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Opening Remarks of External Affairs Minister at the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Memorial Lecture

December 25, 2020

Good morning, Good afternoon, Good evening, wherever you are.


  • Today, we have gathered virtually to mark the 96th birth anniversary of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayeeji. The Ministry of External Affairs, with whom he had a particularly close relationship as Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and a Parliamentarian, is proud to announce the commencement of an annual memorial lecture on foreign policy dedicated to him. This will be delivered each year by a prominent practitioner or analyst.
  • Atalji was a titan of his times who left an indelible stamp on many of our national policies. Like those of my generation, I had the privilege of interacting with him as a diplomat. In fact, he was the Foreign Minister when I first entered the Ministry in 1977. We would see him in Parliament and occasionally on diplomatic visits. His warmth and kindness was, of course, legendary. But I should also state that his solid practicality was just as impressive as his soaring rhetoric. In particular, I recall being received by him when I was serving in Tokyo. I was the Deputy Chief of Mission then. The nuclear tests had happened and we were dealing with the aftermath. Essentially, Atalji’s words to me as I recall, were that the scientists had done their job; it was now for diplomats to do theirs. Which, of course, Indian diplomacy did, very much to its credit.
  • Looking back at Atalji’s life and legacy, there is no question that he was the transformational leader when it came to Indian foreign policy. He had an intuitive understanding that the post-Cold War world required India to drastically rework its relationships and interests. This vision led to a new beginning with the United States that has since been developed by successive Governments on both sides. It required us, as a nation, to overcome difficult moments and continuing concerns. Only someone with Atalji’s enormous self-assurance could, in the early days, have visualized how natural this partnership would become.
  • On a whole range of national security and foreign policy issues, Atalji introduced corrections, some bold and others more nuanced. His 1998 exercise of the nuclear option will remain his most enduring contribution. If our Russia relationship remains steady to this day, this owes partly to his endeavours. Our principled approach of engaging China on the basis of mutual respect and mutual sensitivity also reflects his thinking. In the neighbourhood, Atalji radiated goodwill and friendship, while being clear that terrorism and trust could not coexist. He could finesse difficult issues – as I discovered in Japan – while warmly reaching out across regions and continents. Our ties with the ASEAN were visibly strengthened by him and we continue to take that further. And those with Europe, Africa and Latin America started gaining in substance and profile, a process we are also taking forward. His visits to the UN always generated their own buzz. And most notably, he embraced the Indian diaspora in a way that had no parallel till then.
  • In organizing an annual memorial lecture in his honour, it is possible to pick from a wide array of subjects and themes where he made a real difference. What we have chosen to do today is both a recognition of the change that Atalji brought about, as well as an affirmation of our national priorities. A serious reflection on India’s ties with the United States at this time is also particularly appropriate. And our speaker who will address that issue represents the many dimensions of this relationship that Atalji appreciated and harnessed.
  • Ambassador Nisha Desai Biswal is the President of the US-India Business Council. In that capacity, she has been a real catalyst in energizing our growing economic cooperation. But to do so effectively, she also brings to bear a strategic perspective drawing on skills that she honed as the Assistant Secretary for South Asia in the State Department. She grasps the political imperatives of this relationship, having spent some of her career in the US Congress. And not least, she is the very embodiment of the success that our diaspora has achieved in the United States.
  • I have had the pleasure of working intensively with Nisha as India’s Ambassador in Washington D.C. and then as Foreign Secretary. This included the memorable visit of President Obama to India in 2015 for the Republic Day. More recently, in her current responsibility, we have collaborated closely in promoting greater understanding and interactions in business, technology, energy, etc. Her thoughts on the future of our ties, especially in a post-Covid world, should be worth hearing.
  • Atalji’s vision of India-US cooperation has been advanced, particularly in recent years, by the leadership and commitment of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Overcoming the hesitations of history, we are today focused on addressing contemporary challenges and emerging opportunities. And there is no one better to speak about it than Ambassador Nisha Biswal, whom I now invite to deliver her remarks.
New Delhi
December 25, 2020

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