Excerpts from my book – Rats, Cats and Diplomats

Santosh Kumar, IFS


Diplomatic License


I was called for an interview in Delhi. The day before I was to appear for the Union Public Service Commission, Harsh Gupta, the friend with whom I was staying, casually asked me whether I had photographs for the occasion. What photographs? I squeaked with mounting panic. He pointed to the small print in the call letter which said that I had to come to the interview with two signed passport photographs. It was a Sunday, we realized, and no nearby photographer would be open. We rushed in his car, picking up Badri, another friend and sub-divisional magistrate in Old Delhi for good measure. Several enquiries led us to an alleged photographer reclining on a battered cot in front of a shuttered shop. We are closed today, come back tomorrow, he grunted from his horizontal position. Badri drew himself up to tell the man who he was and explain the urgency. The photographer eyed him skeptically. I could almost hear his brain ticking. If this was the magistrate-sahib, where was his official jeep and peon? How was he expected to recognize magistrate sahib without the appurtenances of power? But he finally decided not to risk insolence and proceeded to open the hole-in-the wall which he called his studio. Change into your suit, Harsh said as we watched the camera being readied. What suit? I replied. The coin dropped with a clang when I glanced down at the kurta-pyjama I was wearing. This would not do with the crusty old gentlemen in the Union Public Service Commission. Seeing the painful look on my face, the photographer produced a shirt, tie and jacket which he kept for just such occasions. But he had no trousers to fit. The historic photograph was taken with somewhat ill-fitting western attire on the upper torso. It looked suitably impressive when I carried it to my interview the next day. But not without chuckling a little, visualizing the pyjamas in which my lower limbs were decked when it was taken.


I was at my laconic best in the interview. Most of the questions were routine. The only two which I recall showed up the interviewers. One of them was about what books I liked, and which was the most recent one I had read. I replied that I was fond of biographies and had just finished ‘A Thousand Days’, Arthur Schlesinger’s account of the Kennedy presidency. The line of enquiry was suddenly dropped. Obviously, none of the gentlemen had read the massive tome. The second question was whether I believed in the dictum: “For forms of government let fools contest; whichever is governed best is best”. This was right up my alley as a political scientist. I said that I disagreed. Forms of governance had a bearing on the substance of governance. My eyes must have revealed my eagerness to engage in discussion and show off my knowledge, for again the subject was dropped. This was a valuable bureaucratic lesson. If you showed that you knew more about the issue than your boss, he would back off to save face.


The results were out after a few months. I had not only done well in the interview but also well-enough in the written examination to be accepted into the Foreign Service. But there was a twist to this happy ending. My father had a visit that day from a police subordinate. He was told grandly that I had been selected to the Indian Foreign Service. The sub-inspector congratulated my father profusely. I must be really brilliant. And why not, seeing the distinguished parentage! He continued to ingratiate himself in that manner at length. And then he scaled new heights. Sir, such an intelligent boy! Why does he not sit the tehsildars’ examination? I am sure he will make it. So much for who the average Indian thinks embodies the power and glory of the government.


And Now the Heavy Stuff


Rats, cats and diplomats have been skipping blithely through these pages so far. Now comes the heavy stuff. Is there a pattern behind their appearances? Does it all add up to anything?


The seemingly aimless wanderings of politicians and bureaucrats, ministers and generals, saints and charlatans skirt a black hole in our foreign policy. And it is that there is no foreign policy. There are only short-term considerations. More fundamentally, there is no clear grounding in national interests. A framework for our external relations is not too difficult to work out on the basis of national interest. After all, the overarching objectives are simply to safeguard the country against security threats and to enhance economic prosperity of its people. How do they figure in India’s foreign relations?


