Just two months into his tenure in Delhi, the high-profile German Ambassador Walter Lindner is in the middle of a controversy over his visit this week to the RSS headquarters in Nagpur.
In an interview to The Hindu , he spoke about the reasons for his visit, and his hopes from bilateral ties, with a visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel expected towards the end of the year.
You’ve said that you expect India-Germany ties to improve dramatically in the next year. What do you hope will happen?
Our relationship is a very close one, but there is always room for improvement. One big boost will come from strategic consultations at the end of the year, when Chancellor Merkel will visit India. Germany has this mechanism with very few countries and India is one of them, so the Chancellor is expected with almost half the Cabinet, so we hope to fast forward many issues. I am hopeful the Minister for Economy will be here, as we want to fast track German investment in India, as well as environmental issues. One common interest for both leaders is digitalisation and the future of work, including the repercussions of globalisation on both our countries.
Your visit this week to Nagpur to the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and meeting with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has come in for much comment and some criticism. What made you go, as it is considered unusual for any Ambassador to visit the RSS?
I don’t think I am the first, as there was a delegation of Ambassadors who met him a few years ago.
Look, I want to talk to as many people as possible from all walks of life. I am here to understand India, its people, what makes the society tick. I have spoken to Sadhus in Varanasi and flower sellers in Kolkata, the Archbishop in Delhi and Sufi shrines and Masjids across the country. So when we had this plan to visit the metro project in Nagpur, which Germany has an investment in, we decided to go there. We also visited a robotic start up and Leprosy centre. As far as the RSS goes, I went to educate myself about the organisation. I had read very negative and very positive articles about it, everything from its social engagement to accusations of fascism, and I wanted to make my own impression. So I asked Mr. Bhagwat many questions.
And what did you learn?
I still have no clear picture or simple explanation on the RSS’ following but for me it was important to make the trip. On Twitter and email I have received a lot of criticism, and I can only say I am just trying to find out what is behind the RSS. I am not supporting anything. Particularly as a German, the images (of the RSS) always remind us of something.
You are referring to the fact that some of the RSS’s founders drew inspiration from the Nazis?
Yes. And I asked these questions during my visit, and although I don’t want to discuss my [private] chat. I can say that I asked many questions on radicalism, and there are no simple answers to these questions. The [RSS] is one part of the mosaic that makes up India. You can’t deny that this is a mass movement and whether one likes it or not, it is out there.
You said in your tweet about the visit that the RSS has been “not uncontroversially perceived” in history. Do you think the perception of the organisation is wrong?
I am not judging anything. I read books that totally condemn it and those that applaud it as a movement like boy scouts. I see that [RSS] is something that people never agree about. Just to see the polarisation and to be able to pose questions about it is interesting for me.
The President, PM and other cabinet ministers are also members of the RSS. Did you feel that you would understand the government better through this visit?
Indians have to decide what influence the [RSS] has [on the government]. The result of my visit was that there were no easy conclusions. I thought it was a good idea to do, and now I will integrate it into my understanding of India.
When PM Modi visited Germany in 2017, he and Chancellor Merkel had promised to work on restarting EU-India trade talks (BTIA) to boost bilateral trade, which has been stagnant. But the BTIA talks have made no progress. Why?
As Secretary of State then, I remember that meeting well. I think the new leadership at the European Union will help kickstart the process of the BTIA. India and Germany believe in rules-based free trade, and we have an interest in making the agreement work. The new European Commission President Ms. Von der Leyen, as former German Defence minister, is a known face in the world, and along with former IMF chief Christine Lagarde (who will head the European Central Bank), will be two strong female faces who will give the EU a boost, despite challenges like Brexit etc. India and EU need to identify the stumbling blocks in the talks and build a timeline for their resolution.
In terms of international cooperation, India and Germany have been part of the G-4 initiative for UN Security Council reform, which appears to have failed. Has the grouping reached a dead-end?
The Security Council reflects the reality of 1948, which meant that it didn’t include any African country, no India, no Latin American country. If we don’t change this, the UN loses credibility. Atleast we now have consensus within the UN that we must make the UNSC more representative of contemporary times.
On membership, the P-5 have still to be convinced to open up the membership. Since I was a diplomat at the UN 20 years ago, we have made millimetres of progress on this issue. At some point the G-4 was close, but we didn’t present a draft at the right time. Now I am not optimistic the reform will happen in the next decade, but we have to keep trying.
How about common challenges India and Germany face over U.S. actions like Iran sanctions, or demands to keep out companies like Huawei from 5G trials?
Yes, we already have consultations on such issues. We have just also discussed the future of Afghanistan this week. We have discussed the balance of ensuring Iran doesn’t develop nuclear weapons, and also incentivising Iran to stay in the JCPOA. We exchange notes on many issues. Even on Huawei, we have a pretty similar view. After all, India has always been a very reliable partner for Germany. Without India, given its size, we can’t conduct world politics. Germany is relevant as a European power. And we both share a similar “no-nonsense” foreign policy.
On a personal note, you are known as the “Ambassador with an Ambassador” car. What made you invest in an Indian car, especially one that not many Indians buy? Is this kind of soft diplomacy a new age necessity?
Well, next week I will travel to Pune and meet officials at the BMW factory. I hope they will not be upset that I use this car! It is just a wonderful car, it reminds me of my youth and of driving a real car. Today’s cars are like sitting in a spaceship, and they will soon be driving themselves. In the Ambassador, you can really feel the road. We do need to make it greener, and battery operated, and we are working on that. It started out as a gag, fun etc, but it has taken on a life of its own. People have given the car a name and they write letters addressed to “Dear Auntie Amby”. Look, when I entered the diplomatic service, the idea was that it was all about secret treaties and protocol etc. But you get much more out of a country by getting out there and bring empathy between the two countries. If I drive its car, play cricket or have mangoes, it isn’t just for show, but because I love the country.