Letters to the Editor
The Pioneer, November 5, 1996

Gujral should quit

The collapse of our diplomacy at the United Nations symbolised by the abject failure to get India elected to the Security Council has transformed the focus of debate on the challenges and perspectives of Indian foreign policy. There is, however, no way in which the Minister for External Affairs, Mr. IK Gujral, can claim that he has not inherited full responsibility for the conduct of his Government’s misguided decision and effort to secure the UN Security Council seat.

News agency reports (including PTI) from New York clearly indicated the Minister’s personal involvement in securing support for India’s ill-fated move to confront Japan, and it certainly cannot now be claimed on his behalf that he adopted a low-key approach. The proposal to contest the seat may have been entertained earlier, but after he became Minister in Prime Minister Mr. HD Deve Gowda’s Government, Mr. Gujral actively pursued the proposal, and he must bear full responsibility for the consequences.

Unfortunately an effort is being made in certain quarters to portray the developments as the result of factional tensions in the foreign office. Such a line of reasoning is basically flawed. The task of foreign policy coordination devolves on the Minister, and it is his duty to express the overarching aims and objectives of the Foreign Ministry after ascertaining different recommendations from his experts, and also gaining information from politically sensitive agencies. He has also to advise the Prime Minister on what will reinforce support in Parliament for the operational measures being advocated by his Ministry.

It is now clear that there was no appropriate framework within which India challenged Japan, a fellow Asian country, and there was even some loose talk in the corridors of South Block that this was meant as “shock-therapy” for the economic super-power. The transfer of Indira Gandhi’s ambiguous phrase “friendly contest” by her erstwhile Information Minister from UP politics to international relations created a rather condescending impact. Instead of developing a sense of Asian community, we have brought on ourselves a sense of isolation. Indeed the backlash in the Asian region will take several forms, which, if not monitored closely, will cause us more pain and loss of support in the future. It will be difficult for the Government to deny in the forthcoming session of Parliament that this dismal episode has become a sign of India’s diminished status in the world arena. (Is it just a coincidence that the Nepalese Prime Minister’s “goodwill”visit to Pakistan is taking place close on the heels of the bashing of an Indian official and his wife?

It is axiomatic under the Constitution that ministers should remain fully and clearly accountable for both policy successes and policy failures. Indeed this would be a suitable opportunity for the Prime Minister to accept the loss of the UN Security Council seat as a “Himalayan blunder” and reiterate that his ministers will account to Parliament for the initiatives taken by their departments.

It will be morally wrong for Mr. Gujral to defend himself or his Government by pointing to the aberrant behaviour of some bureaucratic faction in the foreign office, or to conduct the parliamentary debate on this serious issue at the level of a war of words. The honourable course for him would be to tender his resignation to uphold the principles of Cabinet Government relating to ministerial responsibility, and thereby serve the best interests of the country.

Counting Gujral’s failures

12 November 1996

There can be no dispute with VB Abrol’s letter, “But what should be the new policy?” (The Pioneer, November 9) that had India succeeded in winning the UN Security Council seat, it could have been more assertive in international affairs, especially vis--vis the United States. The whole point of my letter was that India’s miscalculation led to an avoidable ignominious defeat, which has depressed its image and weakened its voice in world affairs. The international arena is not for ideological Don Quixotes, romantic and honourable though they be, but for hard-headed realists who do their homework before venturing on expeditions which bring dishonour to their countries.

Mr. Gujral has of late tried to exonerate himself by saying that he knew all along that India had no chance of winning. This, if true, (though his actions prior to the voting at the UN gave no inkling of it) is a confession of irresponsibility and incompetence in that he (i) did not make this assessment known to the Prime Minister and colleagues; (ii) failed to override previous policy decisions: New governments are elected to reverse the wrong policies of their predecessors, not to continue them; and (iii) to repeat what I wrote earlier according to the principle of ministerial responsibility, did not offer to resign in the face of such a stupendous defeat. Passing the buck to some bureaucratic underlings is churlish, to say the least.

Mr. Abrol would have done better to try to refute the arguments in my letter rather than dismiss it as a political gimmick: Throughout my 40 years of experience in foreign affairs first as diplomat, then as professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University I have never approached Indian national interest in a spirit of frivolity. Parties in a democracy are meant to raise issues of policy and principle in their mutual dialectic and by no means did my letter contain the kind of invective that Mr. Abrol’s for instance, carries in the non sequitur paragraph about “saffronsing” the country. As it happens, the BJP has a good reputation for upholding India’s interest in foreign affairs to mention Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s role at the Geneva Human Rights Conference as just one example.

Regarding the CTBT it is important to remember that India’s strong stand has been made possible by the fact that we did not sign the NPT. If Mr. Abrol would care to go through the records of the Lok Sabha debates during 1967-68, he will find that it was one of my speeches which played a decisive role in preventing Mrs. Gandhi from signing away India’s nuclear option. At that historic juncture I was able, as the BJP MP from New Delhi to remind the Prime Minister that India should be ready to make every sacrifice in order to maintain its nuclear independence. Mr. Gujral was then a member of Mrs. Gandhi’s Government which was getting ready to sign the NPT.

I support fully anti-imperialism or anti-neo-imperialism whether economic or political, but not incompetence and Mr. Abrol’s defence of the ill-conceived policy of the government simply will not hold water.

ML Sondhi
Member, Foreign Policy Cell, BJP

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