The long-term security threat to India is from China. At the core lies the border dispute. Neither of the two governments seems to have the flexibility to settle it. And yet neither is interested in escalating the military stand-off. Too much is at stake in their economic growths and mutual economic interface. The risks of nuclear conflict are also unacceptable. The US is in a similar dilemma. It is interdependent with China in trade, investment and finance. At the same time it wants to contain China’s tendency to throw its weight around. Closer ties with India are part of its Asia strategy. India has a lot to gain from the US ……energy, technology, markets, and investments and above all ballast against China’s military preponderance. But it has to be clear on what it can and cannot give the US in return. The strategic challenge for India is how to play the India-US-China triangle. It has to be nimble and clear-headed in the three-way tango. Success or failure might well determine its future.


Another critical challenge is managing South Asia. India is located in an unstable neighbourhood. Conditions are likely to worsen before they improve. As it is, the region is defined by poverty. And fractured by differences of ethnicity, caste, religion, language and culture. Demands for secession or autonomy and violent Islamic and Maoist extremism add to the fault lines. So do rapidly expanding populations. It falls upon India as the dominant country and economy to steer the course. India’s own future is tied up inextricably with its neighbours. Be it the economy or the ability to achieve wider goals, it cannot succeed without a conducive neighbourhood. And yet our South Asian policies have hardly dented problems. Pakistan continues to be a security threat, particularly its jihadi terrorists. Afghanistan is a time bomb ticking away. Srilanka cocks a snook at us. Nepal is cutting its nose to spite us. It stymies hydroelectric projects beneficial to both. Bangladesh takes us on a roller-coaster ride between hope and frustration. Myanmar has still to rebalance fully after decades of our neglect. Even tiny Maldives is a headache. The roadblocks can no doubt be laid at the doors of big- brother phobia among our neighbours. But surely it is the task of diplomacy to find ways around them. Empathy with firmness and innovation with focus might perhaps have helped. What we have instead is a situation where, in his ten years in office, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has not been able to pay a single bilateral visit to our major South Asian neighbours, except belatedly to Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. This should have been first priority after assuming office, if nothing else but to symbolize the importance we attach to them.


No less compelling is the economic dimension of foreign policy. India needs a sustained GDP growth rate of eight to ten percent. Without this it cannot hope to lift its people from poverty to prosperity. Nor can it generate enough resources to prepare for security challenges. The key issues which need to be addressed are of course domestic. But the external interface can provide important inputs. Better access to markets abroad. Adequate supplies of energy and minerals from resource-rich partners. Collaborative management of river waters with neighbours. More foreign investment and technology from developed countries. Economic diplomacy should give priority to long term objectives in such areas.


These coordinates of our global strategy are not rocket science. They have been evident for quite some time. The Ministry of External Affairs should have planned to fit individual countries and events within them. And worked out detailed performance benchmarks for its personnel on that basis. Instead, our diplomacy is mainly reactive. It has reveled in its ‘cleverness’, ‘judgement’, and ‘gut feeling’. Indian diplomats lurch from event to event. And act as glorified tourist agents for VIPs. Whatever time remains is spent in the rat race for better assignments and other arcane bureaucratic pursuits.


Preoccupation with firefighting was evident in my exposure in the Ministry to Pakistan and China affairs. We were not clear what we wanted from Pakistan. I was witness to flip flops on the non-issue of whether to talk or not talk to Zia ul-Haq’s military regime. And on the No War Pact proposal. Later postures on the Kandahar hijacking and the Mumbai terror attack were similarly wishy washy. Pakistan is clear on what it wants from India. That is why it can marshal its diplomatic and military assets effectively to keep us on the back foot. Our China policy as well was marked by a listless stance on the border dispute and oscillations between the enemy-friend dyad. Small wonder our diplomats have groped around to make sense of developments without the benefit of a conceptual framework. They are strong on tactics but weak on strategy.


