16 September 2005

When Jaswant took Indian politics to foreign shores

As a former resident of the glass house called diplomacy, Mr. Singh should have thought twice before throwing stones.

16 September 2005
The Hindu

When Jaswant took Indian politics to foreign shores

Siddharth Varadarajan

WHEN THE Bharatiya Janata Party chose to protest the fact that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had made a reference to Atal Bihari Vajpayee's opposition to the India-United States nuclear agreement in his meeting with President George W. Bush in New York, it perhaps did not realise the party spokesperson being fielded was somebody least suited to accuse anybody of discussing "domestic politics" on "foreign soil."

On Wednesday, Jaswant Singh criticised the Prime Minister for telling Mr. Bush he was "surprised" at Mr. Vajpayee's opposition. "Media reports highlight PM Dr. Manmohan Singh's half hour meeting with President Bush in a particular vein as if the Prime Minister was complaining to the President of the USA about our domestic politics," Jaswant Singh's statement said. He added: "It needs to be emphasised that all established conventions, mutual regards and due courtesy demand that domestic politics is not made a subject of discussion by our Prime Minister when visiting abroad."

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the allegation — and there is merit on both sides — Jaswant Singh himself stands guilty of "complaining ... about our domestic politics" while on an official trip overseas.

In a speech to the Israeli Council on Foreign Relations in Jerusalem on July 2, 2000, Mr. Singh — who was External Affairs Minister at the time — spoke about how there had been a "tectonic shift of consciousness" under the BJP and said the failure of India to draw closer to Israel until then was because of a "very strong urge among politicians" to continue in office. This, he explained, was because the Muslim vote could not be ignored. "India's Israel policy became a captive to domestic policy that came to be unwittingly an unstated veto to (sic) India's larger West Asian policy."

Here, not only was Mr. Singh raising an issue of "domestic politics," he was blaming an entire section of Indian citizens for an official policy that he wished to disown. Needless to say, this was also a misrepresentation of reality, unlike Dr. Manmohan Singh's accurate characterisation of Mr. Vajpayee's public opposition to the nuclear deal. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi as well as Jawaharlal Nehru's writings belie Mr. Singh's claim that India traditionally supported the Palestinian cause on anything other than its merits. And so widespread was the pro-Palestinian political consensus in India that no less a person than Mr. Vajpayee — who was External Affairs Minister-designate at the time — sat on the dais of a large pro-Arab rally in Delhi's Ramlila grounds in March 1977.

Mr. Jaswant Singh's tendency to discuss domestic politics in his discussions with foreign leaders was not confined to this one example. In his extended "strategic dialogue" with Strobe Talbott, Deputy Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, domestic Indian political issues often came up. "Jaswant had been candid with me many times about his domestic politics and how they obtruded on our diplomacy, and I now owed him a bit of reciprocity," Talbott writes in his recent book, Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb(page 203). On page 121, Mr. Talbott says Jaswant "referred again to the difficulties of Indian domestic politics."

Unlike Dr. Manmohan Singh, who mentioned the flak he had got from Mr. Vajpayee and others in the Opposition, Mr. Jaswant Singh appears not to have spared those on "his own" side. In his book, Mr. Talbott writes of a meeting in New York on September 20, 1999. "I registered a strong objection to the draft nuclear doctrine [Brajesh] Mishra had presented in August. Jaswant replied that since the paper had no imprimatur from the government, it should not be taken too seriously. It was not really even a doctrine — it was just a set of recommendations that Vajpayee would almost certainly not accept. The U.S. should not `dignify' it by over-reacting."

Mr. Talbott was clearly taken aback. "I pointed out that Jaswant was disavowing in private something that Mishra had unveiled in public, which suggested that the more-is-better philosophy of deterrence had significant backing from powerful forces in the government, the BJP, the Parliament, the defence and foreign establishment. Not necessarily, Jaswant replied. Everything had to be understood against the backdrop of a hard-fought election campaign."

Mr. Jaswant Singh can be faulted here for his choice of words with Mr. Talbott but — unlike his Israel remarks — not the fact that he was discussing domestic politics. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a discussion among world leaders where domestic political realities are not articulated or shared. As a former resident of the glass house called diplomacy, Mr. Singh should have thought twice before throwing stones.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander!

I particularly liked the way you phrased the last sentence -- "glass house called diplomacy" and throwing stones.