It is feast time for students of India’s foreign policy and diplomacy. Books by Indian diplomats, both serving and retired, have been appearing with increasing regularity. It is a welcome trend because, as India’s global profile rises, there is a new appetite for writings by insiders. Former foreign secretary Krishnan Srinivasan’s latest offering Diplomatic Channels is an interesting, eclectic work which is difficult to categorise; it is part-memoir, part-serious critique of foreign policy and it even includes a short story.
The author distinguished himself as high commissioner in Nigeria and Bangladesh, eventually serving as foreign secretary during 1994-95. Post-retirement, he was also deputy secretary general of the Commonwealth for several years. Unlike many countrymen whose preferred mode of communication is monologue, Srinivasan is known to prefer listening to others rather than holding forth. A man of very few words, he has a sharp sense of observation and a flair for precision. Besides, he calls a spade a spade. These traits find ample reflection in this book, his ninth in a rising portfolio.
The monograph on his innings as the country’s chief diplomat is fascinating. It adds to our knowledge as to how the foreign policy machine worked during Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s time. The author’s memoirs were written within a year after his tenure. He identifies three key issues that demanded most attention, namely arms control in the context of India-U.S. relations; economic liberalisation process that impacted on external relations, and Pakistan policy with reference to Kashmir. Handling of these issues by the Ministry of External Affairs then could not have been qualitatively different from the times of Srinivasan’s predecessor or successor. After all, occupants of that fancied corner room in South Block have to operate under similar constraints.
What distinguishes Srinivasan’s narrative is a set of his brief but candid pen-portraits of his political bosses which include two presidents, a foreign minister, two ministers of state and the Prime Minister himself. ‘Narasimha Rao’, says the author, ‘liked to be his own inscrutable man ... the opposite of charming.’ But Rao, who sounded ‘magisterial or intellectual’ with a tendency to procrastinate at group meetings, had little difficulty in giving quick decisions ‘when presented with the clear options.’ He had ‘an unstated yearning’ to be equated with Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. The author describes the drama at a top-level meeting on Kashmir as tempers ran high with the Prime Minister getting ‘into a furious temper’ and the Minister of State for Home Affairs Rajesh Pilot ‘shouting him down with a screaming outburst of his own.’
Justly enough, Srinivasan refers to his own role in decision-making on a number of issues, especially diplomatic battles with Pakistan waged in Geneva and New York. Two senior diplomats, Hamid Ansari and Satinder Lamba, respectively in New York and Islamabad, come up for well-deserved praise as ‘among the most brilliant ambassadors of my time.’
A longer monograph presents a well-researched critique of the doctrine and practice of Non-Alignment in the period spanning India’s independence and the end of Cold War. The author examines the development, distortions and decline of Non-Alignment. His central argument is that after Nehru’s death stripped away Non-Alignment’s idealism, ‘it was, shorn of the bombast, a strategy first of realism and later of opportunism.’ Srinivasan does not hesitate to name officials who served Nehru poorly. Some are called crypto-communists and others are dismissed as careerists. Indian diplomats’ commitment to Non-Alignment in those pre-Cold War decades is well known.
The author refers to a meeting Narasimha Rao had called in 1989 to discuss the relevance of Non-Alignment. ‘All those present’ wanted continuation of India's role in Non-Aligned Movement. ‘The lone exception’ was Brajesh Mishra who later served the NDA government in an august position.
A pertinent question here is about Srinivasan’s own attitude, reflecting a dilemma faced by civil servants. Evidently he was critical of Non-Alignment as practised during 1970s and 80s but, like others, he probably did little except to contribute to its implementation. A charitable interpretation suggests that once a diplomat quits the system and has time to reflect outside the establishment, his perspective changes. He is then able to see more clearly the shortcomings of government policy. Other sections reveal his diverse interests. The short story, with an interesting twist in the end, is quite readable.
This book provides partly serious, partly light reading — a decent mix. It might even encourage other diplomats to rush to their pens or laptops in order to tell their stories.
DIPLOMATIC CHANNELS: Krishnan Srinivasan; Manohar Publishers & Distributors, 4753/23, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 750.