Review of Strobe Talbott's Book
"Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and The Bomb"
Copyright: The Brookings Institution, 2004

Nostalgia for days gone by

I had found out about this book through the book reviews column of some Indian newspaper (I can't remember which one). Normally books that are copyrighted in 2004 would have been published in late 2003. In contrast, the present book was published during the second half of 2004, because it mentions recent events such as the surprising defeat of the NDA in the 2004 general elections. Though book ends in 2004, its focus is on the two-year period between May 1998 when India conducted its shakti series of nuclear tests, and February 2000 when Bill Clinton visited India, thus signalling a de facto acceptance by the USA of India's nuclear status. Since the author went out of the US State Department in January 2001 after the changing of the party in power, his description of the events after Clinton's visit are pale and impersonal, in contrast to his vivid and personal portrayal of the events between 1998 and 2000. Reading the book brought back many pleasant memories of the eleven years I had spent serving India's Ministry of Defence, during the last eight of which I had the distinct privilege of reporting directly to the charismatic Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, our current President. (For a highly personal reminiscence about Dr. Kalam, please click here.).

Those of us who were fortunate enough to have been in DRDO during the nuclear test period will never forget the heady feeling immediately following the tests themselves, the stoicism with which we put up with the angry US reaction and all the silly "sanctions" that followed, the various ways in which we bypassed the sanctions, and last but certainly not least, our belief that over time the US business interests themselves would undermine the sanctions -- something that actually came to pass. Unlike the author Strobe Talbott, who seems to have kept copious notes of all of his meetings with Jaswant Singh, not to mention copies of various official documents, I did not keep any diary nor copies of any documents -- indeed, it would have been strictly illegal for me to have done so. So before old age and the passage of time dim my memory, I thought I will share with my readers whatever I can about those events, under the flimsy pretext of "reviewing" the book.

Let me begin with the review. First, let us recall some facts: It is well known that in 1974 during Indira Gandhi's time, India conducted a "peaceful nuclear explosion" (PNE) in Pokhran, Rajasthan, but did not conduct any further tests. As a reaction Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then Prime Minister of Pakistan, vowed that Pakistanis would "eat grass" if they had to, but that they would develop their own bomb. As it came to pass, over time Pakistan evolved a very efficient weapons procurement program, which it tried to pass of as a weapons "development" program. With the USA turning a helpful blind eye to all of its shenanigans, over time Pakistan obtained nuclear designs from China, and subsequently traded those designs to North Korea in return for missile designs. In 1995, when the late P. V. Narasimha Rao was the Prime Minister of India, the US government put out the story that India was getting ready to test its own nuclear device, and sent out strong messages that it was not to do so. The US story was that US spy satellites had picked up the preparations for the test in Pokhran, and that this was the basis for the warnings to the Indian government. Given that the very same (or improved) satellites were fooled quite effectively in 1998, this claim seems difficult to credit. Whatever be the truth of the matter, there was no test in 1995.

Subsequently, in 1998 the NDA formed the government with BJP as its largest party. Within weeks of forming the government, to be precise on May 11, 1998, India announced to a stunned world that it had conducted simultaneous tests of three devices: a conventional nuclear device, a "low yield" nuclear device (of the kind that could be fitted on a tactical weapon for battlefield usage, as opposed to a "strategic" weapon with a much bigger yield), and a "thermonuclear" device. Two days later, India conducted two more tests. The Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, announced that the results of the tests were completely in accord with theoretical predictions, and therefore India felt no need to conduct any further tests.

American reaction was angry and swift. It kicked out overnight all the Indian scientists who were working in various US-based laboratories and companies (see below), and imposed a wide range of sanctions on India. Subsequently, when Pakistan followed with its own series of tests on May 25 and 27, (allegedly) five on the first day and two on the second day, USA imposed similar sanctions on Pakistan as well. The US also orchestrated very tough statements about the Indian tests from the G8 and whenever and wherever it could. The intent was to turn India into a pariah among nations.

