By Manish Chand
Indian diplomacy is 50 percent protocol, 30 percent alcohol and 20 percent T.N. Kaul (India’s legendary foreign secretary in the late sixties), so goes the famous one-liner. But it’s clearly much more than glamorous parties and clinking champagne glasses as a new book, which stitches together analyses, insights and reminiscences of India’s stalwart diplomats, shows.
Entitled “The Ambassadors’ Club” (Harper Collins), the book, edited by K.V. Rajan, a retired diplomat, weaves rare snapshots of Indian diplomacy in action at some of the fraught and exhilarating moments in India’s management of its foreign relations.
The book bristles with revelations and rare insights into how Indian diplomacy operates on the ground amid challenging situations and takes you beyond cliched official formulations and discourses that often hide more than they say.
A.N.D Haksar’s brief but compelling account of an impromptu summit meeting between Pakistan’s dictator Zia-ul-Haq and India’s then Prime Minister Morarji Desai in Nairobi in 1978 during the funeral ceremony of Kenyan leader Jomo Kenyatta is one such example that will prod readers to dig deeper into the book.
In the chapter entitled “A Singular Summit,” Haksar writes: “Butto was executed in the following summer of 1979 by the Zia government despite pleas for clemency from many leaders and governments around the world. One which made no such plea was India, the Desai government taking the view that the matter was an internal affair of Pakistan. Whether or not the previous summer’s summit had any role in this can only be a subject of speculation.”
There are also gripping accounts of some of the country’s much-esteemed retired diplomats whose stints coincided with history-changing moments in the countries in which they were posted.
T.P. Sreenivasan found himself grappling with the aftermath of a coup in Fiji in 1987 which was aimed at undermining the Indian-origin majority in Fiji’s affairs. A. Madhavan recalls vividly what it meant to be in the midst of one of the iconic events of the time, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and how India ingeniously built diplomatic bridges with a re-unified Germany.
Jagat S. Mehta, the doyen of Indian diplomats and now in his 90s, looks back at his diplomatic stint in China and seems to question Nehru and his advisers in their judgments of Chinese intentions in the late 1950s and 1960s. Commenting on Mehta’s article, K.V. Rajan, the editor of the book, writes: “Could the India-China war have been avoided if Nehru had been a better judge, or better advised, and his devoted and overawed bureaucrats were not convinced that ‘Panditji knows best?”
What imparts a unique flavour to the book are first-person accounts like that of “The Last Days of Salvador Allende,” the Chilean dictator, by G.J. Malik and Niranjan Desai’s gripping tale of his travails in 1972 as an officer on special duty after Ugandan dictator Idi Amin whimsically expelled all Asians holding citizenship of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Britain.
“The Ambassadors’ Club” is probably the first in a series of anthologies of reflections and reminiscences by Indian diplomats as they juggle diverse domains ranging from climate change negotiations to labyrinths of WTO talks and fills in on the drama and atmospherics that are missing from more scholarly tomes on international relations.
The book should be specially useful to practitioners as well as students of international relations. Above all, it should inspire more young people to join the woefully understaffed Indian Foreign Service.
In a foreword to the book, National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon recalls how he recently met a young man who had made it to the IFS, but was being dissuaded by his IAS colleagues and girlfriend from joining it. Menon says he tried to convince him about the singularity of the diplomat’s job, but in retrospect thought he should just have given him this book to read to discover the joys and challenges of Indian diplomacy.