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Tuesday, September 22, 1998
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Another diplomatic test for Vajpayee
From Hari Jaisingh

NEW DELHI, Sept 21 — After the sweet-and-sour NAM summit at Durban, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee faces yet another diplomatic test in the swinging city of New York which also houses the United Nations. He is scheduled to address the UN General Assembly on September 24. This is not viewed as a routine exercise.

Already, there is speculation as well as political activity on the thrust of his speech which will decide India’s diplomatic divide, especially with regard to several sensitive issues like the CTBT, global nuclear disarmament, terrorism, Afghanistan, restructuring of the Security Council and overall UN reforms — and global financial and economic issues.

The Congress does not want Mr Vajpayee to make any policy departure on the CTBT. Nor does it approve of any policy announcement on the subject at the UN.

"Indian Parliament is the right forum for the purpose. In any case, where is the need for hurry? First, a national consensus has to be evolved. Second, we must wait and watch how CTBT related responses evolve", a veteran Congress leader told me. The Prime Minister obviously cannot ignore domestic compulsions on the subject.

Mr Vajpayee is not a novice in the complex world of diplomacy. Nor is he a stranger to the intricacies of the world, now dominated by President Clinton’s United States of America. As External Affairs Minister in the Janata Party government in October, 1978, he addressed the UN Assembly in Hindi. That was a swadeshi touch, though cast in the Nehruvian mould. He has the reputation of being a suave, sober and skilful statesman in diplomatic circles. He carries the burden of continuity in India’s foreign policy with certain shifts in emphasis.

More than his speech to the UN Assembly, a lot of importance is being attached to his scheduled meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The two leaders are slated to meet at Hotel New York Palace soon after Mr Vajpayee’s arrival in New York on Wednesday. The outcome of this subcontinental summit on American soil will not only set the pace for bilateral ties but also decide the US attitude towards India and Pakistan.

The "package" of understanding for the modalities of bilateral talks between New Delhi and Islamabad has already been evolved. This includes among other things "confidence-building measures" and security, and Jammu and Kashmir. The two Prime Ministers are expected to put their seal of approval on the package and set the ball rolling for the Foreign Secretary-level dialogue.

At the UN Assembly, Mr Nawaz Sharif is sure to play up the Kashmir issue in his speech on Tuesday. It is not clear whether Mr Vajpayee will hit back at Pakistan in his address. In recent years at least two Indian leaders — Mr Narasimha Rao and Mr I.K. Gujral — maintained a dignified silence and refused to join issue with Pakistan.

"It is in India’s interest not to overreact on Kashmir. Silence on the subject will be the best bet for Indian diplomacy", a former Indian diplomat told me. It is surely a fact that Pakistani leaders feel both upset and hurt if India refuses to react to Pakistani outbursts on Kashmir.

Indian diplomats have mostly been on the defensive on Kashmir though the Indian stand from the day it took the matter to the UN has been clear and categorical.

"What India lacks is proper packaging of its diplomatic efforts. Your leaders have to talk in an idiom the diplomats of other nations understand", an India-watcher told me.

Mr Vajpayee is aware of the pitfalls. He knows the handicaps. Today, he is a more relaxed person than what he was before leaving for Durban. This has been possible because of the easing of internal pressures on the BJP-led coalition.

Mr Vajpayee is confident. He evokes prompt attention even from his adversaries. From what I understand, in his UN speech he will try to revive global confidence in India’s commitment to peace and development. The Mandela faux pas at Durban has made the Foreign Office here more alive to the challenges ahead.

"We talk from a position of strength without buckling under pressure. We are even ready to make concessions without jeopardising the basic national interests. The aim is to evolve a dynamic foreign policy with a degree of flexibility", a veteran of South Block stated.

The very fact that Mr Vajpayee has decided to spend as many as five days in New York shows the importance India attaches to person-to-person diplomacy among world leaders who will be present for the annual session of the UN General Assembly. The Indian Prime Minister’s meeting with the UN Secretary-General, Mr Kofi Annan, is also on the cards. A lot of significance is being attached to this meeting in the light of certain adverse remarks on Kashmir in the recent UN report. A number of meetings with the non-resident Indians and different organisations of the Indian community will also take place. Here the idea seems to be to use vocal leaders of the Indian community to act as the country’s unofficial ambassadors.


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