Vajpayee, Pranab Mukherjee and George Fernandes opposed Cong’s ‘surrenderist policy’. In Beijing, PM Gandhi declared: ‘Border is negotiable’
On August 7, 2008, then Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi had signed a secret memorandum of understanding with Chinese Communist Party to ‘promote exchanges at various levels’. Rahul had signed the pact with Wang Jia Rui, Minister in the international department of the CPC, in the presence of Congress president Sonia Gandhi and then Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
It is a fact that more than country’s interests, what drove Nehru-Gandhis were their family’s image and political power. The Family continues to share a very cordial relation with the Chinese, even as Beijing continued to pursue policies inimical to Indian interests. Rahul’s father Rajiv Gandhi, as prime minister, had contemplated giving away parts of Arunachal Pradesh, including Tawang, to the Chinese as a trade-off for ‘permanent peace’ on the border. But for strong opposition from Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Pranab Mukherjee and George Fernandes, he might have sealed the deal. In this context, it must be mentioned here that it was Rahul’s great-grandfather, Nehru, who had famously said ‘not a blade of grass grows there’ in response to Chinese occupation of ‘huge chunks’ of Indian territory in Aksai Chin.
During discussions with Opposition parties, Rajiv Gandhi tried to drive home that it was in India’s interest to reach a compromise with the Chinese (even at the cost of a few kilometers of land). Moreover, he wanted to bring about a general consensus in the country on his peace plan. In one of the meetings with leaders of opposition parties, he is reported to have said: “The McMahon Line was drawn by a ‘thick pen’ on a small-scale map.” This meant that Rajiv Gandhi was game for border alignment variations, as the thickness of McMahon Line on the map implied lack of ‘firmness and definiteness’ on the ground.
Rajiv Gandhi suffered from delusions of grandeur. In his bid to emerge as a global leader, Rajiv visited China in 1988. On his arrival at Beijing on December 19, 1988, Rajiv Gandhi declared: “I have come to renew our old friendship…and border is negotiable.”
While China asserts that the border dispute covers Arunachal Pradesh which it claims as Southern Tibet, India has always maintained that the dispute covered the Aksai Chin area. However, the Chinese had sold the idea to Rajiv Gandhi that the border dispute between China and India can be resolved permanently if New Delhi accepts Beijing’s claim over the strategically vital Tawang region in Arunachal Pradesh. The Chinese negotiators had dangled the carrot that if the Indian side took care of Chinese concerns in the eastern sector, the Chinese will respond and address India’s concerns elsewhere. Rajiv Gandhi had almost bitten the bait. Former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon who was India’s Special Representative for border talks and held several rounds of talks, in his book, Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, writes: “In 1985, China specified that the concession it was seeking in the East was Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh.” However, he further writes that this was “something that any government of India would find difficult to accept, as this was a settled area that had sent representatives to every Indian Parliament since 1950”. Further highlighting India’s difficulty in accepting the Chinese demand, Menon writes: “The Indian Supreme Court also held in the Berubari case in 1956 that the government could not cede sovereign territory to another government without a constitutional amendment, though it could make adjustments and rectifications in the boundaries of India.” Rajiv Gandhi held parleys with leaders of Opposition parties to bring them around to accepting China’s demand.
Except for a few Chinese stooges and Communists, Rajiv Gandhi’s pro-China policy found few takers from the opposition side. Pranab Mukherjee, who was expelled from the Congress, had vowed to fight Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘surrenderist policy’ in Arunachal Pradesh. The Janata Party came down heavily on Rajiv Gandhi for casting doubts on the McMahon Line. In unequivocal terms, the Janata Party said: “The border between India and China was not a thick line drawn on small-scale map but a clearly demarcated international frontier, which was transgressed by the Chinese.”
BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was then a member of the Foreign Affairs Consultative Committee, had made even a more serious allegation. Vajpayee said the External Affairs Minister had cancelled a very crucial meeting of the Committee because the government had prior information that the Chinese had decided to attack India in Arunachal Pradesh. During Vajpayee’s regime, the Chinese were told categorically that the Chinese proposal on Arunachal Pradesh was neither practical nor possible and it wanted China to hand over Aksai Chin to India.
Rajiv Gandhi’s plan to build a consensus in favour of his ‘China deal’ fizzled out in the face of public outrage. However, China continued to mount pressure on New Delhi to part with some areas in the east through its retainers and influencers in the pro-China lobby. “…when Kuldeep Nayar was told in Beijing that India must make concessions in the east to settle the border problem, he frankly expressed his fear that no government in Delhi could stay in power if it ever conceded anything in the east,” writes Charan Shandilya, a pro-China lobbyist.