Following the industrial liberalisation process that began in India in July 1991, Udyog Bhavan in New Delhi witnessed a steady stream of delegations of foreign businessmen and diplomats to call on the Minister for Industry. Since there was no minister of Cabinet rank in the ministry — the responsibility being looked after by the then Prime Minister — the Minister of State had the task of receiving the visitors and assuring them of the government’s genuine desire to promote foreign investment in India. The Minister of State, the affable P.J. Kurien, charmed the visitors and sent them back with the feeling that the elephant, after years of remaining in chains, had started taking majestic strides as befitted an elephant.
But what about the boys who were supposed to minister to the daily needs of the elephant? And, there hangs the tale of the two diplomats.
In the early 1990s, the foreign diplomatic corps in New Delhi had its fair share of women of high official rank. The Finnish Ambassador, a lady, was slated to call on Mr. Kurien at 11a.m. on a particular day and the Protocol Officer of the Ministry, a burly, lovable man, was instructed to receive the visitor at the entrance and escort her to the Minister’s room. As the clock struck eleven, an automobile with a diplomatic number plate drove up to the entrance and out stepped a lady of foreign origin, to be sure. Complying with the instructions given to him, the Protocol Officer welcomed her and took her to the Minister’s room, and hung around in the corridor to escort her back to her car at the end of the visit.
The Minister had his own inimitable way of entertaining his guests. Treating them to export-quality fried cashewnuts, Bourbon biscuits and delicious filter coffee was de riguer with him. As the foreigners enjoyed every sip and popped in the nuts, he would proceed to relate how cashewnut came to acquire its name — from the south Indian words ‘casu’ meaning a coin of fairly low denomination and ‘ettu’ meaning eight nuts to a coin — and laugh heartily to be joined in by the visiting dignitaries and the ministry officials. True to script, initial pleasantries were exchanged with the Finnish Ambassador and the talks began in right earnest.
The Joint Secretary in the Ministry looking after the paper industry set the ball rolling expressing India’s interest in acquiring paper manufacturing technology from Finland, a truly acknowledged leader in the area. The Ambassador put forward her country’s readiness to share gem cutting and polishing expertise with India as India had a big gems and jewellery industry. Feeling that he had not conveyed clearly what India needed from Finland, the Joint Secretary took pains to bring out India’s keenness in acquiring paper technology. But the Ambassador went on reiterating her country’s interest in sharing expertise in gems.
At some point in this vaudeville, the Ambassador dropped the name of Antwerp which made the Indian official wonder how on earth that city known for its diamond cutting industry could be in Finland. Just as when both sides started showing discomfort with the way the talks were going, the door of the Minister’s room opened a little and a foreign lady peeped in and sensing that some other meeting was on stepped back hurriedly. Little attention was paid to the intrusion and the intruder and the talks continued to meander in their uncertain direction.
After all, since no uncertainty could last too long, the Joint Secretary asked the Ambassador gently whether he had got it right in hearing the word Antwerp or could it have been something else. Now, it was the turn of the Ambassador to seek a clarification. Turning to the Minister, she enquired whether he was Mr. Chidambaram, the Minister for Commerce. A visibly shaken Mr. Kurien replied that he was not and wanted to know whether she was the Ambassador of Finland. “No, I am the Ambassador of Netherlands. I came to call on the Minister of Commerce. Were you expecting the Finnish Ambassador?” shot back the lady and added “She is the one who just looked into the room.”
The bombshell set people running in all directions in search of the real Finnish Ambassador. A search party found her sitting quietly on a chair in the room of the Personal Assistant to the Minister. She was taken to the Minister’s room where everyone apologised profusely to her for the mix-up. She, of course, took it all sportingly. Reconstruction of events later revealed that she had arrived at the ministry a little later than the first visitor and was presumed to be some official of the Finnish Embassy accompanying the Ambassador. She was led up to the Minister’ room but she would not enter preferring to wait in the room of the Personal Assistant.
In the midst of the confusion prevailing inside and outside the Minister’ room following the unexpected turn of events, the Dutch Ambassador had been left high and dry. She had left the room and was found in the corridor with a lost look on her face. A senior official escorted her respectfully to the room of the Commerce Minister, almost a good three-quarters of an hour after her appointed time. Whether the Commerce Minister was made wise of the reasons for the delay was not known.
Some years later, at a farewell dinner thrown by the Finnish Embassy in honour of their outgoing Ambassador, this writer reminded her of the incident touching off a hearty round of laughter.
(P.S. The Ministry of Industry was put on silent mode over the incident and officials were instructed not to utter a word to the Press. Lo and behold, the incident went on to find mention in the weekly juicy column of a national economic daily. The Official Secrets Act was not invoked.)
(The writer is a former Secretary to the Government of India. His email is email@example.com)