History in the service of diplomacy

Swaran Singh
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An insider's account of persistent somnambulism, myopic vision and preoccupation with textual formatting

Swaran Singh

Lack of access to archives is the perennial theme in discourses on Indian diplomacy and the clamour has been strengthened by the recent revelations by the WikiLeaks. Closely related to this has been the refrain on the total absence of any projects on oral history as also dearth of reminiscences and autobiographical works by eminent men and women from Indian Foreign Service. Several celebrated authors from this elite service have ended up writing descriptive or prescriptive books on foreign policy. Others have taken to writing fiction, poetry, ethnography and so on. The book under review therefore fills a critical gap by providing a detailed narrative specifically on Indian diplomacy as it seeks to unwind its unique Indian style.

Contextual frame

As one of the most visible central threads of his narrative, the author seeks to underline the “enduring, and seriously perturbing characteristic of India's diplomacy” in its preoccupations with not the “contextual” frame of reference but with “textual” formatting, leading to the Indian side often making major concessions in its negotiations for inserting some lofty sentiments that pervade India's treaties, joint statement and other documents on foreign policy. This is in spite of the fact of India having a history of 5,000 years providing us with epics, puranas , and scores of other historical narratives that should provide us the most potent frame of reference to our traditions and knowledge in the conduct of diplomacy.

Ambassador Hanuman

Ambassador Fabian, describes Hanuman as an excellent example of an Ambassador who establishes the norm of “diplomatic immunity” and is shown as both “able and willing to use force when necessary”. Similarly, after his return from the Kingdom of Sri Lanka, Hanuman provides Rama with “a truthful and accurate but not a boastful account” of his visit.

For the author, Indian diplomats have to look no further beyond their own heritage and history. Talking of documented history, King Harshavaradhan was the first Indian King to send an ambassador to China in 641 and the narratives of India's diplomatic traditions remain exhaustive.

But contrast is presented by the myopic view of life in Indian diplomacy that explains the “abolition of the Historical Division” of the Ministry of External Affairs; explains its wariness about consulting “outside experts” and, by its not believing in consulting its former officials who may have spent a lifetime dealing with the issues under discussion.

Conversely, keeping to the cult of secrecy, serving officials are never hauled up for providing misplaced inputs, for exceeding their mandate and no major leader ever takes responsibility for diplomatic blunders that the book lists endlessly.

India's great heritage does not cure the Indian elite from their recurring “somnambulism” making India's great charismatic leaders as prisoners of their own dreams thereby completely ignoring dissenting voices and ending up taking disastrous diplomatic initiatives.

Fabian talks in some detail about Nehru ignoring the advice of Sardar Patel on his Tibet policy and later his grandson Rajiv Gandhi ignoring his foreign minister P V Narasimha Rao's views on what would become his military misadventure in Sri Lanka. Indeed, Natwar Singh's My China Dairy is another major source of diplomatic archives that also describes in detail how foreign minister Narsimha Rao and C V Ranganathan, then India's Ambassador in Beijing, were completely ignored in Rajiv Gandhi's breakthrough summit with Deng Xiaoping in December 1988 that opened a new chapter in India-China ties. This Indian style aptly percolates downwards with successive examples provided of junior officers being “pulled up” for arriving at assessments different from that of their seniors.

This historical narrative by Ambassador Fabian though often slips into not-so-discreet personal reminiscences, becomes anecdotal, indulging in broad sweeping claims and a long wish list which could have been tightened or simply avoided.

Some of the author's evaluations especially of his predecessors make direct and sharp insinuations knowing fully well that not all of them are alive (like Y D Gundevia, D P Dhar, P N Haksar or J N Dixit) to respond to make appropriate corrections to this. All this makes interesting read for a student of diplomacy but it will remain impossible to vouch for the veracity.

Praise for Indira

Fabian is equally liberal with his compliments and praise for Indira Gandhi and her foreign minister, Sardar Swaran Singh, especially of their grip on geopolitics and their diplomatic acumen and finesse during several critical moments including the entire episode of the liberation of Bangladesh.

He calls Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as “by far the most successful thespian on the political stage of South Asia, and probably one of most successful globally in his time” and describes in detail how, in Simla Agreement of 1972, Bhutto succeeded in snatching a “diplomatic victory from the jaws of military defeat.”

Similarly, seasoned Jayawardene is presented as manipulating young Rajiv Gandhi and Mao taking a highly benevolent approach to Nehru's sustained efforts to invite China for a border skirmish.

Lacking vision

As for contemporary times, the author shows some anxiety about coalition governments of India lacking both clarity of vision and firmness of action and often taking decisions without inputs from civil servants or outside experts. He again provides several examples on this. For him, this “cult of secrecy” and the “absence of access to archives” remains “ingrained in the character of governing elites” and is the bane disallowing practitioners of diplomacy to learn lessons from past mistakes. Diplomacy, he says, requires often deceiving others, but never oneself.

The most pertinent advice he provides is that heads of state and government should only direct but never negotiate themselves; that they should only talk of weather and grandchildren and allow professionals to perform piecemeal diplomacy to carefully calibrate national strengths to achieve national objectives.

The book makes an interesting light read but is of enormous value in providing an insider's view especially for those studying Indian diplomacy from the outside.

The book endlessly lists diplomatic blunders



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