My postings abroad teemed with VIP visits, except for Yemen and China which were unattractive destinations for different reasons. Huge amounts of time and money were wasted. Rarely were there any concrete results. The President and Vice President regularly go abroad with jumbo entourages but with little purpose other than ceremonial. Return visits to India by their counterparts multiply to and fro VIP traffic. Then there are ministers and bureaucrats by the dozen wandering around the globe at any given moment. Some time back we sent retired and serving diplomats as special envoys to numerous countries to canvass for a permanent seat for India in the UN Security Council. This despite the bleak writing on the wall. Nothing came of it. Ironically, what a special envoy had to say could have been said as well by the ambassador. So either one or the other was redundant.


No one can accuse Indian diplomats of lack of intelligence or academic excellence. The cream of successful civil service candidates have till lately opted to join the Foreign Service. What explains then the policy black hole in their midst? Partly the complexity of international affairs. Partly the absence of a strategic culture. And last but not least organizational disarray.


The foreign policy establishment is hopelessly splintered. The Ministry of External Affairs is not the only architect. Other ministries and government agencies have built their own silos. Be it security or culture or the economy, they guard their external interfaces jealously. The Prime Minister has his own angles. So does his National Security Adviser. State governments queer the pitch, particularly with contiguous countries. A glaring example is West Bengal on territorial adjustments and water-sharing issues with Bangladesh. Or Tamilnadu and the Tamil question in Srilanka. It is natural in a democracy for everyone to sing his tune. To turn the cacophony into a symphony requires a conductor. But no one seems to have either the baton or the score, least of all MEA. Matters are not helped by reducing foreign policy planning structures – once headed by such stalwarts as D.P. Dhar and G. Parthasarathy – to a parking lot in the Ministry for itinerant officers. Its research function, so necessary to give policy depth, has been outsourced to think tanks driven by their own agendas. With no access to confidential information they mostly produce academic analyses of little practical value. Neither have outside experts been co-opted into negotiations or other policy processes. Many recommendations have been made for a full-fledged policy planning set up. But to no avail. It seems no one at the top wants to have a mirror held before himself.


Equally lacking has been leadership from Ministers of External Affairs. Nehru was of course his own foreign minister and dealt directly with MEA as an institution. Later Prime Ministers chose to part with the portfolio except for brief periods. But not with the tendency to take special interest in external relations. That was arrogated in due course by officials in the Prime Minister’s Office. Principal Secretaries to the Prime Minister, most notably Brajesh Mishra, became the main interlocutors. The result has been that more often than not foreign ministers have been second fiddles. With little patronage and scope for spinning money, the Ministry has not attracted powerful politicians who could push foreign policy priorities with other arms of government. Or mould parliament and public opinion. Neither has it had much luck in the post-Nehru era in getting foreign ministers with interest and vision. Among those I saw in action, Sardar Swaran Singh was one of the exceptions. His quiet style hid a keen mind and redoubtable negotiating skills. M.C. Chagla was another. Narasimha Rao was given to pouted indecisiveness as Foreign Minister but grew in confidence after re-incarnating as Prime Minister. It was then that he initiated reforms in international economic policy. Y.B. Chavan and Pranab Mukherjee, both capable in their own ways, had their eyes trained elsewhere. Jaswant Singh displayed fine strategic sense and pioneered India’s opening to the US. But his handling of the Kandahar hostage episode called into question his judgement. When I congratulated Brajesh Mishra for the government’s success in ending the crisis, he had remarked tongue-in-cheek that it was a mixed one. Just one of the released Pakistani prisoners – Masood Azhar – has perhaps wreaked more havoc in Mumbai than what was at stake in Kandahar. K. Natwar Singh had the advantage of being the first diplomat to get the foreign minister’s job. Given time he would have succeeded in refashioning Nehruvian foreign policy to changed circumstances. As for the rest, the less said about them the better. The hands of some on the tiller caused the ship of the Indian state to flounder in choppy seas. In any case, their fondness for foreign trips left little time for them to chart out the course.


