Mehta had a complex story to tell as his career as a diplomat spanned tumultuous times
Imagine you are sitting down at 7 p.m. for what promises to be a memorable dinner. What do you have for starter? Smoked trout fillet with celeriac remoulade and chive dressing. Then you're startled to find that poached fillet of brill with white wine sauce follows, and thereafter ballantine of salmon with warm ratatouille dressing. Of course, scintillating conversation ensues all through, over the dry white bordeaux, and soon it is 9.30 p.m. Just as you eagerly await the main course listed in the menu — braised lamb shank with root vegetables, wild mushrooms, and risotto — the dessert is served.
Former foreign secretary Jagat Mehta's memoirs offers a feast of terrific starters but somehow it fails to lead to the main course. Once again it brings to one's mind that India is starved of top-notch political biographies by its gifted diplomats. Somehow the culture never quite developed. Their memoirs tend to be chatty and anecdotal, whereas they ought to have fascinating tales to tell about politics and diplomacy and can offer priceless windows to the cloistered avenues of statecraft that lie perennially closed to public viewing in our country.
K.P.S. Menon, T.N. Kaul or P.N. Haksar could have told tales of enduring value that were no less mesmerising and intellectually stimulating than Anatoly Dobrynin's or Henry Kissinger's. They strode corridors of time when a great country with an ancient past was rediscovering its baby steps on the world stage. Mehta, too, had a complex story to tell as his career as a diplomat spanned tumultuous times when India was aspiring to trot. What made him, for instance, such a quintessential “outsider”? This might sound a bit odd as he had a stellar career in the Foreign Service, held interesting assignments and ultimately rose to the top of the heap in the Indian foreign policy establishment to the absolute envy of many in his peer group.
Yet he remained an “outsider” — branded unkindly at times as an American agent, as Mehta recalls. Such things can happen to diplomats who do “out-of-the-box” thinking (to borrow the famous words of Pervez Musharraf). The Indian security establishment, as the self-appointed custodian of patriotism, felt uncertain as to where Mehta's loyalties lay as a serving Secretary in the South Block.
The tragedy of Mehta's career as a top functionary in the South Block was that he often found himself ahead of his times. Without doubt, he belonged to the era of India's globalisation and the Washington consensus — after India crossed the so-called Rubicon, began putting on fat, and shifted to an unabashedly U.S.-centric foreign policy — rather than to a prioi history that saw an emaciated country, which bled white through centuries of colonial rule, was struggling to regain its self-respect and found strength in the numbers of the newly liberated countries of the developing world.
Mehta was a misfit in the “Nehruvian” world of India's non-aligned diplomacy and indeed he frankly admits it. Yet, it goes to the credit of Jawaharlal Nehru and his fairness that he offered plum assignments to Mehta, and the young diplomat steadily climbed the bureaucratic ladder. Indeed, the expansive foreign-service life that Mehta quaintly sketches no more exists and it almost leaps out of a museum.
The incomplete feeling at the dinner table becomes most despairing when Mehta recounts his assignment in China. No doubt, he is absorbingly anecdotal about life in the Indian chancery in Beijing but has added little worthwhile. Given his erudition and professional expertise as a “China hand”, he could have contributed meaningfully to India's strenuous effort to come to terms with China's rise.
Mehta could have made a solid contribution to the foreign policy discourse had his memoirs been a blend of minimal anecdotal sallies and long intellectual voyages. He was impeccably well-placed to do that.
To a degree, though, the memoirs make up for all lapses by the great story he has to tell which was the stuff of his own life — growing up in a privileged feudal family in Rajasthan, a first rate education in England, a breathless journey on the fast track of the foreign service, and the final unexpected abrupt arrival at a cul-de-sac, from where, through sheer grit and tenacity, he eventually resurrected himself into an absolutely new incarnation so far removed from the world of chandeliers and champagne, diplomacy and statecraft: an improbable post of the elected president of Seva Mandir, an NGO in Udaipur devoted to adult education “with volunteers going on bicycles to neighbouring villages with a blackboard and a hurricane lamp.”