REVIEW Two villages and an
elephant Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb
by Strobe Talbott
Reviewed by Chanakya Sen
Metaphors belong naturally to the world of diplomacy. Allusive
manners are considered hallmarks of skillful diplomats. Strobe
Talbott, the prodigious Russian-affairs scholar and former US
deputy secretary of state, has brought alive the crucial period
of diplomatic history after the 1998 Indian and Pakistani
nuclear tests with similes - a non-proliferation elephant that
barely crawls to two different villages as destinations, one
aspired by the Americans and one by the Indians.
In 1998, as the Bill Clinton administration's point man on
Russia, Talbott knew India as "merely important", not "urgent",
in US foreign-policy priorities. However, the May nuclear tests
in Pokhran stunned the State Department. "India was no longer
for an administration that espoused treaty-based
non-proliferation regimes. Over the next two-and-a-half years,
Talbott engaged Indian diplomat Jaswant Singh in historic
dialogue, meeting him 14 times in seven countries. In this
intricate game of negotiating chess, Talbott's perspective was
that the global nuclear order was at stake, while Jaswant viewed
it in terms of India's sovereignty, security and equity.
Talbott's brief was to limit the development and deployment of
India's nuclear arsenal, while Jaswant's was to get the US to
accept India as a nuclear-armed power. In hindsight, Talbott
remarks, "Jaswant came closer to achieving his objective that I
did to achieving mine." (p 5)
Bomb in the womb
In 1964, alarmed by the Chinese nuclear tests, India sought
security guarantees from the US, an unrequited idea. When China
was allowed to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)
as a nuclear-weapons state, Indians were infuriated. In 1974,
India conducted a "peaceful" nuclear explosion and kept the
option of a nuclear-weapons program open. At that time, then
secretary of state Henry Kissinger assumed that India would
conduct more tests and directed "a basic policy of not
pressuring Indians on their nuclear-weapons program", only to be
overruled by the US Congress (p 17). In 1988, prime minister
Rajiv Gandhi warned that if the NPT nuclear-weapons states did
not disarm, India had the right and need to join their ranks.
In 1990, on receiving intelligence that the Pakistani military
had assembled nuclear weapons and was preparing them for use
against India, the George H W Bush administration dispatched
Robert Gates and Richard Haas on a discreet and successful
intervention that would carry precedent in future crises
containing nuclear ramifications.
Bill and Hillary Clinton had a fascination for India and were
convinced about a "new opening" to this neglected Asian giant.
Yet the first six years of Clinton's busy globe-trotting had no
place for India. His administration pursued the objective of
keeping the lid on Indian nuclear and ballistic-missile
technology, even as widespread domestic antipathy to the NPT
built up in India. Premier Narasimha Rao visited Washington in
1994 with the trepidation of being "badgered on
non-proliferation". (p 31) Talbott conveyed to Rao Clinton's
hope that India would resist the powerful temptation to test
nuclear devices, but received no concrete assurances in return.
In December 1995, US satellites photographed suspicious activity
at the Pokhran test site. The US ambassador in Delhi warned Rao
of a "full dose of sanctions" that would hurt the liberalizing
economy and forced the Indians to pull the plug on the test. The
test was again suspended in early 1996 when the two-week-old
government crumbled in Delhi.
India's May 1998 tests blindsided the US Central Intelligence
Agency and threw Clinton into "a volcanic fit", dimming hopes of
bettering bilateral ties (p 52). Arrays of US sanctions were
cranked out against India, leaving few supporters of prime
minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's fateful maneuver. Clinton's
brain trust's immediate aims were to persuade India to join the
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and dissuade Pakistan from
entering the club of NPT spoilers. Clinton himself floated the
thought of a troika with Russia and China to rein in India and
Pakistan to sign the CTBT. The scheme fell through.
Talbott was bluntly informed in Islamabad, "You don't understand
the Indian psyche. The people of Pakistan will not forgive if we
do not do the right thing." (p 61) Prime minister Nawaz Sharif
said he could resist pressure to test if India allowed a
plebiscite in Kashmir. As soon as Pakistan detonated nuclear
devices in Chagai, Clinton declared that there was a threat of
"nuclear war" and that South Asia would be "front and center" in
diplomacy during his last two years in office.
Vajpayee decided on damage control and sent his adviser Jaswant
to sit and talk "as long as the United States entered without
preconditions". (p 76) At the envoy's first meeting with Talbott
in June 1998 in Washington, Jaswant justified India's decision
to go nuclear for defending itself against its enemies. China
being "the principal variable in the calculus of Indian foreign
and defense policy", Jaswant deplored US tendencies of
"hyphenating us with Pakistan". (p 85) Talbott replied that
Indian and Pakistani fates were interlocked since they had just
conducted back-to-back nuclear tests. Jaswant dangled out
feelers that India "might" sign the CTBT in exchange for the
lifting of the US sanctions.