At the same time, the Deputy Secretary of State of the USA, Strobe Talbott, began a series of engagements with Jaswant Singh, who was initially an "Advisor" to the Indian PM, and was the External Affairs Minister in all but name. Sometime later, Jaswant Singh was actually named the Minister for External Affairs, but continued to interact with Strobe Talbott, even though he now outranked the latter. (Protocol would have demanded that he interact with the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.)

The book under review is a detailed description of the engagement between Strobe Talbott and Jaswant Singh, culminating in the withdrawal of sanctions. Overall the book is very interesting to read, as Talbott writes very well and clearly. What comes through unmistakably is Talbott's admiration of Jaswant Singh and his appreciation of the difficulty Jaswant Singh had in persuading his BJP party colleagues to accept negotiations with the US government. He exhibits no such warmth towards his Pakistani interlocutors. The contents of the book reinforce what I felt at the time, namely: Jaswant Singh is a master diplomat, and but for him (and the unstinting support lent to him by Vajpayee), India would have caved in to US pressure. The situation then makes a sad contrast to today, when a silly, self-important twerp like Natwar Singh is our Minister for External Affairs, and takes his instructions from the "Acting Prime Minister" at 10 Janpath.

Aside from long verbatim (or at least, purportedly verbatim) quotations, there is very little in the book that is not already in the public domain. Hence anyone hoping to learn some new facts would be sorely disappointed. Just about the only fact I learnt from this book (which I have not read anywhere else) is that when Henry Kissinger visited India in 1974 after the Pokhran-I test, he supposedly said to Indira Gandhi "Congratulations. You did it. You showed you could build nuclear weapons. You have the bomb. Now what do we do to keep from blowing up the world?" Then in a 1975 memorandum written in the State Department, he directed that the United States should adopt a "basic policy of not pressuring the [Indians] about their nuclear weapons program." (See page 17.) Given that Kissinger was the author of the infamous "tilt" towards Pakistan during the Bangladesh war of 1971 (both the policy as well as the expression), it is difficult to believe that he really advocated this policy seriously. His own subsequent public utterances, both then and more recently, do not lend any credence to the thesis that he himself was in favour of normalizing relationships with India. But since Talbott mentions this reference in the bibliography, I suppose one must take it seriously. In any case, clearly Kissinger's recommendation was not followed up either by himself when he was in power and in a position to implement it, or by his successors.

While there is relatively little new information in the book, the book is nevertheless invaluable as an indication of the thought processes within the US State Department, its biases and its predilictions. We in India are always concerned about the perceived "tilt" towards Pakistan in US foreign policy. It is therefore somehow reassuring to discover from Talbott's book that the "tilt" is not imaginary but quite real, and apparently permanent. Presidents and parties may come and go, but the "tilt" goes on forever. The US State Department policy towards Pakistan is a vivid illustration of George Santayana's maxim that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

I can quote two very specific examples from the book. The first has to do with the repeated use, by various Pakistani leaders, of what might be called "emotional blackmail." After the Indian tests of 1998, Talbott and company went to Pakistan to meet Nawaz Sharif and tried to dissuade him from following up with tests of his own. Protesting his inability to oblige, "If he did as we wanted, the next time I came to Islamabad, I would find myself dealing not with a clean-shaven moderate like himself but with an Islamic fundamentalist 'who has a long beard.' " (See page 63.) Musharraf made the same argument when XX. It does not seem to have struck the folks in the US State Department that somehow everyone in power in Pakistan makes exactly the same argument: Let me do whatever I feel like and keep your hands off, because otherwise I will be thrown out and whoever follows will be a whole lot worse than I am. Either the Americans are monumentally gullible to keep falling for this argument time and again, or else they perceive it to be in their best interests to continue to ignore the illogic of it all. I would have expected Talbott, as an intelligent man who is no longer in power, to acknowledge clearly the fact that US policy towards Pakistan is on a treadmill, in that the Americans have to keep running just to stay in place. I do not expect Talbott-like individuals to offer any resolution, but at least acknowledging that the problem exists would have been nice.

