Statesman of an emerging power

The last few times I shared some space with Brajesh Mishra he indicated his health was poor. When we were part of an extended team that drafted an Aspen Institute of India – Council of Foreign Relations report on Indo-US relations, The United States and India: A Shared Strategic Future, Mishra declined to travel to America for the report’s release at his doctor’s orders. So I was not all that surprised when he died last week.

There are many articles on Mishra’s accomplishments. I will try to make an informal assessment of what he represented in the longer continuum of Indian foreign policy. My answer: a recognition that India’s growing economic clout and international profile allowed it to take greater risks in foreign policy than it had before.

Before Mishra and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government of Atal Behari Vajpayee, India was rightly cautious. Its poverty, its numerous social and domestic ailments, and its very youth as an independent state made it cautious about foreign policy adventurism. Nonalignment and Nehruvian economics was, in many ways, about building a cordon sanitaire around India so it could develop without external intrusion.

This began to change with P. V. Narasimha Rao who, under foreign secretary J. N. Dixit, began to rejig the original Nehruvian assumptions. But it was under Mishra’s influence that the policy changes, and more importantly, the policy risk-taking began to flow thick and fast.

The most obvious example was the Pokhran II nuclear tests. It was not merely the act of testing – we’d done that before – but the confidence India could ride out the sanctions that were sure to follow. (The sanctions regime did not exist when the first nuclear tests were carried out.) And the even greater gamble that it would actually help India begin a dialog with the US and the West about ending India’s nuclear isolation.

Previous Indian governments had contemplated such tests but had concluded the country’s economy was too fragile to handle the consequences.

Then there was the single-minded pursuit of a Pakistani peace process that began with the Lahore bus trip. This was partly about a Hindu nationalist government being in power and being immune to charges of Muslim appeasement. But it was also a belief that India’s economy and post-Cold War profile could allow it to take initiatives with Pakistan again and again, even if they blew up in New Delhi’s face. Why? Because India’s ability to achieve great power status required an end to the Pakistan imbroglio. Lahore disintegrated into Kargil, but Vajpayee and Mishra were ready to try again. It is noticeable that this policy of “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” when it comes to talks with Pakistan is continued with the present government.

Mishra was always a China hawk, even before he became the national security advisor. And it was one of the reasons that drove him to push hard, very hard, for a different relationship with the US. He coined the phrase “natural allies,” he contemplated sending Indian troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, and the first outlines of the nuclear deal began with him.

I suspect his initial opposition to the nuclear deal was driven by personal irritation that this didn’t happen under his watch. Mishra had no doubts it was a historical pact and was to later embrace it. Point is: he was prepared to put the Indo-US relationship on the fast lane at a time when being associated with Uncle Sam was seen as seditious.

Getting the calibration of foreign policy responses right is not easy when the country you represent keep changing its capacities so rapidly. Mishra overstepped at times. For example, he reportedly threatened to cut off diplomatic ties with South Africa when they criticized the nuclear tests. They called his bluff, and Mishra had to eat humble pie. There is a case for saying that he made mistakes on the Chinese border talks as well.

But Mishra set the ball rolling for an India that believed itself able to try and proactively and directly change the international landscape in its favour. It was no longer a case of New Delhi being either passive or speechifying. And it started with him.

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  • Ashok

    Spot on. The other thing, related to the columnist’s puzzlement, which has intrigued me is why the middle class has been so reticent in supporting the reforms that have given it so much in the last twenty years. Granted the oligarchs have taken disproportionate benefits but there has been solid improvement for the middle class as well. Why no candle light vigils for further opening up of the economy, no countering of the statist narrative that is stifling growth ?


    Lines Flight Reply:

    That is because the great Indian middle class has traditionally been susceptible to being corrupted. Throw a few scraps and the middle class is ready to accept anything and everything. Of course, there is one other thing – the Indian middle class may also be a sham. In fact, there may be nothing like a middle class in India. There are just the poor – some of who may experience a temporary rise in their fortunes and who are then referred to as the Middle Class – and then of course, there are the Rich.


  • Tejal Johri

    Honestly, I feel that the middle class doesn’t protest about the mishandling of the economy because it doesn’t really understand much about the economy or the reforms in the first place. All that a middle class Indian cares about is how much money he has to dish out of his pocket, and the realization of the increasing cost is hitting him only now. I guess that’s how we Indians are, we never act unless there is nothing left but to act.


  • Abu Ahmed

    Those who can afford cars and bikes can afford to shell out some more dough for the gas – and they do not protest much. Petrol prices or the rate of rupee do not directly affect the lower middle classes and the poor – so they don’t care. Mostly they get more dumb-founded than anything else to react at another petrol price hike – may be if the price of onions rise up, then the people would react.


  • Sharma_r81

    It is so sad. The dream team of Manmohan Singh, Montek Ahluwalia, Pranab Mukherjee and earlier Chidambaram have done very little for the economy. If we look carefully, all companies are suffering. Major projects which were supposed to be executed in the PPP mode are now floundering. God save India.


  • vijay !

    Now I know this topic is off tangent for my post. But just want to spread this message far and wide.

    Vir, i hope you will be tolerant enough NOT to get this chopped off.

    India needs the best of ideas and laws on human rights and women’s rights.

    Unfortunately in the past few years– fake human right activists — who only recognize the rights of LeT and Maoists have tried to capture this stage.

    Similarly while Indian women need protection from dowry and unfair treatment, certain trolls have created and used these laws, especially the barbarian section 498 to implicate men.But now has come the acid test.

    Marriage of underage girls AND EVERYONE IS STRANGELY SILENT.let us remember our country that girls were getting married young and and in many states it still happens. Historically when the life expextancy was 35 in 1947, it was perhaps a logical thing to do.But today the national priorities are different.

    a) Population control, which a higher age marriage can achieve

    b) Education of girls… which can only happen in case they marry once they complete college .But… but… but… With the court giving precedence to what is written in a book over what is common sense, the equation has changed. The Muslim girl child will now be denied education, enlightenment, mixing with men ( which all girls I know love to do), seeing the world, the chance of a career. the chance of leading your won life… and so many things…And the s called human rights brigade and the women’s rights brigade is silent!!!

    The UPA has no balls to rectify this. Who believes that Baby G, Sonia G, Digviansh G or Salman ji want to do anything on this. They would rather tell the muslims that we have killed the constitution for you and held the Sharia to be superior…

    I cry for India today…


  • prashantkupatnaik

    Reasons for the middle class silence could be – 1. They r complacent. . 2.They did not deserve their uplift and as such they are not concerned about its possible loss. 3.They still wait for some one else to ignite the flame of protest so that they can run the marathon with it.


  • Syed

    An emerging superpower? How long will it take for it to emerge out of the shell. Is the shell too hard? Would a simple hammer do or does it have to do anther nuclear explosion. Keeping in mind , the fact, the first one didn’t achieve the purpose.