The implications of several global trends seem to have passed our foreign policy institutions by. Revolutions in transport and communications are two major ones. Political leaders are in frequent touch. They now fly out to confer with each other at the drop of a hat. The centre of gravity of foreign policy making has naturally shifted back home. The role of embassies in reporting and policy formulation has shrunk. Nineteenth century structures of Indian missions, some of them gargantuan, have yet to adjust. No one has thought it better to move towards smaller modern missions. Resistance naturally comes from those who see it as reduction in their foreign opportunities. An instance from my South Korean tour comes to mind. We needed to recruit a local to take care of our public diplomacy and library. An Indian staffer would not do because knowledge of Korean was essential. I suggested that we give up in exchange a low-level India-based post. Incidentally, that cost much more when housing and schooling for the family were taken into account. It was no go! Delhi would not agree to the post being axed. Nor would it relax the ban on creating new posts. We were in a catch-22 situation. Imagine what cost effectiveness can be brought about by down-sized modules of an ambassador and a deputy, supported by say three India-based and three local staff. Larger missions would of course be allowed in the more important countries provided their rigorous justification functionally.


Conversely, MEA has found it hard to keep up with the increased workload back home. It has also not been able to pay sufficient attention to thematic areas like security, environment, energy, water resources, transport links, and technology. The need to expand its structures and personnel at headquarters has been only addressed haltingly. Leaner and meaner missions abroad would have released finances and human resources for this. That would have reduced the urgency of much-touted plans to enlarge the Foreign Service cadre. It is true that the present strength of eight hundred and fifty diplomats is pitiful as compared to comparable countries like China or Brazil. All the more so if the mostly useless promotees from junior cadres are excluded from reckoning. But surely cutting the slack should have been the first step.


The communications revolution has meant that news from all over the world is instantly available through electronic and social media. Diplomatic reports add value only if they contain inside information or deeper analysis. Yet our embassies often follow old reporting methods. Many pass off regurgitated media reports as their own. Modern technology has also added new arrows to a diplomat’s quiver. No longer is access to foreign decision-makers the only way. Public opinion and special interest groups can be brought to bear on an issue. Indian public diplomacy during earlier times was confined to making press statements, distributing articles about India and sending out cultural troupes. It cut its teeth in the last decade in getting the Indo-US nuclear deal through. Favourable American politicians, business interests and Indian diaspora were brought together to lobby in Washington. Public relations firms were employed to professionalize the effort. Deft use of social media also had its beginnings in the campaign. The concerted approach moulded bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. We need to replicate the success in other areas. A much larger problem really lies nearer home. A paradoxical situation besets our South and West Asian neighbours. Indian culture and Bollywood films permeate the area. Not to mention shared ethnicities, languages, religions and cuisines. Yet negative images of India persist. More often than not, even positive images do not translate into concrete outcomes. Changing this dangerous situation is a critical task for India’s new public diplomacy.


Implications of globalization and market-oriented economies have yet to be fully appreciated in governmental circles. The role of governments in economic activities other than regulation and infrastructure has been reduced sharply. And yet they strut about like emperors with new clothes. Pious declarations abound. Trade and investment targets are conjured up by official fiat. And inter-government joint commissions proliferate. Governments certainly are all important in matters of global, regional and bilateral economic policy. This is the prime area where officials should be effective. But theirs is a supporting function in actual business activity. Commercial entities are the main actors. Indian diplomats have been slow in adjusting to this reality. And economic diplomacy in strengthening links with business. Diplomats in the economic stream need to be better equipped and specialized. They must take business into confidence even on policy matters. And be able to better anticipate market and technological opportunities abroad to be useful to them. What we have instead is lip service to economic diplomacy. Many even doubt in private that it falls within MEA’s scope and competence. Economic work is still looked upon as second best. Greater store is put on political jobs.


