The Vajpayee Doctrine: A Sound Economy and a Sensible Foreign Policy
by Akshobh Giridharadas
In August 2018, India bid farewell to elderly statesman Atal Bihari Vajpayee as he was laid to rest at the age of ninety-three. He was the first non-Indian National Congress prime minister to complete an entire five-year term in office, a monumental landmark.
His three-time tenure at the prime minister’s office lasted thirteen days, thirteen months, and five years, respectively. Six years is a small period in India’s seventy-year history. However, so influential and effective was Vajpayee’s tenure that he chartered India on a course of economic prosperity and navigated a new foreign-policy outlook — the effects of which are still being felt today as India accelerates near eight percent growth.
On the economic front, India broke free of its Soviet shackles with the economic reforms of 1991. Vajpayee continued those economic reforms with the telecommunications licensing regime that proliferated the voluminous number of cell phones across a billion people. From cellular connectivity to literal road connectivity, he initiated the Golden Quadrilateral highway that transformed India’s road network.
Fiscally, he reduced India’s fiscal deficit to a twenty-year low. His adroit macroeconomic management brought down inflation and saw lower interest rates that continued to open India’s economy to the world. Investments flowed in and exports flowed out. Privatization was also on the rise, further bolstering the economic foundations of India.
It was during Vajpayee’s full term tenure that Goldman Sachs took note of India’s meteoric rise, coined the term BRICS to refer to Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — five economies that are projected to be the world’s biggest by the year 2050.
Despite global excoriation, a seminal moment was when Vajpayee made India a nuclear power in 1998 almost ending what was then seen an exclusive P5 nuclear membership club. The United States did not hesitate to impose sanctions, which Vajpayee saw as an aberration in what he perceived to be an important robust partnership. He was instrumental in pivoting India closer to the West as he rejigged ties with the United States. U.S. President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Vajpayee started a new era of the U.S.-Indian alliance, breaking behind India’s Soviet shell. Today, the U.S and India are key strategic partners in defense, trade and coalesce on intelligence sharing for wider counter-terrorism.
It is said that each Indian prime minister comes into office optimistic of solving the Kashmir dispute and mending ties with Pakistan, but each leaves more disenchanted than his or her predecessor, having failed to make much progress. Vajpayee, however, was unrelenting in his efforts toward peace with Pakistan and having better relations with China — two of India’s thorniest geopolitical neighbors. He extended a hand of peace to Pakistan by riding the bus to Lahore to meet his counterpart, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, where he stood in front of the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, a symbol that represents the creation of the state of Pakistan.
Even as he broke bread with Sharif, a then-duplicitous army general, Pervez Musharraf, was plotting to infiltrate the hilly mountains of the Kargil region in Kashmir. This would eventually spiral into the Kargil War. Vajpayee’s overt gestures of peace had been rebuked as the Pakistan Army had thumbed its nose in India’s face. Though Vajpayee responded aptly with force to the Pakistani intruders to effectively win back the Kargil heights, Vajpayee remained committed to the peace process so much so that he invited Musharraf — now president of Pakistan — to an unprecedented summit in Agra to try and reset a new course for Indo-Pak peace process..
Rapprochement was Vajpayee’s priority. Geopolitical wonks couldn’t fathom the irony of extending an invitation of peace to an individual who singlehandedly took two nuclear-armed nations to war. When accosted by the media, Vajpayee memorably responded that one can change history but not geography.” Pakistan was India’s next-door neighbor with which India had to live. Inviting Musharraf to the summit was Vajpayee’s foresight of avoiding a Zia-ul-Haq-like scenario, when tensions were high under Pakistan’s last military dictator before Musharraf.
The summit failed and the Indian parliament was attacked in December 2001, a few weeks after the September 11 attacks. The terrorist groups had links to Pakistani intelligence services. Vajpayee responded by mobilizing the Indian army at the border. Pakistan did the same and it was a tense standoff between the two nuclear armed rivals, that worried then-President Bush and his diplomatic core. Vajpayee’s message was to show that there would be consequences for dangerous relationships with terrorist groups.
Vajpayee’s diplomatic elan with regards to Pakistan may have proved futile. He was often prompted as to why India had a peacenik approach when it came to responding to Pakistan’s links with terrorist groups. His discernment shone through when he stated to veteran journalist Shekhar Gupta that “you can decide when to start a war, but the decision of when it ends, is not in your hand.”
Vajpayee’s sterling quality was that he was above petty politics. Despite being a lifelong critic of the Indian National Congress party, he admired several of its leaders. When he took over as Minister of External Affairs in India’s first non-Indian National Congress government in 1977, Vajpayee noticed that a portrait of Nehru was missing from its usual spot in the ministerial chamber. It was removed in haste to appease the new government. Vajpayee demanded it be returned and put up in its rightful place.
Shakti Sinha, Vajpayee’s former private secretary, remarked that Vajpayee’s dream was to create an economically prosperous India with no poverty. He envisioned an India with social harmony and global political prestige. To this end, he may have succeeded — Vajpayee laid building blocks in India that will no doubt contribute to India’s future geopolitical and geoeconomic accolades.
Originally published at www.fletcherforum.org on December 14, 2018.