The second theme I would like to cite is the imbalance of US concerns over nuclear proliferation. Of the five "benchmarks" set by the Clinton administration for normalizing relations with India, one consists of instituting careful controls to ensure that nuclear know-how is not proliferated to other nations. Immediately after the shakti series of tests, Prime Minister Vajpayee announced that India would desist from further tests. Moreover, over time India discussed and partially implemented its own nuclear doctrine (with which I have serious disagreements, but this is not the place to go into them). One of the noteworthy features of the Indian nuclear doctrine is a "no first use" policy, whereby India pledges that it will not use nuclear weapons against any state unless it is itself attacked with nuclear weapons. (Subsequently this condition was expanded to include also attacks by biological or chemical weapons.) In contrast, Pakistan has pointedly not published a nuclear doctrine. When questioned, the then government of Pakistan explicitly refused to rule out being the first to use nuclear weapons. Moreover, ever since Musharraf came into power, Pakistani nuclear technology has been clandestinely transferred to various nations such as North Korea, Iran and Libya. Musharraf found a convenient fig leaf to cover his own proliferation activities by making the chief scientist A. Q. Khan "confess" on national TV that he (almost single-handedly) transferred the technology, and then exonerating him. While Musharraf could have done little else under the circumstances, it is strange that Talbott fails to express even an iota of concern over such episodes, but continues to remonstrate with India to put proper controls in place. Here again, the current US administration of George W. Bush has thrown in its lot with Musharraf in the name of its "fight against terror," so it needs to put up a public posture of swallowing such nonsense (i.e., that A. Q. Khan single-handedly transferred nuclear technology to several nations, while those in power were clueless about his activities). But there is no reason for Talbott to swallow it so wholeheartedly. Talbott's studied silence in the face of Pakistan's calculated and long-standing policy of nuclear proliferation is very puzzling, from someone who claims to have a soft corner for India.

While the book can be read as "entertainment," I was very disappointed with it on several counts. There is very little by way of introspection and analysis of past US foreign policy, especially as it relates to India. Given that Talbott would now have to wait until at least January 2009 to re-enter the State Department, now would have been a very good time for him to have taken some bold steps and to have challenged the palpably poor manner in which the US has been formulating (and, alas, continues to formulate) its policy vis-a-vis India. But no such introspection can be found in the book. Talbott's oft-repeated admiration of Jaswant Singh does not prevent him from endless repetition of various homilies and bromides to the Indian governments, then and now. Talbott also betrays a serious lack of understanding of the BJP as a political party. Talbott's characterizations of the BJP and its philosophy border on comic book caricatures, and only reinforce my firm belief that even the so-called "professionals" in the US State Department are little interested in understanding the nuances of Indian society or Indian politics. In particular, Talbott's repeated use of cliches such as "hardline Hindu right-wingers" (as though there are no hardliners in any other religion) are extremely irritating. At one point he describes a casual conversation he and his wife had with Jaswant Singh, where Jaswant gives a masterly description of the evolution of Indian (read Hindu) society over the millennia, and shows how every minority save the Muslims have found themselves in a comfortable niche within the Indian society that is dominated by the Hindu ethos. Jaswant talks about Islamic radicalism as the "avatar of evil" and warns the US not to underestimate its potential. Talbott himself dismisses all of Jaswant's arguments as mere polemics and justification for what he (Talbott) sees as BJP's brand of sectarian, exclusionary brand of politics. He seems not to understand that 42% of the Indian electorate voted for the BJP and its allies in the 1999 election -- all 42% of us can hardly be accused of being "hardline Hindu right-wingers." He also seems not to understand that there are reactionary forces among Indian Muslims that have considerable interest in preventing Indian Muslims from joining the national mainstream. Indeed, the obscurantists among Indian Muslims have just as much, if not more, interest in keeping Indian Muslims isolated than the lunatic fringe within the Hindu segment of society. That the BJP itself did not understand why people voted for it in 1999, and managed to lose the 2004 election through its own stupidity and arrogance is another matter. But the noteworthy point is that Jaswant Singh gave his warning to Talbott describing Islamic terrorism as the "avatar of evil" before the events of September 2001, but Talbott carefully avoids mentioning how Jaswant Singh's forebodings have come true. All in all, the lack of depth of analysis in Talbott's book does not augur well for the future of Indo-US relations.

