‘Jaswant-Talbatt Talk’ and India-US strategic engagement: A Legacy of Jaswant Singh, the foreign minister at the crucial juncture of India’s international engagement  


Jaswant Singh, the former Union minister of India who held three important portfolios – foreign minister, defense minister, and Finance Minister of India under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government, died at the age of 82. The former Army General of India and one of the founding members of the BJP, Jaswant Singh left a profound mark as a Parliamentarian and all the three ministries he headed. As a foreign minister of India, he shaped India’s foreign policy at a crucial juncture of international politics when the world was ushering into the 21st century. His legacy continues to shape India’s foreign policy to date.

In the wake of India’s nuclear explosion in 1998, Jaswant Singh was assigned the responsibility by Prime Minister Vajpayee to steer India through one of the most daunting challenges that India ever faced in the international era. The US had imposed sanctions on India for defying established international norms and lamented for triggering a nuclear arms race as Pakistan too did atomic explosion. India was heavily criticised and the UN sanctions were imposed on India. The biggest challenge was how to engage the US, the lone superpower that dominated the world and take India through this crisis. India’s long term ally Russia was down after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and India’s strategic importance in the US balancing strategy was not a priority as China was yet to emerge as a credible challenger to the US hegemonic power. Instead, the human rights violation in the Kashmir and nuclear non-proliferation issues were on the top on the agenda of Clinton administration’s policy towards India.

India was also faced with the challenge of dealing with the deep entrenched anti-India mindset that existed in the US Congress that was still harbouring the Cold-War ideological and geopolitics baggage. These Congressmen would leave no opportunity to criticise India. Pakistani backers were still influential on Capitol Hill and the Indian lobbying was still consolidating its position and had not fully arrived. Though the Indian lobbying had registered a couple of notable successes in defeating anti-India resolutions in the US Congress including quashing the morale of Dan Burton to introduce the bill in the US Congress to criticise India on the issue of New Delhi’s voting records against the US resolutions at the United Nations and defeating the bill.

India had refused to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996 which the Clinton administration pursued strongly. India considered the CTBT an extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT). India’s opposition was enrooted in its long-standing call for a universal and complete ban on atomic weapons in a time-bound manner. Besides, the NNPT undermined India’s security concerns and was discriminatory and biased in favour of the ‘nuclear haves’ of the permanent five of the United Nations Security Council. Nuclear Ayotollah’s were up in arms against India’s atomic explosion.

Amidst these scenarios, Jaswant Singh’s diplomatic dialogue with Strobe Talbott, the US Deputy Secretary of State, Jaswant-Talbott Talk, led the solid foundation for the transformation of India’s relationship with the United States, which shaped India’s international engagement. The Jaswant-Talbott Talk, in its eleven rounds of a talk held in different places around the world including in Washington D.C., New Delhi, London, and Singapore, covered a comprehensive range of issues confronting India in the strategic arena, the India-US bilateral relations, and their expectations from each other. The talk cleared apprehensions about India’s nuclear policy, India’s aspirations, and security concerns. The dialogue was the first serious attempt by both sides and particularly form the US to engage each other in a meaningful and positive manner on a range of bilateral and international issues of nuclear non-proliferation, disarmament, security issues, global terrorism, and the emerging international order.

 This was the most daring and ambitious diplomatic feat that India ever pursued since Independence. India mounted the daunting task of justifying its nuclear test on Capitol Hill in which the Indian lobbying carried on by India Caucus and supported by India’s diplomatic mission in Washington D.C. was crucial. From there the Indian lobbying also grew in its clout and subsequently would play a significant role in the passage of the US-India nuclear agreement bill in the US Congress and put an end to India’s nuclear isolation.

Later on, the events such as the Kargil conflict further helped India to justify its security concerns and nuclear test. Jaswant Singh tactfully used the favourable strategic scenarios that were created by Pakistan’s Kargil intrusion which turned out to be Islamabad’s biggest strategic blunder. Pakistan faced global repercussions and alienation. For the first time, the US saw India-Pakistan relations independently and slammed Pakistan for putting the South Asian region at the risk of nuclear war. The incident also de-hyphenated the US-India relation from Pakistan.

Jaswant Singh led India’s one the most daring political maneuverings on a global stage. Without reference to the Jaswant-Talbolt Talk simply one can not talk about the India-US strategic partnership- a partnership that’s not only important for the prosperity of the world’s largest and oldest democracies, but for protecting global commons and ensuring a stable global order, and more specifically for an open, rules-based and shared Indo-Pacific.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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