This Article is From Mar 24, 2023

Opinion: When Vajpayee Worked With Opposition To Stave Off US Pressure

On the 20th anniversary of America's war on Iraq, a video clip that shows the best and worst of American democracy went viral. A veteran of the US Air Force who fought in that war confronted Joe Biden at an event and told him to his face: "You are disqualified. You have blood on your hands. You enabled a war that killed millions in Iraq. My friends are dead because of your policies. Our brothers and sisters died in Iraq and Afghanistan because of you. You sent us to hurt civilians. You're disqualified, Sir. You're disqualified."

It's a video from March 2020, when Biden was at an event in California campaigning as the Democratic presidential nominee. After patiently listening to the army veteran, Biden said, "My own son also fought in Iraq."

But what Biden said in self-defence is beside the point. Also beside the point, for the purpose of this article, are comments by many Indians on Twitter asking whether India is free and democratic like America, where ordinary citizens can openly question their top leaders.

Two questions really matter. First - how could a country that calls itself the leader of the democratic world launch a brutal war that cost $1.1 trillion and irreversibly lower its standing in the international community, including in the eyes of its own people? Second, and this is relevant for Indians - how did India, which had begun to strengthen its ties with the US, escape from being dragged into this war?

The answer to the first question is now well known. Although America prides itself as a defender of freedom and democracy around the world, its attitude toward non-western nations that value their own independence is hegemonic, not democratic. Democracy demands, at the very least, adherence to truth, respect for the sovereignty of other nations, and commitment to international law. In the case of the Iraq war, which was launched without authorisation by the UN Security Council, then US President George Bush flouted these principles with impunity. He gave Saddam Hussein and his sons 48 hours to leave Iraq or face an invasion by more than a quarter of a million US and British troops. Worse still, Bush had bipartisan support in America's political establishment, as is clear from the enthusiasm of Biden and other top-ranking Democrats in endorsing the war-mongering actions of a Republican president.

America justified its invasion of Iraq in March 2003 by invoking two lies. The first lie was Bush's allegation that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program, and had secretly stockpiled biological, chemical and other weapons of mass destruction. However, no such weapons were found when the war was over. Indeed, the US WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) Commission, established by Bush himself, concluded in its March 2005 report that the "WMD" fiasco was "one of the most public - and most damaging - intelligence failures in recent American history." The "Intelligence Community was dead wrong in almost all of its pre-war judgments about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction."

America's WMD claims were contradicted by none other than Hans Blix, who was the UN Chief Weapons Inspector. In an interview to MSNBC last week, Blix said Bush and his co-conspirator, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, should have faced an international war crimes court over their actions in Iraq.

The second lie was the Bush administration's claim that there existed a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda. Since al Qaeda had carried out its horrendous 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, this claim was successful in convincing nearly three-quarters of the American public that the war in Iraq deserved their support. However, this claim also subsequently turned out to be false.

How PM built consensus between government and opposition

Twenty years on, with America's lies busted, few people in India publicly justify its war in Iraq. However, this was not the case then. The United States unleashed its formidable diplomatic and financial power to mount a systematic pro-war campaign in India and around the world. Its efforts nearly succeeded. Vocal sections in India's political and media establishments not only drummed up support for the war but also joined the US administration in asking the Indian government to send our troops to fight Saddam's army in Iraq. Famous editors and columnists in leading Indian publications urged Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to abandon India's traditional policy of "pusillanimity" and "seize the opportunity to join the global war on terror". An emerging global power like India should not hesitate to "project military power" and place "boots on the ground" beyond its borders, they opined. They commented that allying with the world's sole superpower in defeating a "bloody dictator" would secure for India a seat on the "global high table". They also warned that not doing so would deprive India of a chance to be "on the right side of history".

Influential people in the BJP and RSS were swayed by this propaganda - partly because they too, like many Americans, were convinced that Saddam Hussein was backing al Qaeda's terrorist activities worldwide. On a parallel track, the American establishment was wooing them both directly and also by orchestrating opinion of the Indian diaspora in the US. 

As an aide to Vajpayee in the Prime Minister's Office, I was privy to much that was happening then. Of course, I was firmly of the view that the US invasion of Iraq could not be justified on any count. India, I believed, must not only condemn the aggressor but also stand in solidarity with the victim of aggression. I conveyed my views to the Prime Minister, whom I used to meet almost daily because of the nature of my work. He nodded in agreement. But he also told me, "Some people in the BJP hold a different view."

I therefore went to meet M Venkaiah Naidu, who was then president of the BJP, at his residence on Aurangzeb Road, which is now renamed as APJ Abdul Kalam Road. Never in my countless meetings with him was I as agitated as on that day. "Sending our troops to join America and its allies in Iraq would demolish India's moral standing in the world, especially in the eyes of the people of Asia, Africa and Latin America," I said. "India has never sided with military aggression anywhere in the world. Indeed, the only time India sent its army abroad - IPKF's operation in Sri Lanka to fight Tamil separatists - the outcome was not a happy one. How can we support America's 'Shock and Awe' bombing of Baghdad and large-scale killing of innocent civilians in Iraq? How can we forget that Iraq has traditionally supported India on many international issues, besides giving opportunities for tens of thousands of Indians to work there?"

Naidu listened to my anguish-filled words attentively, but only said, "But there are some people in the party who think differently."

It was during those critical months, when India's foreign policy was severely tested, that Vajpayee showed true statesmanship. He knew that many parties in the Opposition, including some in the ruling National Democratic Alliance, were totally opposed to the idea of sending Indian troops to Iraq to join the US-led war. Hence, when leaders of the Congress, CPI, CPI(M) and others met him to convey their views on the matter, he quietly prodded them to hold public demonstrations against the war. Vajpayee made his own personal view known by declaring in parliament, "If unilateralism prevails, the UN would be deeply scarred, with disastrous consequences for the world order." He then got Parliament to pass a unanimous resolution with an unambiguous message:

"Reflecting national sentiment, this House deplores the military action by the coalition forces led by the USA against a sovereign Iraq. This military action, with a view to changing the Government of Iraq, is unacceptable. The resultant suffering of the innocent people of Iraq, especially women and children, is a matter of grave human dimension. This action is without the specific sanction of the UN Security Council and is not in conformity with the UN Charter. The House, therefore, expresses profound anguish and deep sympathy for the people of Iraq."

Prime Minister Vajpayee thus worked adroitly to get the "mood of the nation" verbalise itself loud and clear. He then conveyed to the Bush administration that India being a democracy, the unanimous resolution of parliament did not permit him to send Indian troops to Iraq.

It was a triumph of Indian democracy, India's national interests and India's peace-promoting foreign policy. And it was achieved through dialogue and consensus-building between the government and the opposition. Surely, there is a lesson in this for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his opponents today.

(The writer was an aide to India's former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.