Nuclear friends get engaged for good

Engaging India
January 28, 2005

In the late 1990s, India's foreign policy made a radical departure from its traditional Nehruvian moorings. The election of a Bharatiya Janata Party-led national government in 1998 signalled the move towards an aggressive realpolitik. When this administration decided to test nuclear weapons - an act followed immediately by Pakistani tests - it set alarm bells ringing among Western powers.

This volume traces the US-led efforts to rein India and Pakistan into the anti-nuclear proliferation regime, as symbolised by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Efforts had been under way since the mid-1990s, but they took on an urgent tone when it appeared that both India and Pakistan would provide an unwelcome precedent, not least for the so-called "rogue states".

Strobe Talbott, a Bill Clinton buddy from his Oxford days, a distinguished Time reporter and Deputy Secretary of State (1994-2001), took over the South Asia brief after the May 1998 nuclear tests. He found a soulmate in Jaswant Singh, India's Minister for External Affairs, who not only provided him with an informal channel to the BJP Administration, but also began a dialogue over a range of issues that had traditionally estranged the world's two largest democracies. This dialogue, Talbott argues, blossomed quickly into an "engagement" that eventually contributed to a "mind-set" change in the State Department and the Ministry of External Affairs.

While the two sides went round the mulberry bush over the NPT and the CTBT, failing to reach any agreement, the dialogue was not without results. In 1999, the new understanding helped India to pressure Pakistan into withdrawal from the disastrous Kargil incursion in Kashmir; it laid the groundwork for Clinton's historic visit to India in 2000; and it provided the basis for subsequent US involvement in the region under the Bush Administration.

Talbott provides a fascinating insider's account of these critical years.

Particularly noteworthy is his assessment of the differing diplomatic and leadership styles of the Pakistanis and the Indians. While the former are prone to "bullying from weakness", "lashing out, or flailing about", the latter are adept at being cautious, wearing the opponent down by attrition or circumlocution. There are many examples in the text, but two will suffice: the dramatic escape of Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani Prime Minister, to Washington amid the Kargil crisis and his Hamlet-like performance before Clinton, and Singh's predilection for double negatives that, Talbott says, "did not quite add up to positives".

While these anecdotes help to enliven a difficult subject - one that fails to muster global attention even with the spectre of nuclear war - seasoned analysts of South Asia will wonder what they are to make of Singh's sage-like warnings in the late 1990s about the Taleban in Afghanistan, or the fact that the CIA was caught unawares by the Indian nuclear tests, though details of preparations were reported in a Sikh community newspaper in Toronto several days before.

The dialogue that Talbott and Singh initiated has brought India and the US closer, but mutual suspicions and competing interests suggest that there is a long way to go, even if in future the US decides to play the "India card" against China.

Gurharpal Singh is professor of inter-religious relations, Birmingham University.

Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, and the Bomb

Author - Strobe Talbott
Publisher - Brookings Institution
Pages - 268
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 0 8157 8300 0

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