Now that the fig leaf of the "book review" is out of the way, let me get to the second point of this posting, namely: my nostalgic recollections of the nuclear tests and their aftermath from an insider's viewpoint.

When India conducted its tests, we in DRDO were quite sure that Pakistan would follow very quickly with its own tests. In fact, we were quite surprised that it took Pakistan two full weeks to conduct its own tests (on May 25). There was a joke going around in DRDO back then:

Question: Why did it take Pakistan two weeks to conduct its own tests, once India had tested?
Answer: Because all the instructions on the boxes were in Chinese.

Getting to back to the subject of our own tests, American reaction was angry and swift. Relations between India and the US, especially in the strategic sectors (consisting of atomic energy, defence research and space) have always been strained and "off again, on again" -- to be blunt, more "off" than "on." Though the Americans ostensibly tried to improve relations with India, in actuality they tried their best to undermine the development of each of the strategic sectors, including the space sector which in India is officially civilian and unconnected to the military. For instance, when India tried to procure the cryogenic final stage launcher for its GSLV (Geo-Stationary Launch Vehicle) from Russia in the early 1990's, the US took advantage of Russia's desperate situation following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 to bully Russia into annuling the deal with India. At the time the tests were conducted, there was some semblance of "cooperation" between DRDO and the US government, in connection with India's LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) program. Some folks from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio were regularly interacting with the LCA program to "advise" us, and presumably, to assist in India getting the requisite clearences to procure GE aircraft engines, "high speed" computers, etc. The LCA is one of the most advanced fighter planes in the world, then and now, because it is unstable and thus highly maneuverable. In all the public and private discussions about the LCA, two aspects were always mentioned as the key challenges: the design of a control law (to stabilize the aircraft and to allow the pilot to control the aircraft), and the design and fabrication of the composite wing (to lighten the weight of the aircraft). To this day I feel proud that my laboratory, CAIR, had a hand in the design of the LCA CLAW (Control Law). Unfortunately the DRDO laboratory that was entrusted with the task of actually building the actual on-board computer, referred to as the DFCS (Digital Flight Control System), put up its hands and professed its inability to do so. As a result, much against the philosophy of "self-reliance" that Dr. Abdul Kalam advocated, a contract was given to Martin Marietta to build the DFCS on its premises in the USA. Some DRDO scientists were in MM working on the DFCS when the tests took place. On the evening of May 13th, these scientists were unceremoniously bundled out of the USA, and the hardware they were working on (which was the property of the Indian government) was "impounded." At that time Dr. R. Chidambaram, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, as the Vice President of the Crystallography Society, an international body that was holding its annual convention in Florida in late 1998. However, the US refused to give a visa to Dr. Chidambaram to attend the conference. Of course, true to its devious ways, the US Consulate in Mumbai did not actually deny a visa -- it simply kept asking for one "clarification" after another until the date of the conference had passed.

The USA also published a list of "banned" organizations, both within and outside the government, to which it was illegal for US companies to sell anything. In the case of DRDO, the US government seemed to have used a two-year old telephone directory to come up with the list of banned entities, since laboratories that had recently changed their names were listed under their old names, while laboratories that had been created during the preceding two years were not listed at all! Needless to say, US computer companies took full advantage of these omissions and did a roaring business selling all of their hardware and software to the "non-banned" entities in DRDO. These "nonbanned" entities suddenly saw their procurement go up by an order of magnitude, with the full understanding on the part of the vendors (all of them US-based) as to what was happening. The whole episode fully reinforced my firm belief that the US sanctions were doomed from the outset, and that all India had to do was to sit tight and the American businesses themselves would argue for the lifting of the sanctions. In the book, Talbott mentions how, within six months of the sanctions being imposed, Senator Brownback introduced a bill in the US Senate that the President the legal cover for lifting the sanctions. To quote Talbott (page 127), the bill "technically allowed the President to waive a number of sanctions but in fact encouraged him to do so."

