Published in the Hindu on March 16. 2022
The late Jyotindra Nath Dixit (Mani Dixit to his many friends and admirers) took over as Foreign Secretary on December 1, 1991. He retired 26 months later, on January 31, 1994 – 58 years was then the retirement age.
Republics and Moscow
Those were times of change. On December 25, 1991, Soviet Union’s General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev resigned, the flag of USSR was lowered for the last time at the Kremlin and the following day, USSR was formally dissolved. In its place, 15 republics emerged. India accepted the challenge and set about opening new embassies to build new relationships with these countries in Central Asia, South Caucasus and Central Europe while maintaining its traditional ties with Moscow.
In January 1992, India and Israel established full diplomatic relations, announcing the opening of embassies and exchanging ambassadors for the first time, opening the door to a relationship that has blossomed into one of India’s most significant strategic partnerships in the last three decades.
Path to the nuclear deal
On January 31, 1992, Prime Minister P V Narsimha Rao participated in the first ever meeting of the UN Security Council at summit level (India was a member in 1991-92), presided by British Prime Minister John Major. On the side-lines, Mr. Rao had a bilateral meeting with U.S. President George H. W. Bush where the two leaders decided that in the changing world, India and the U.S. needed to have frank exchanges on issues that had divided them during the Cold War; the issue identified was ‘nuclear proliferation and disarmament’; the first meeting took place during Mr. Dixit’s visit to Washington two months later, sowing the seeds of the dialogue that continued through ups and downs, leading to the path-breaking India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement in 2008.
At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit on January 28, 1992, Prime Minister Rao’s ‘Look East’ policy began to take shape as India and ASEAN embarked on a sectoral-dialogue partnership. By end-1995, this had matured into a full-dialogue partnership and in 1996, India joined the security dialogue platform – ASEAN Regional Forum. Since 2002, the relationship has strengthened further with the annual India-ASEAN summit.
On China and Taiwan
Following intense negotiations, during Mr. Rao’s visit to China in September 1993, the two sides initiated the first of the many confidence-building-measures, notably the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas. It laid the foundation of the relationship for two decades.
Simultaneously, India and Taiwan negotiated to open Economic and Cultural Centres; Taiwan opened its office first in Mumbai in 1992 before shifting to Delhi while Indian established the India-Taipei Association office in 1995.
The above gives an idea of how India was responding to the changes taking place around us and in the wider world. As a junior colleague who had the privilege of working closely with Mr. Dixit during these years, I often heard him engage patiently with foreign diplomats and respond to questions from inquisitive journalists seeking to make sense of the about-turns in Indian foreign policy.
Relaxing as he puffed on his pipe, in a private aside to his friends, he would tell us, “In Indian diplomacy, sometimes, you need to do a bit of Bharat Natyam”. The point was simple – you may appear in different forms to others but after you have first secured your interests.
UN vote dynamics
In recent weeks, the debates and discussions in Indian media and TV talk-shows about India’s stand on the Ukraine conflict and India’s votes in the UN Security Council and General Assembly are an appropriate moment to reflect on the Dixit principle.
Evidently, the Indian government has chosen to ‘abstain’, based on an assessment of its core interests. However, there is a cardinal principle associated with Security Council votes on issues in such charged times. A ‘for’ or ‘against’ vote is intended to convey a blunt message of ‘support’ or ‘opposition’. It is a black or white choice, and once exercised, the messaging is clear.
On the other hand, ‘abstention’ takes us into a grey zone because it is the middle path. It can either be seen as fence-sitting (which is a sign of helplessness) or create space for diplomatic manoeuvre (which is a successful outcome). In the Ukraine instance – the West should feel satisfied that India ‘abstained’ because they perhaps expected us to oppose their draft proposals given our traditional ties with Russia while Russia should also feel satisfied at our ‘abstention’ because they perhaps expected us to give in to Western persuasion.
The second outcome is a positive one but to appear in different forms at the same time, we need to revive the kind of Bharat Natyam that Mr. Dixit used so effectively to navigate those turbulent times, even as he helped set the course for Indian foreign policy three decades ago.