basket. He pushed for a strategic partnership with the European Union and decided that India should back the E.U. against the U.S. on both the Galileo satellite system and on France as the location for the fusion energy project.

And yet, several challenges on the U.S. front are still to be handled. India is under pressure from Washington to expand its engagement with the puppet Allawi government in Iraq. U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice wanted Mr. Dixit to commit India to paying a part of the bill for the upcoming Iraq elections. A decision on this has yet to be taken. There is also the collaboration with Washington on missile defence, something Mr. Dixit had raised questions about while in the Opposition but which the UPA Government has chosen to say precious little about. On the question of India joining the controversial U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, Mr. Dixit helped temper the unrestrained enthusiasm in some quarters by outlining a specific set of Indian concerns.

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