Opinion | Comment

Satinder Lambah and his ten-point art of diplomacy

 Satinder Kumar Lambah. File

 Satinder Kumar Lambah. File | Photo Credit: AFP

The best tribute to this outstanding diplomat will be durable peace between India and Pakistan, for which he worked so hard

Ambassador Satinder Kumar Lambah passed away on June 30 after he and his family fought his illness with inspirational fortitude and equanimity. He was a thorough gentleman and an iconic diplomat for all seasons, situations and settings. His life was a celebration of his passion for nurturing relationships and promoting India’s interests. 

I have so many cherished memories of the privilege of serving as commercial representative under Lambah’s leadership in Bonn, Germany from 1995 to 1998, and his overwhelming affection and mentorship over the years. 

My mind goes back to a beautiful summer day in July 1995. We had lined up at the majestic residence of the Ambassador in Bonn-Bad Godesberg when Lambah arrived with his wife Nilima and children Diya and Vikram, and instantly put us at ease, even having refreshments served while saying with a twinkle in his eyes, “Next time you visit here, we would be better organised.”  

In a changing world

He then plunged headlong into work at the Embassy. Having already been initiated into commercial diplomacy in Germany, Europe’s technological and economic powerhouse, it was heartening to hear from Lambah that commercial work would be a foremost priority for him. What followed were three fulfilling years of learning from a maestro and contributing to expanding our bilateral economic cooperation during an exciting period in the aftermath of India’s far-reaching economic reforms started in 1991 and Germany’s reunification in 1990, and amidst ongoing expansion and integration of the European Union. 

I remember how elated Lambah felt when Indian students sang “I love my India” or when he met Indian participants at Germany’s highly specialised trade fairs or when “Indo-German Business Success Stories” published by the Embassy in cooperation with the Indo-German Chamber of Commerce was released, to cite just a few instances. Lambah and many others of similar diplomatic DNA have strived to promote “Make in India” much before it became a buzz word. 

A 10-point appreciation

Among the many things Lambah taught me was how to prepare a 10-point note, telling me with his childlike smile and chuckle that if I really tried hard, my piece would flow into 10 points on its own! In this tribute, I attempt to describe the 10 most important elements, in my view, of Lambah’s school of diplomacy that flowed naturally from his most adorable personality. 

In a world full of pomposity, Lambah had a natural sense of modesty and understatement. Unlike some others, his diplomacy had no place for arrogance, personal or intellectual, or self-righteousness. While quietly going about the business of diplomacy with meticulous hard work, astute insights, elephantine memory and careful listening, he was never in a lecturing or hectoring mode with an interlocutor or anyone else. 

Second, his diplomacy had a halo of simplicity and sincerity. His voice carried conviction — no pretensions, no jargon, no rhetoric. 

Third, his warmth, graciousness, gestures and hospitality played an important role in his enduring relationships and diplomacy. 

The fourth  and fifth dimensions, respectively, of Lambah’s diplomacy were good faith and trust, and a constant effort to carry everyone along — a consensus builder. He practiced “ sabka saath, sabka  vikas, sabka vishwas,  sabka prayaas much before this expression was minted. 

Understanding others

The sixth pillar was his empathy and appreciation for others’ situations, perspectives and views. Here, I am reminded of another Indian Foreign Service (IFS) stalwart who has also spent long years on India’s relations with Pakistan, once reminiscing about Prime Minister Vajpayee telling him, “ Hamein hamesha  doosron ki majboori bhi samjhani chahiye (we must always also understand the other side’s compulsions).” Lambah was a seasoned  practitioner of this principle within the overarching parameters of national interest. 

The next three notes in Lambah’s diplomatic symphony were a holistic assessment of the situation and speed of action; calmness even amidst a storm; and a remarkable sense of humour. I vividly recall the day when Germany called off the annual bilateral development cooperation negotiations and imposed sanctions in reaction to India’s nuclear tests of May 1998. A delegation led by the Joint Secretary, Department of Economic Affairs, had arrived in Bonn the previous evening and was hosted to an intimate dinner at India House, starting with a Myanmarese soup made by Ms. Lambah. As we were about to leave for the Federal Ministry of Development Cooperation the next morning, intimation of the German government’s decision was received. While there were no official talks, Lambah, who never allowed differences of national positions to affect personal courtesies, asked me to go ahead with that evening’s garden dinner at my house. The two sides displayed much bonhomie at the dinner, with the head of the German ‘delegation’ thanking me for not cancelling it! This was the only occasion when Lambah, having agreed to preside over my dinner, told me: “I would not come. Hope you understand.” He was happy to receive my call reporting that everyone was having a good time, but greatly missing him. 

In the diplomacy that ensued, leading to enhanced appreciation of India’s security imperatives and easing of sanctions, the attributes of Lambah’s distinctive style were in full display. I also fondly remember Lambah, during his first visit to my residence, dribbling a soccer ball with my son and telling his wife: “What a lovely house. You can play football here!” 

Last, and most important, Lambah’s diplomacy was predicated on his firm belief in the inherent goodness of mankind and the greatness of an inclusive India. 

Ambassador Lambah leaves a glorious legacy as a person and a diplomat. His diplomacy has profound lessons for India and other nations as they navigate through a turbulent world. While the best tribute to his diplomacy will be durable peace between India and Pakistan for which he worked so hard, both countries should take a small step by instituting a joint annual award in his name for their best diplomatic trainee officers. 

(Sanjiv Arora is a former diplomat)

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Printable version | Jul 12, 2022 10:16:03 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/satinder-lambah-and-his-ten-point-art-of-diplomacy/article65630073.ece