New Delhi: External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has made a strong, new statement on India’s foreign policy, expanding on the nationalist vision of the Modi government and critiquing several diplomatic milestones of the last seven decades.
In one broad and rare sweep for a foreign minister, Jaishankar questioned some key policy decisions of prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Manmohan Singh — taking the Jammu & Kashmir dispute to the United Nations, going to war with China in 1962, signing the Simla Agreement with Pakistan in 1972, and not responding to the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack.
The diplomat-turned-minister’s tough assessment of the foreign policy decisions of the Manmohan Singh government stand out particularly as he served in several key roles in the administration, including as India’s envoy to the United States, China and Singapore.
Referring to the Simla Agreement of 1972, signed between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and then Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Jaishankar said the pact resulted in India facing a “revanchist” Pakistan while creating a perpetual problem with Jammu & Kashmir.
“There was also little awareness in the 1950s that we were dealing with a battle-hardened neighbour to the north. Or indeed of the strategic significance of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir,” Jaishankar said at the fourth Ramnath Goenka Lecture Thursday.
“This approach to world affairs continued even thereafter. Thus, in 1972 at Shimla, India chose to bet on an optimistic outlook on Pakistan.”
The Simla accord mainly sought to establish good neighbourly relations with Pakistan, and called on the two nations to “uphold the inviolability” of the Line of Control (LoC), which was formalised after the 1971 war.
It was because of the Simla Agreement that it took India a long time to link any dialogue with Pakistan to an end to cross-border terrorism, Jaishankar said.
The minister said India “grossly underestimated” Pakistan’s significance to the US and China.
“In our own case, going to the United Nations on Jammu & Kashmir clearly misread the intent of the Anglo-American alliance then, and of the seriousness of the Cold War,” he added.
“Years later, our early awareness about growing Sino-Soviet differences did not mature on our expected timelines. In the 1960s, 1980s and again after 2001, we grossly underestimated the relevance of Pakistan to American and Chinese global strategy,” he said.
War with China, Pakistan ‘dark moments’
The minister said India’s loss to China in the 1962 war was a “dark moment” in New Delhi’s foreign policy, as was the war with Pakistan in 1965.
“There are enough dichotomies in our past to generate a spirited debate on successes and failures,” he added. “A misreading of geopolitics and economics upto 1991 stands out in contrast to the reformist policies thereafter,” he said.
He drew a comparison between New Delhi’s reaction to 26/11, which occurred during the UPA years, and the Uri (2016) and Pulwama (2019) attacks, to highlight how India’s response to exigencies had also undergone a complete transformation.
The Modi government launched cross-border surgical strikes against Pakistan-based terrorists in retaliation for the Uri and Pulwama attacks, which targeted an Army camp and a CRPF convoy, respectively.
He also questioned Nehru’s decision of not arriving at a “compromise” with the then Chinese premier Zhou Enlai when he offered to settle the border dispute regarding the McMahon Line on his 1960 visit to India.
Mixed response from experts
Asked about Jaishankar’s speech, a few veteran diplomats and foreign-policy experts said the minister seemed to be “playing to the gallery, toeing the line of his government”. Others, meanwhile, described it as “intellectual and philosophical”.
“The speech has anti-Nehru and anti-Gandhi written all over it. It was obvious that everything done in the past would be called a mistake,” said a former civil servant who served as secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs.
“The war of 1962 was crucial no matter how unprepared or handicapped India was. Any country would put up a fight when its sovereignty and border are under threat,” the former secretary added.
The veteran diplomat said it was a meaningless exercise to question the Simla Accord as it was never implemented “qualitatively or quantitatively”.
Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said the speech “had intellectual and philosophical connotations to it”.
“The past was notably about success but there were also failures that cannot be ignored,” he added. “We could have settled the boundary issue with China and solved the Kashmir problem when the time was opportune, but we were reluctant.”