The second session of the dialogue took place in Frankfurt in
July, where Jaswant repeated that "maybe something could be
worked out on non-proliferation" if sanctions were lifted. The
third meeting was in Delhi in the same month. Talbott presented
five benchmarks for carrying the non-proliferation elephant to
its ideal village. They included India's signing of the CTBT
within a year and adopting "strategic restraint" in missile
building. Jaswant demurred that these benchmarks were based on
"American judgments about Indian defense requirements" and that
the CTBT signature would "take time". The Indian side was unsure
how much of a nuclear arsenal was enough. When Talbott had an
audience with Vajpayee, "on the subject of CTBT, his silence was
absolute". (p 100)
Jaswant foxily gave oracular utterances to the press creating
the impression that he was getting along famously with Talbott,
fanning suspicions and anxiety in Pakistan. Talbott found
Pakistani diplomacy "reactive and ineffectual in part because
Pakistani democracy was so fragile". (p 107) Sharif kept linking
the CTBT to Kashmir, a strategy that went nowhere with the
Talbott next met with Jaswant in August in Washington. The
Indians played the card of Republican senators in the US hell
bent on thwarting the CTBT and claimed that it made their
government's signature on the CTBT harder. In light of the
recent East African bombings, Jaswant's ploy was to lie back and
wait for the administration's preoccupation with Islamic
terrorism to replace its upset over the Indian nuclear program.
His ultimate goal was to get sanctions lifted without India
meeting any of the "elephant benchmarks".
At the next meeting in New York in September, Jaswant slipped in
references that he would meet with Jesse Helms, the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee chairman who detested the CTBT.
Pro-India and farm-belt members of US Congress were putting
pressure on the Clinton administration - exactly as the Indians
hoped. Jaswant and Talbott sat down next in November in Rome.
The Americans explained that the US did not automatically side
with Pakistan in the zero-sum game of the subcontinent.
At the next summit in Delhi in January 1999, Jaswant (now
foreign minister in Vajpayee's cabinet) exploited the Clinton
administration's slipping grip for applying weight on India.
The US Congress, France, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom
were all inclined to lower the bar for sanctions relief. The
Indians offered minuscule movement on two benchmarks and asked
for a large reward. Their partial steps were "couched in future
conditional tense and riddled with escape clauses". (p 146)
Relenting to the soft stonewalling and needing to display an
appearance of progress, the US released a big World Bank loan to
The May meeting in Moscow convinced Talbott that India would not
sign the CTBT that spring because of political paralysis.
Meanwhile, Pakistani military infiltrators into Indian Kashmir
brought about a full-fledged border conflict that appeared to
have portents of nuclear cataclysm (Talbott had information that
Pakistan might be preparing its nuclear forces for deployment).
The US put the blame squarely on Pakistan for instigating the
crisis and demanded its withdrawal from Kargil as a precondition
for a settlement and for US intervention.
Clinton chided Sharif point-blank at a Blair House emergency
appointment, "I'm not - and the Indians are not - going to let
you get away with blackmail." He threatened making public a
statement detailing Pakistan's role in supporting terrorism in
Afghanistan and Kashmir. Pakistan withdrew from Kargil soon
The elephant's swansong
For the first time, the US had allayed Indian doubts about
"whether we would take their security interests properly into
account". (p 163) Kargil made Vajpayee more trusting of Clinton,
but more wary on nuclear matters. India released its draft
nuclear doctrine that enunciated a "strategic triad" based on
the more-bombs-are-better philosophy of deterrence. In October
1999, the US Senate rejected the CTBT, a severe setback to the
administration's efforts with India and Pakistan. Clinton had to
waive significant sanctions against India.
The next formal dialogue round happened in London in November.
Indian interlocutors wanted an end to all sanctions as well as
rights and privileges available to NPT signatories in exchange
for signing the CTBT. Talbott declined. Jaswant, embattled by
domestic allegations that India was caving in to US bullying to
curtail its defenses, could give little at the next meeting in
January 2000 in London.
Eyeing reality, Clinton dropped all preconditions for his
long-postponed India trip. In contrast to stripped-down visits
to Pakistan and Bangladesh (partly for security concerns),
Clinton's visit to India was transformational for US-India
relations. Vajpayee pressed for full acceptance of India as a
nuclear-weapons state and president K R Narayanan chastised the
guest for commenting that South Asia was "the most dangerous
place on Earth". Clinton did not hide differences on nuclear
issues and hinted that the US could advance India's quest for
permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council if
it advanced non-proliferation. But the emerging possibility of
the anti-CTBT Republican candidate, George W Bush, winning the
next elections gave the Indian government space to wait for even
Jaswant and Talbott met for the last time in Bangkok in July
2000. "Our work was done and we both knew it." (p 206) Jaswant
officially notified that India would not sign the CTBT.
A new tenor
The George W Bush presidency maintained NPT-related restrictions
on India for two-and-a-half years, especially due to Secretary
of State Colin Powell's desire for continuity of policy. The
cushion of trust created in Clinton's time helped the Bush
administration send another troubleshooting mission to South
Asia after the terrorist attack on India's parliament in
December 2001. Richard Armitage, Talbott's successor, elicited
an assurance from Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf
that cross-border infiltration would stop. Even Clinton prodded
behind the scenes in 2003 when tensions heightened over
terrorist incidents in India.
Talbott concludes that the Indian bomb remains "very much at
issue" (p 224), though Bush's re-election in effect shelves it.
The talk now, under Condoleezza Rice when she takes over the
State Department and Stephen Hadley as national security
adviser-designate, is of "ending the nuclear dispute" with India
and boosting military-strategic cooperation.
Talbott's empathy for Jaswant's India outshines his policy
disagreements. Engaging India arrives as a fascinating
primary source about the ever-tightening "strategic partnership"
between the United States and India. It takes readers through
the pivotal moments when US-India relations stepped on to
greener pastures after 50 years of fallowness.
Engaging India. Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb by
Strobe Talbott. Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2004. ISBN:
0-67-005771-1 Price US$8.75, 268 pages.