Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s deft foreign policy helped forge stronger relationships

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By
Aug 17, 2018 12:50 AM IST

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a traditionalist when it came to foreign policy. He held that it wasn’t feasible to radically reshape foreign policy in a short span.

When it came to diplomatic matters, Atal Bihari Vapayee was a traditionalist who held that it wasn’t feasible to radically reshape foreign policy in a short span because it stood on the twin foundations of consensus and continuity.

Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee died on Thursday evening.(HT Photo)
Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee died on Thursday evening.(HT Photo)

Yet, for Vajpayee, external relations were not cast in an unchanging mould either. He wasn’t risk-averse, but above all, pragmatic and worldly-wise.

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The risk-taking ability came to the fore when India, with Vajpayee as PM, conducted its second set of nuclear tests in May 1998, almost a quarter of a century after the first. All hell broke loose. Led by the United States,global powers slapped economic sanctions on India when liberalisation was yet to complete a decade.

Also read: Updates: ‘Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s death marks end of an era,’ says PM Modi

“It was the biggest foreign policy crisis in a generation or more. At the end, it was defused. The US and India charted a new course of strategic relationship a few years from then, “ said former foreign secretary Lalitman Singh.

Watch: Remembering Atal Bihari Vajpayee: Poet, politician and statesman


Many were caught by surprise when Vajpayee first declared that India and the US , the world’s largest and oldest democracies, were natural allies. Of course, the Cold War had become history by the time Vajpayee became Prime Minister of India. But trusting the Americans had never come naturally to generations of Indian leaders.

“The Vajpayee government invented the term ‘natural alliance’ which has been adopted by Prime Minister(Manmoha) Singh’s government ,and American officials,” foreign affairs expert Stephen P. Cohen wrote.

In his 2000 address to the US Congress, Vajpayee said India and the US had taken a decisive step away from the past.

“The dawn of the new century has marked a new beginning in our relations”, Vajpayee said.

And he presided over the dawn of the new phase in India’s relationship with the US.

Dealing with Pakistan was more challenging although Vajpayee consistently maintained that stopping cross-border infiltration and destruction of terrorist infrastructure by Pakistan could open the doors for talks. “Talks can take place on all issues, including that of Jammu & Kashmir,” he said.

Also read: Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s complex relationship with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh

When he took over as PM, cross-border terrorism was rampant, but much to India’s discomfiture, world powers then were not ready top support New Delhi’s contention that Pakistan was sponsoring terror outfits to carry out attacks on India. Against heavy odds, he sought normalisation of ties with Pakistan, reasoning that one can change friends, but had to live with one’s neighbours.

In 1999, Vajpayee made his historic bus journey to Lahore in quest of peace. “The partition of our country had caused a wound in our heart, that wound had healed and the mark left by it reminds us that we have to live in harmony with one another”, Vajpayee said at a civic reception in Lahore in February 1999.

Months after that initiative, India fought a limited war to stop Pakistan’s aggression in the Kargil sector of J& K in the summer of the same year. The 2001 Aqra summit between Vajpayee and then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, too, collapsed in mutual acrimony.

Vajpayee, like present Prime Minister Narenadra Modi, departed from the long-standing hostility towards China of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological fount of the Bharatiya Janata Party.. As foreign minister in the Janata Party government of 1977-79, Vajpayee began the effort to normalise relations with China that had been held hostage to the 1962 war over a border dispute that persists to this day.

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