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Monday, November 29, 2021

Mission Accomplished

A young diplomat’s concerns about Shimla Agreement go unheeded. An envoy to Vienna receives three curious instructions from Indira Gandhi. Engrossing accounts by former ambassadors

Written by Inder Malhotra |
June 9, 2012 12:39:24 am

Book: The Ambassadors’ Club: The Indian Diplomat at Large

Editor: Krishna V. Rajan

Publisher: HarperCollins

Pages: 330

Price: Rs 599

A definitive history of the evolution and execution of Indian foreign policy since Independence — with all its successes and failures,fine points and flaws analysed dispassionately — is long overdue. But we are unlikely to see one anytime soon. For this reason,the book under review deserves a welcome,if only because it is a small but by no means insignificant step in the desired direction. The Ambassadors’ Club: The Indian Diplomat at Large is a collection of 16 essays,in which each contributor,a former ambassador,has given an engrossing account of the significant moment of his career. (Why no woman former envoy is included among the authors is puzzling.)

The national security adviser and former foreign secretary,Shiv Shankar Menon,is right when he says in his Foreword: “Here is the Indian Foreign Service at its honest,understated and effective best… Each former ambassador has shown us sides of Indian diplomacy that are seldom visible. This is not the theory of diplomacy or grand strategy. It is the daily practice of diplomacy,conscious of great consequences that follow.”

Krishna V. Rajan,who has edited the volume,has contributed a detailed chapter on his years as ambassador to Nepal,headed “Darkness at Noon”,which says it all. (It could indeed be a commentary on the current situation there,too.) So does the title of L.L. Mehrotra’s contribution on another neighbour,“Hope and Despair in Sri Lanka”. He was high commissioner in Colombo at a time when the Indian Peace Keeping Force that should never have been sent there had to return home not in the happiest of circumstances.

A. Madhavan,Bonn-based ambassador to West Germany when the Berlin Wall came down,gives a fascinating account and fine analysis of this defining event in history. All other essays have also something to reveal and need to be read. However,in the available space only a few of them can be discussed.

On top of my list is the essay on the Shimla Agreement that Indira Gandhi and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto signed almost exactly 40 years ago,after this country’s magnificent victory in the 1971 war for the liberation of Bangladesh. Its author K.N. Bakshi,a long-time expert on Pakistan,was then a junior member of the IFS and belonged to the supporting cast to the negotiators who were far too senior to him. That should explain why his and his contemporaries’ caution to the seniors went unheeded. Remarkably,the agreement itself was reached and signed by the two prime ministers after the Shimla summit was officially declared a failure. Bakshi is entirely right in stating that the top advisers of Indira Gandhi were carried away by the “Versailles Syndrome”: the notion that defeated Pakistan must not be treated the way the Allied nations had dealt with the Germans at Versailles at the end of World War I.

However,there is no credible explanation even now of why India’s most hardheaded leader got taken in by Bhutto’s verbal assurances that he would “gradually” convert the Line of Control in Kashmir into a permanent border. He lost little time in going back on his word,as should have been anticipated. Incidentally,Bakshi’s narrative on Shimla is preceded by A.N.D. Haksar’s contribution,“A Singular Summit”,arguably the friendliest encounter between leaders of India and Pakistan. It was an unscheduled meeting between Morarji Desai and General Zia-ul-Haq at Nairobi during Jomo Kenyatta’s funeral.

“Engaging With China” is a notable and comprehensive contribution by Jagat Mehta,one of the most senior veterans,who was involved in the making and carrying out of the China policy for the longest period,from the mid-1950s as deputy secretary to 1979 when,as foreign secretary,he accompanied the then foreign minister,Atal Bihari Vajpayee,on the first high-level Indian visit to Beijing after the traumatic border war in 1962. This visit was wrecked by China’s invasion of Vietnam when Vajpayee was still on Chinese soil. With his deep and inside knowledge,Mehta blames for the 1962 debacle both Nehru and his principal advisers,silenced by their overpowering belief that “Panditji knows best”.

Chandrashekhar Dasgupta’s essay on climate change should be compulsory reading for all Indian diplomats,if only because so little is known of this complex and relatively new subject. K.L. Dalal’s account of his tenure in Vienna is arresting for the simple reason that he discloses the three specific directives Indira Gandhi gave him in 1980: One,to discreetly but assiduously look after Miraben, daughter of a British admiral and lifelong devotee of Mahatma Gandhi who had migrated to Austria after his assassination. Two,ditto the Austrian wife of Netaji Subhas Bose unacceptable to the Bose family. And three,to try to remove the misunderstanding that had developed between her and Austria’s famous chancellor,Bruno Kreisky,because of the Emergency she had imposed. All three missions were carried out,of course. But my main point is that Indira Gandhi,like her father,used to see and instruct every envoy on way to a new posting. Sadly,most of her successors gave up this wholesome practice.

The book’s last and super-fine chapter is by Prabhakar Menon who worked very closely with prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao,“the Quiet Innovator”. Rao had to adjust Indian foreign policy to monumental changes in the world order — the disintegration of the Soviet Union,collapse of Communism,end of the Cold War,America’s dream of a “unipolar world”,the need to “Look East”,et al. He coped with these challenges skilfully. Menon asserts that Rao “brought to bear on India’s foreign policy… a density of thought rarely seen in the conduct of India’s foreign policy”. Rao’s “novel approaches”,he adds,made him a “pathfinder through some of the less chartered terrain … ”. Broadly agreeing with this,Rajan describes PV as “one of the enigmatic,successful and still underestimated prime ministers”.

Dasgupta,who needed frequently to meet Rao for his guidance on climate change policy,is also an admirer of him. But he adds that Rao’s “great intellectual gifts were not,however,matched by an ability to hand down clear-cut decisions”. His usual response to a request for approval of a specific initiative was to “thrust his lips forward into a thoughtful pout and give utterance to something between a grunt and a ‘hmmm’.” Let me complete the story by pointing out that some of PV’s international interlocutors have also admitted to facing the same problem with him.

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