In 1995, the story was that US spy satellites picked up signs of preparations for the nuclear tests, and as a result, Bill Clinton warned P. V. Narasimha Rao not to proceed with the tests. At least, that is the story. In 1998, the spy satellites were apparently fooled because the Indian Army first put up some canopies and only then drilled holes under the canopies (to house the nuclear devices). This story is as difficult to believe as the other one. If all it takes to fool US spy satellites is to erect a few canopies, then I can only say that US "high" technology is a lot less high than I thought.

I can perhaps narrate a small story about the efficacy of spy satellites. In May 1999, India conducted the third test of an Agni missile, and the first since 1992. The missile tested in 1999 was the longer Agni-II, which had a longer range than Agni-I. Moreover, whereas the first two launches of Agni were conducted from Balasore in coastal Orissa, the 1999 test was launched from Wheeler Island, which is about 80 kilometers off the Orissa coast. Before the test, Dr. Kalam told another person and me that the preparations for the launch were so carefully camouflaged that no satellite could detect them. So this person and I downloaded the satellite images of Wheeler Island, from which the preparations for the test were quite obvious. After all, the Agni-II is more than twenty meters long and is launched from a vertical position, so it is not all that easy to camouflage the launcher. However, my friend and I had one advantage that the spy satellites did not have -- we knew where to look! We showed the images to Dr. Kalam and told him that the preparations were not so well hidden as he might have thought. He conceded the point, but since the test was then just days away, he did not worry. Indeed, the changed location of the test launch seemed to have come as a big surprise to those monitoring the Indian missile program.

Now let me conclude by discussing what, if anything, might cause the USA to change its approach to India. I have always held the view that the USA is able to persist with its lopsided approach to India simply because it does not pay any price for doing so -- or at least, it does not perceive that it is paying any price. Clearly, the mandarins in the US state department do not see any connection at all between supporting Zia ul Haq in his proxy war in Afghanistan against Russia, and (for example) the 9/11 bombing of the twin towers. The use of the Taliban as killers for hire was seen as a master strategy when they sent the Russian Army packing from Afghanistan. The fact that, with no immediate enemy, these hired killers were then pushed into Kashmir did not cause any disquiet amongst US policy planners, since they genuinely seemed to believe that terrorism could be cordoned off and confined to faraway places on the map. These self-delusions were rudely shattered on September 11, 2001.

Prior to September 11, 2001, the USA could conveniently divide killers of innocent civilians into two categories: "Terrorists" who kill innocent white people in pursuit of political objectives, and "freedom fighters" who show restraint and confine themselves to killing only innocent brown people. One would have thought that the events of 9/11 would have made the US policy makers rethink their world view, and to realize that ultimately their safety rested in promoting shared values and in strengthening relationships with countries such as India with whom they already share values. Instead, one finds that Pakistan has yet again become a "frontline" nation in America's never-ending battle against yet another "enemy" -- this time Al Queda. No one in the US establishment, not even Talbott, seems to have made the connection between the 9/11 bombings and its flawed foreign policy, especially vis-a-vis Pakistan. In particular, no one seems to have viewed 9/11 as one of the serious long-term repurcussions of having supported Pakistan blindly in its promotion of the Taliban and in turn the patronization of Al Queda by the Taliban. When even those who are out of power cannot bring themselves to admit their past mistakes, what hope can there be for a sensible American foreign policy to evolve?

I can think of only one hopeful sign. In early April, the Chinese Prime Minister (Wen Jiabao) visited India. The newspapers on April 12 were full of stories of his visit. In a pleasant departure from past pattern, the International Herald Tribune led off its front-page story with the sentence "India and China, world's two emerging economic superpowers ..." What sweet revenge! To be mentioned in the same sentence as China as an emerging economic superpower! I believe that the USA just might try to mend its ways towards India, if we don't yet again muck up the opportunity to become a strong economy. (And we are quite capable of doing so, what with the dinosaurs of the various communist parties and the clueless Santa Sonia engaging in backseat driving.) By now at least a few persons in the US establishment must have realized that India is now in a different league from Pakistan, and therefore cannot be bracketed with it any longer. Besides this, however, I do not see any impetus towards change.

Dated 15 April 2005