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This article was first published 9 years ago  » News » Why Vajpayee deserves the Bharat Ratna

Why Vajpayee deserves the Bharat Ratna

By Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)
Last updated on: March 27, 2015 15:52 IST
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'Whether it was sending out a message after the Pokhran II nuclear tests or managing the fallout, Atal Bihari Vajpayee did it with great statesmanship, always keeping India's interests in mind.'

'Vajpayee managed to win both war and peace. Notice how he conceded very little in all his peace moves, says Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).

A B Vajpayee

On December 25, 2014, the government announced the award of the nation's highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, to Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It is an honour that should have come to him much earlier, the moment he became ill and left active politics.

Not giving him this honour in its ten year rule is one of the blots on the erstwhile United Progressive Alliance government. Be that as it may, it is necessary to assert that Vajpayee is not merely a party icon, but a national leader in his own right.

In the long history of India, we have won many battles, but seem to lose wars. Utilisation of battles to win wars and achieve national interest is the high point of leadership.

Since 1947 most of India's prime ministers have had to cope up with conflicts. Our first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru faced Pakistani aggression in Kashmir in 1947 and the Chinese attack in 1962. Lal Bahadur Shastri, who succeeded Nehru, in his brief tenure, fought a war in September 1965 against Pakistan. Shastri learned from the 1962 disaster and did not interfere in operational matters.

The 1965 war against Pakistan was a stalemate. But given American aid, Pakistan actually had a qualitative edge over India. An India that was economically weak could not resist the pressure and gave up the strategic Haji Pir pass in Kashmir. Tashkent was a diplomatic disaster.

Indira Gandhi was by far the most successful war leader that India has seen. In 1971, with astute diplomacy, shrewd strategy and iron will, she demolished Pakistan and created a new nation in Bangladesh.

But in the aftermath of the war, at the Shimla peace conference, she failed to cash on the advantage. One could also attribute her failure to correctly gauge the depth, persistence and rigidity of the Pakistani national psyche.

Rajiv Gandhi in a five-year tenure went into Sri Lanka and India suffered more losses than the 1971 war. In the end, we ended up annoying the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam without any corresponding gain in Sri Lanka.

Ultimately, Rajiv Gandhi lost his life to his faulty reading of the deeply entrenched historical forces that were at the roots of the Lankan conflict.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee had been witness to all these events during his over four decades of political life. He managed to win both war and peace. Notice how he conceded very little in all his peace moves. While a genuine peace monger, he was also a pragmatist.

Nehru realised the potential of atomic energy for economic development in an energy-starved country. Under Dr Homi J Bhabha's leadership, India, over time, built up impressive capability in the nuclear field. Nehru, as a pacifist, was against nuclear weapons. Yet he kept the Indian nuclear programme 'independent' of foreign curbs with the aim that should India need nuclear weapons at some future date, it must have the infrastructure ready.

Indira Gandhi, reacting to the pressure created with the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, carried out the first nuclear test in May 1974, signalling Indian resolve. In the then prevailing Cold War, India did not feel it necessary to go any further as the Soviet Union's support kept the Chinese threat under check.

The demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, rapid economic strides by the Chinese and the first Gulf War of 1991, totally changed the security environment for India. The Gulf War of 1991 demonstrated American power. This was reinforced with its actions in Kosovo, a province of the former Yugoslavia.

Many feared that after Baghdad, Mumbai would be the next target. Many in India urged successive governments to take the decision to go overtly nuclear. But fear of an economic embargo and lack of political will made India back out at the last moment.

If India had conducted a nuclear test, as France and China had done, it would be violating no treaty obligation. But we did not test then.

A clause on 'entry into force,' inserted at Chinese insistence, meant that even if India did not sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, its room for manoeuvre was being restricted.

A time would come when it would be difficult for India to defy world opinion and carry out a test explosion. It was imperative for India to make up its mind and carry out the minimum number of test explosions.

On May 11, 1998, three underground nuclear detonations took place at Pokhran in Rajasthan. This was followed on May 13 by another two detonations. These tests confirmed that India could manufacture thermonuclear warheads and carry out sub-critical computer controlled nuclear testing.

Vajpayee declared that India's nuclear weapons were for purely defensive purposes and issued a unilateral 'no first use' pledge.

Then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee with then defence minister George Fernandes and Indian scientists including A P J Abdul Kalam at the Buddha Site, where India's nuclear tests were carried out in May 1998. Photograph: ReutersBy asserting her power India raised a furore. Indians rejoiced at the success of our scientists and applauded the prime minister for his boldness. America slapped economic sanctions on India. Technological sanctions had been imposed in 1974. These were further tightened. In retrospect, it seems clear that the Pokhran tests came not a day too soon.

