Written by Sudhir T. Devare
On his 90th birthday two years ago, Ambassador K S Bajpai, a towering legend in the world of diplomacy, wrote in The Indian Express: “India faces more dangerous challenges than it is even aware of. I fear it ignores even more dangerously its greatest problem — neither the concepts nor the mechanisms for serving its needs are capable of doing so.”
This was the statesman like anguish of an Indian Foreign Service officer who had the unique distinction of having served as the country’s envoy to Pakistan, China and the US and as Secretary in Ministry of External Affairs. Bajpai, who passed away on August 30, was an intellectual giant known for his deep knowledge of the art and science of diplomacy, hard-headed realism and his sophistication. He continued to pursue his scholarship and academic interests after retirement and founded the Delhi Policy Group, a think-tank. He passionately believed in the need for a strategic culture for India. And this he espoused throughout his illustrious career and later on in newspaper articles, media interviews and Track II fora.
What distinguished him most was his action-oriented approach towards achieving that objective. One of his diplomatic contributions of historic importance, in my view, would be his handling of the situation in Sikkim which had become politically delicate. I vividly recall the work he did with single-minded devotion as the Political Officer from 1970-74, at a time when the history of Sikkim was being shaped.
I had the privilege of serving with him for that whole period. Watching his diplomatic savvy coupled with a firmness of mind was a rich learning experience for young diplomats like me and my colleagues. He did not seem to look at the prevailing situation in Sikkim in a routine manner. Rather, the prism through which he viewed this crucial arena of national security and defence made clear the need for a realistic approach, even as the aspirations of the people of Sikkim were rising. His relentless efforts were centred around advising Delhi about these developments.
Pakistan and the US were the two countries with which he had a long professional interaction and about which he had a deep insight. He had served in Karachi during the 1965 India-Pakistan war, was a member of the delegation at Tashkent in 1966 and 1976 was the Ambassador to Pakistan when diplomatic relations were restored. In the US, he had served as Consul General in San Francisco and was Ambassador in the mid-Eighties. After retirement, he taught at Berkeley and Brandeis Universities. His close contacts and friends in the US included political leaders across party lines in the US Congress, top media persons and eminent professors and scholars. His advice on US affairs continued to be sought in India for several years.
Thanks to his professionalism, innate courtesy and generosity, he was looked upon by a large number of foreign service colleagues as a guru, mentor and friend. The warmth of his and his wife’s hospitality and affection earned them a legion of friends from all walks of life. His knowledge and love for cooking unconventional dishes for his friends remained a passion. Ambassador Bajpai and I forged a bond 50 years ago in Sikkim. It has been a long, rich association that only grew stronger with each passing year. It is rare to find an iconic and humane diplomat like him.
(Devare is Former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs and Director General, Indian Council of World Affairs)