Yet another economic trend is more effective use of aid as an instrument of foreign policy. Indian aid to other developing countries has expanded but not fast enough. The total Indian aid budget is miniscule relative to China’s. It is a small proportion of total financial assistance received by South Asian countries except for Bhutan. This is also the case in resource-rich Africa. Is it then surprising that our influence in these regions is limited? And that China scores. What is more, Beijing’s aid projects are more closely tied to its national interests. They are driven by the desire to secure natural resources and create transport connectivity. Even linkages to political objectives are clearer……like isolating Taiwan or influencing strategically important countries. Administering part of our aid programme from the Department of Economic Affairs made me aware of how much less purposeful we were. Most projects were ad hoc responses to proposals from recipient countries. Tardy implementation was another Achilles’ heel. More proactive diplomacy to promote projects of common interest is required. Assistance to South Asia in water management, energy, hydropower, transport networks, natural resource exploitation, market access and environment should be priority. Right now different agencies handle different aspects of aid like financial grants and loans, technical assistance, export credit and insurance. Stronger policy formulation, coordination and monitoring by MEA will help. Above all, a much larger aid budget needs to be brought to bear on supporting foreign policy goals.


All this goes to show how complicated foreign relations have become. Specialization is needed to cope. Yet the Indian diplomatic set up is trapped in a generalist warp. It is based on the principle that a bright person can do anything. Recruitment to the civil services itself sets the stage. You will make it if you do well in written examinations. Whether your subject is geology or German does not matter. Even if performance reflects academic excellence, does it measure intelligence? Would it not be better to also ascertain aptitude and practical abilities? And Foreign Service aspirants in particular for sensitivity as well as negotiating skills? I had realized that being a diplomat abroad was a lonely job. He had to reach out to and make contact in an alien environment. The razzmatazz of diplomatic life tended to puff his ego up. Soon enough he would feel alone with his own when he became head of mission. Often, his sense of balance might get affected. Ingrained stability helps in keeping the diplomat’s feet planted firmly on the ground. Could candidates not be tested for resilience and response to stress? As Dean of the Foreign Service Institute I found that many new entrants lacked the facility in written and verbal English so important for a diplomat. They were learning another foreign language. So why shy away from upgrading their English? These questions kept going through my mind. My enquiries led me to find out how Britain has such a fine diplomatic service. Its Civil Services Board and Foreign Office run a series of individual interviews and group discussions spread over three days. A psychologist is part of the team to assess traits. The numbers are perhaps too large in India for the Union Public Service Commission to go into such detail. But its routine interviews do not make for selection of best-suited candidates to the Foreign Service. The process must be tailored better to fit a model diplomat’s profile. And training should not be just a one-time affair. Knowledge needs to be updated at suitable junctures, practical skills honed, and performance linked to further promotions.


Ministry finances are also mired in old thinking. Too much of its resources are spent on the establishment. Little is left over for functional purposes. Financial procedures are still tangled in old-world red tape. Missions abroad are a microcosm of the pattern. The Indian Embassy in Seoul was typical. South Korea is one of our most important economic partners. It has much more potential as an investor and trade destination. And yet ninety percent of the embassy budget went towards establishment expenses. When it came to operational requirements, we had no money. One example was an initiative to promote tourism to India. Rising incomes had enabled more and more Koreans to take to cultural, golfing and adventure trips abroad. The main gainer was South East Asia. Business travel and Buddhist pilgrimages to India formed a solid platform to build on. Motivating Korean travel agents to sell India was the key. The Embassy and the India Tourist Office located in faraway Hong Kong got them together in Seoul. To harvest the tourist crop required advertising campaigns and attractive travel literature. Korean travel agents were willing to put some money where their mouth was. We were hamstrung in contributing even a little by way of incentive. The conference ended in a whimper.


Granted that other countries too suffer in lesser or greater measure from such frailties. And that India is not the only one with these afflictions. Also granted that some progress has been made in attending to them since my times. Much more remains to be done before our foreign policy can be restored to full vigour. We can and must do better.








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Officers IAS Academy – Best IAS Academy in Chennai.

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