The signs of coming difficulties were there for all to see. In 1991, the West changed its non-proliferation policy to more aggressive 'counter proliferation.' The Washington Post reported in 1993 that $6 million was earmarked specifically for South Asia to 'educate' the Indians on this issue. Recipients of the West's largesse mounted a campaign in the Indian media under the garb of peace movements to disarm India.

It was India's good fortune to have a Vajpayee-led government at this crucial moment in our history. He took the decision and saved future generations of Indians from being 'Iraqed.'

Like a good general, Vajpayee anticipated the Pakistani nuclear tests and subsequent American pressure to tie the Indian nuclear programme with our small neighbour. By linking India's nuclear tests to the Chinese threat, India neutralised any such pressure in the future and the constant attempt by the West to equate India with Pakistan.

As expected, Pakistan followed suit with its own tests on May 28 and 30. But it needs to be stressed that while India tested the hydrogen bomb on May 11 and sophisticated 'small' weapons on May 13, Pakistan made no such claims. In fact it is possible that in the field of small weapons, usable in the Himalayas against the Chinese, India has stolen a march over China.

Indian nuclearisation was aimed at neither China nor Pakistan but was a challenge to the new world order. This new world order had no place for India, home to 1/5th of mankind. Pokhran II changed the world's perception of India forever.

Vajpayee is the first Indian prime minister to have 'realistically' played a global role. Jawaharlal Nehru indeed did, but it was a role not backed by economic or military strength and he came a cropper in 1962.

The major breakthrough in Indian foreign policy came after Pokhran II with talks between then external affairs minister Jaswant Singh and then US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott.

The first triangular relationship that India constructed was the India-US-Israel triangle. Liberated from the knee-jerk anti-Israel tendency, this relationship is on firm footing to counter political Islam and jihadi terrorism.

India has secured tangible gains in terms of state of the art weapons from Israel (with American blessings) and also made sure that the US does not supply military hardware to Pakistan.

This has resulted in India being able to get the better of the terrorists in Kashmir and also maintain an edge in conventional arms over Pakistan.

The second triangular relationship that has evolved is between India-Iran-Russia. This is in a way complimentary to the first one as all three countries are victims of Wahabbi Islam. The Russian headache in Chechenya is well known. Also, the Russian fear of the spread of Islamist ideology in Central Asia is very real.

Shia-ite Iran has been a staunch supporter of Pakistan. So much so that in the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war it sheltered Pakistani aircraft and even supplied it with arms and spares.

But thanks to the anti-Shia pogroms in Pakistan and the Taliban nightmare in Afghanistan, Iran has come to value Indian moderation and friendship.

Indo-Iranian defence cooperation would have been unthinkable a few years ago. India also acted as a bridge between the US and Iran. Since this relationship helps the US fight Islamist forces in the Middle East and also has the potential to help it emerge from the Iraq quagmire, it enjoyed quiet American backing.

The third triangular relationship that Vajpayee developed was between India, China and Brazil. In the World Trade Organisation conference the trio successfully thwarted the developed world's efforts to foist an economic regime that would hurt the agricultural economies of the developing countries.

This is one relationship that is purely economic in nature and has no direct security dimension. By standing up to the West, including the US, India demonstrated that it is no camp follower of the West.

There was one more interesting development that could have far reaching consequences. This was the alliance between India, the US and Japan. For a very long period Japan acted as the American proxy in Pakistan and worked against Indian interests.

While the Japanese have been making large investments in India and also earning good profits, Japan has been singularly hostile to Indian security concerns.

With the imminent rise of China to superpower-dom and Chinese proxy North Korea's threatening posture, Japan seems to finally waking up to an India-Japanese alliance.

Japanese technology married to Indian skills and resources can be the most effective counter to the Chinese desire to dominate Asia.

Foreign policy in India is generally handled by the prime minister himself. One can clearly see the Vajpayee stamp on all this. Only a person with a poetic imagination could weave such a complex web.

Vajpayee lost the 2004 election against expectations due to faulty party strategy and a sulking right wing that wanted instant 'revolution.'

One can see clearly the Narendra Modi government icking up the threads where Vajpayee left in 2004, as new challenges emerge. Indian economic growth will create its own problems. The demographic explosion in unstable Pakistan may well sabotage peace.

Operation Parakaram showed that India did not have a flexible instrument to deal with terrorist attacks, it was either an all out conventional attack or inaction.

A major restructuring of the security apparatus that was left to rust by the previous government may well be Modi's first priority.

The unmistakable return to the Vajpayee model by the Modi government is the greatest tribute to the visionary Vajpayee. The prestige of the Bharat Ratna has been enhanced by its latest recipient.

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) is a military historian and coordinator of the Pune-based Indian Initiative for Peace, Arms-control & Disarmament.


Image: Then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee with then defence minister George Fernandes and Indian scientists including A P J Abdul Kalam at the Buddha Site, where India's nuclear tests were carried out in May 1998. Photograph: Reuters

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