Former ambassador Surendra Kumar’s Beyond Diplomatic Dilemmas, gives us a glimpse of an Indian diplomat’s life when not involved in the high drama of negotiations on issues of war and peace.
India has over a hundred embassies all over the world. What do the Indian diplomats do in these embassies, especially in those not readily seen as critical to our interests? What are the challenges for the cadre of around 800 Indian diplomats spread across continents?
Former ambassador Surendra Kumar’s Beyond Diplomatic Dilemmas, full of anecdotes, offers a clue. It gives us a glimpse of an Indian diplomat’s life on a day-to-day basis when not involved in the high drama of negotiations on issues of war and peace, borders, or water.
The writer is clear about what he has set out to do. This is not a book on foreign policy or statecraft. Nor is it a full memoir following chronology; more a selective narrative of the highs and lows, trials and tribulations in the job as he remembers it. “To demystify and deglamorise” an Indian diplomat’s life is the stated objective and in this he succeeds admirably by painting a picture of the bread and butter aspects of diplomacy at various stages of his career and in diverse capitals. For anyone who has wondered about what the diplomats actually do in an embassy, in any embassy, the book has plenty to tell. The author recounts his modest background. He is brutally frank about the prejudices and difficulties that he encountered especially during his university days and in the early part of his career. There are stories of the unfairness of the system, its arbitrariness or pettiness as he sees them. Compared to the rest of South Asia, and going beyond, compared to the diplomatic services of most developing countries, the Indian Foreign Service is perceived outside as merit based, professional, free from political interference, and as a service that has done well despite the smallness of its size and budget. These features are conceded even by its critics. Regrettably the writer does not mention them: perhaps he takes them for granted and speaks more about the deficiencies. The author was the Dean of the Foreign Service Institute, the training ground for budding diplomats, was energetic in building up that institution, but does not say much about the system of recruitment and training, a subject under discussion today.
Years in Africa
The author’s postings on the whole followed a pattern, some tough places, others more comfortable. Somewhat unusually he spent 14 years in Africa. Five years as ambassador to Libya under Col. Qaddafi and heading an Embassy in Mozambique when the only barbeques on offer featured field rats are examples of low points in terms of living conditions. He also did the extremely important job of cultivating the British press in London and was the Consul General in the target rich environment of Chicago where opportunities abound for encounters with influential Americans and Indian- Americans. There are captivating stories from these and half a dozen other places. The style is conversational and completely free of pomposity or platitudes. His talent in cultivating the right people to be the bridge builders between the country where he resided and India comes through.
Two groups of people dominate the narrative, however. Visitors from India, often seen in these stories as demanding or unreasonable, and local Indian communities whose help and resources are mobilised in the work of the Embassy. I wish there was more about the people of the land themselves, their interests and character traits. The tales of Indian diplomats need not be about Indians, however eminent or silly.
(B. S. Prakash is a former ambassador and currently a visiting professor at Jamia Milia Central University)