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Book Review: Engaging India - varnamvarnam
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Book Review: Engaging India

Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, and the Bomb by Strobe Talbott, Brookings Institution Press (August, 2004), 268 pages

Following the Indian nuclear tests of 1998, Strobe Talbott, Deputy Secretary of State and Jaswant Singh, Minister of External Affairs conducted a series of dialogues, meeting fourteen times in seven countries on three continents which according to Talbott were the most intense negotiations between Indian and American officials ever. There was an objection to the word “negotiation” from the Indian side as it implied talking to someone in a position of strength. The reason it was called a dialogue was because the participants were not talking to change each others minds, but to understand what each person had to say. It was an attempt to fix the broken Indo-US relationship as well as to define the visions of economic and strategic cooperation between the two countries.

At the start of the dialogue both camps had diametrically opposite view of the future. The Americans thought that India, by acquiring the bomb had threatened the world order and other countries would cite this as a reason to acquire the bomb. The Indian stand was that it was an issue of sovereignity and security. If five nations in the world could have the bomb, then why not India? The compromise position taken by the Americans was to get India to limit the deployment and development of its nuclear arsenal and the Indian position was disinclined to compromise. The goal of the Indian team was to get India accepted as a fully entitled member of the International community.

When Clinton became the President, one of his goals was to get India to sign the NPT and get the Congress to ratify CTBT. Narasimha Rao, who was the Prime Minister was invited to Washington for discussions and Rao being the smart guy he is definitely wanted good relations with United States for India’s prosperity, but did not want to be forced to sign the NPT. But knowing that the Clinton administration was serious about getting CTBT ratified, Rao ordered the nuclear tests to be conducted. But American satellites passing over Pokhran saw cables running through L-shaped tunnels indicating suspicious activity. Frank Wisner, the US Ambassador, showed Rao’s principal secretary a picture of the satellite imagery and warned that a test would backfire against India and the tests never happened in Rao’s term.

After Rao, Vajpayee became the Prime Minister and the tests were arranged in such secrecy that the Americans got their information from CNN. This set off in motion the talks which is the subject of this book. Finally according to Talbott, Jaswant Singh came close to acheiving his goal in the dialogue than the Americans. Also due to these talks, Prime Minister Vajpayee trusted President Clinton to resolve the Kargil crisis and two years after the bomb, Clinton visited India. This book contains the details of various events and people which made it possible and is a story of the diplomacy and the dialogue that took place.


The book is fascinating on many counts. For once we get to know what actually happened (atleast from the American point of view) in this important political drama of recent times from a person who was deeply involved. The book gives us glimpses of negotiations that took place between the Indians, Americans and Pakistanis over various issues. Thus we get to know that the Pakistanis told the Americans that they would stop producing enriched uranium and in return the Americans had to supply them with F-16s for which they had partially paid. India was totally opposed to this idea and said that if Pakistan was supplied with F-16s, they would move more missiles closer to the border. In another instance of the diplomatic chess game being played, the Americans wanted a conference to be held between India and Pakistan and the five nuclear powers plus Germany and Japan to identify and promote arms control and disarmament with an emphasis on South Asia. Indians demanded that Iran, Libya and North Korea be added to the list of nations to guarantee that there would be no progress.

From reports in the media, we rarely get a glimpse of the behavior of our leaders, especially while dealing with high pressure situations like these. From this book we get to know that I. K. Gujral spoke so softly that people around him had a tough time understanding what he was saying. Sonia Gandhi comes across as steely and almost “Indira-like”, and Vajpayee as a person who seemed to have lost his train of thought in the middle of the conversation. But the person who cuts the most sorry figure is Nawaz Sharif.

When the American team met Sharif to convince him not to conduct retaliatory nuclear tests he seemed paralyzed with exhaustion, anguish and fear. He said that left to him, he would not conduct the tests, but there was pressure from all sides and he could not ignore it. But still he managed to ask if Clinton would just visit Pakistan and ignore India. During the Kargil war, when Clinton told Sharif that Indians would cross the Line of Control and there was nothing he would do about it, Sharif packed his bags and flew to Washington, uninvited and that too with his whole family. During his personal meeting, President Clinton noticed that Sharif had no idea what his military was doing, nor had he any control over it.

Strobe Talbott, a former Time Magazine reporter knew Bill Clinton since his days at the Oxford. He joined the State dept. and worked with Clinton and Secretary Warren Christopher in dissuading Russians from supplying rocket engines to India. He was present not just in the dialogue with Jaswant Singh, but also in other episodes such as trying to prevent the Pakistanis from conducting the tests and dealing with Sharif when he came running to Washington during the Kargil war. The book reads like a thriller and is a must read for anyone interested in India and the relation with United States.

Related Links: Indo-US relations


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