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Rajiv Gandhi's vibrant foreign policy

It is now 20 years since Rajiv Gandhi sacrificed his life. He was the youngest ever Prime Minister and had enjoyed the largest ever victory for the Congress in the Parliament with 413 members in a house of 542. At the age of 40, he took oath as the seventh Prime Minister. He was the architect of a pro-poor liberal economy, a modern telecommunication industry, reforms in education and expansion in the areas of science and technology. Those were the days of two strong international blocs and it was he who managed to save the true soul of Indian foreign policy based on the principles of non-alignment, peace and disarmament.

Almost within six months of becoming the Prime Minister Gandhi paid a visit to the US President Ronald Reagan recalled Jawaharlal Nehru's visit to USA in 1949 and mentioned Nehru's remark that 'though we may know the history and something of the culture of our respective countries, what is required is a true understanding and appreciation of each other'. Reagan also mentioned that Nehru termed his visit a voyage of discovery and told Gandhi that his visit marked a continuation of that process of mutual discovery.  

Gandhi told Reagan: 'As I flew in here I saw, in passing, the memorial to Thomas Jefferson, who proclaimed in simple and stirring words that all men are created equal and independent.' Looking behind at the White House, Gandhi continued, 'Behind me is a house which has been the home of eminent men who have symbolised your nation's dreams' and its drive to greatness. One of them, Abraham Lincoln, said that a nation cannot be half slave and half free and that a house divided against itself cannot stand. The best minds of our age tell us that a world divided against itself cannot endure.' An Indian Prime Minister telling this to the American President more than a quarter century ago in itself shows the clarity of his mind on the issues related to foreign policy.

Gandhi landed in Beijing on the invitation of the then Chinese premier Li Peng. It was 19 December 1988. An Indian Prime Minister was visiting China after 34 years. Gandhi's visit was a major event in Indo-China relations and not only Peng had long meetings with him but also Chinese President Yang Shangkun and the then Chairman of China's Central Military Commission Deng Xiaoping. That was the time when Sumdrong Chu mini-crisis had intensified and just two weeks prior to his visit to China, Rajiv Gandhi had given full statehood to Arunachal Pradesh and the Chinese had protested.  

Then in July 1989, Gandhi went to Moscow. It was still the USSR, that is, the Soviet Union. When he met Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev they naturally had discussions on several bilateral issues. But, who could have stopped Gandhi from speaking his mind and he raised the issue of nuclear arms reduction. He said that there is nothing more dangerous than the illusion of limited nuclear war because it actually desensitises inhibitions about the use of nuclear weapons and that could lead to the outbreak of full-fledged nuclear war.

Gandhi was so firm on the issues of international importance vis-à-vis Indian interests that from UN General Assembly in New York to the Six-Nation Five Continent Peace Initiative in Stockholm he spared no effort to provide the Indian point of view and gathered appreciation for his thoughts and efforts. He was in Stockholm on 21 January 1988 where he said, 'They argue that nuclear weapons keep peace. This is false. We must change the thinking of establishments. If nuclear weapons exist, they will one day be used. And, on the last day, it will make little difference whether their use was by design or by accident. The nuclear debris will bury all hopes of reprieve. There will be no going back, no survival, none to tell the tale. There will be no lesson to be drawn for the future — or there will be no future.'

That Thursday of June 1988 saw a young man, who was heading an ancient country having hopes for a bright future, forcefully tell the General Assembly of UN how this has been the most bloodstained century in history, how 58 million perished in two world wars, how 40 million more died in other conflicts and how the ravenous machines of war have devoured nearly 100 million people. Gandhi said that this cannot be allowed to go on because poor and developing nations, who do not belong to the military blocs, who stay out of this race, who do not want to accumulate arms, suffer the most in the process. Gandhi explained how countries like India are compelled to divert resources from development to defense to respond to the arsenals. While proposing an action plan for the elimination of all nuclear weapons, Gandhi warned that the continuity of the arms race had imposed a great burden on national and global economies and the day was very near when even the richest countries will realise that they can not afford the cur rent levels of the  military burden they have imposed on themselves.

Gandhi had a clear mind in dealing with our neighbours. He took steps to improve relations with Pakistan but at the same time was not in favour of ignoring cross border terrorism. He was supportive of the process of development in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives. Gandhi's India was a friend in need for its neighbours and never hesitated to extend all the assistance whenever required. When Maldives faced a coup situation in 1988 and asked for India's help to counter it, Rajiv did the needful. He was never in two minds to respond to the demands of the situations.  

Sending IPKF to Sri Lanka was a decision that required a lot of courage.

Pankaj Sharma is a national secretary of the Congress.
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