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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