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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

PM Modi travelled to US not to conquer it, but to further India’s interests

Yashwant Sinha writes: This is something that prime ministers before him have also done, so what was all the fuss about?

Written by Yashwant Sinha |
Updated: October 2, 2021 9:33:31 pm
Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the Quad summit at the White House.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister of India for six years. Narendra Modi has exceeded that by a year. The first 18 months of the Vajpayee government were notable for the nuclear tests and their international fallout, the political instability at home and finally the collapse of the government by one vote in the Lok Sabha, followed by general elections in September/October 1999. Jaswant Singh did a fantastic job in convincing the international community that it was legitimate for India to carry out the tests. The final triumph of his diplomacy was President Bill Clinton’s visit to India in March 2000, which put the international community’s seal of approval on India’s nuclear tests and ensured a grudging recognition of India as a nuclear weapons state. The great national service done by Jaswant Singh was quickly forgotten by the BJP, and a time came when he was expelled from the party, not once but twice.

Vajpayee also travelled to the US like prime ministers of India before him. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited the US four times, out of which two were official visits. Indira Gandhi made three visits and all of them were official visits. Morarji Desai also made one official visit to the USA. Rajiv Gandhi made two visits, one official and the other an “official working visit”. Narasimha Rao made one “official working visit”, Vajpayee one official visit — during which he also addressed the US Congress and attended an official banquet in the White House — and one “official working visit”. Manmohan Singh, during his 10-year tenure as PM made several visits to the US, one of which was an “official state visit”, an honour not conferred on any other prime minister of India ever, one official visit and two working visits.

Prime Minister Modi has also made several bilateral visits to the US, the first in 2014 was described as a “working visit”, the second in 2017 as an “official working visit”. The latest visit has been described as an official visit. Six Indian prime ministers, including Vajpayee and Modi, have been invited to address the US Congress.

As far as the UNGA is concerned, Indian PMs have almost regularly visited New York to address the assembly and meet other world leaders, including the US President. Vajpayee invariably used to invite me to join his team when he visited abroad, even when I was the finance minister. As external affairs minister, I was a regular member of his team. I recall a meeting that Vajpayee had with President Bush in September 2003 in New York, which he was visiting to attend the meeting of the UNGA. At that time, India used to have a trade surplus with China. When Bush was lamenting the fact that the US was running a huge trade deficit with China, I proudly informed him that we had a surplus in our bilateral trade. This surprised him considerably. As a result of these meetings, I developed a cordial personal relationship with the US President. Even so, I was surprised, when I was told by our ambassador on my arrival in Washington DC in January 2004 for bilateral talks in the State Department, that my first appointment the next morning was in the White House, where President Bush had invited me to meet him at the famous Oval Office where he met heads of governments generally. I had a 20-minute meeting with President Bush with all his senior officials, including the Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor in attendance.

Around two years ago, the Washington-based correspondent of a leading English daily in India reported in his weekly column that the Indian external affairs minister and the defence minister would be visiting Washington for a two-plus-two meeting. He added that there was a likelihood that they would be invited to the White House for a meeting — the first time, he wrote, that an Indian minister would be invited to meet the US President at the White House. I rang him up to tell him that I have had that honour already. He promised to make amends for which I am still waiting. If I am not wrong, I remain to date the only Indian minister who has met the US President at the Oval Office at the latter’s invitation. Was the honour mine? No, it was an honour to India and its prime minister whose minister I was.

I had visited Washington DC in April 1991 as finance minister in the Chandra Shekhar government for the meeting of the IMF and the World Bank. Chandra Shekhar had given me a personal letter to be delivered to President Bush (Sr). Abid Hussain, our ambassador in the US, told me that there was no possibility of my meeting the US President in person to deliver the letter, but perhaps a meeting with the National Security Advisor, whose office was in the White House, could be arranged and I could hand over the letter to him. I declined the offer and told the ambassador to have the letter delivered to the President’s office in the usual course.

PM Modi travelled to the US recently not to conquer it, as bhakts would like us to believe, but to further India’s interests at the bilateral, multilateral and global levels like all prime ministers have done before him. He is the leader of a democratic country as his interlocutors repeatedly reminded him, not a “Chakravarty Samrat”, as the bhakts believe. So, what is the fuss all about? Perhaps, the shortcomings of the visit are sought to be made up by propaganda. The lesser the achievement, the louder the lies.

This column first appeared in the print edition on October 2, 2021 under the title ‘Diplomacy, not conquest’. The writer is a former Union external affairs and finance minister.

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