Some of our Ambassadors take themselves so seriously as to blur the distinction between self and state, says SUNANDA K DATTA-RAY
Shiv Shankar Menon, the National Security Adviser who provides this anthology with a thoughtful Foreword, once told budding diplomatists that the overused definition of an Ambassador as “an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country” was unacceptable because liars are soon caught out and damage a country’s credibility.
What would he say of diplomatists who lie (or misrepresent or suppress) even when they are not abroad? That could be said of almost all the contributors to this otherwise fascinating book! Given the nature of an Ambassador’s work, discretion is inevitable, which is why similar volumes in Britain or Singapore wisely concentrate on anecdotes and personalities instead of expounding policy. But some of our Ambassadors take themselves so seriously as to blur the distinction between self and state. It’s also unfair to expect amusing anecdotal accounts from people whose malapropisms and linguistic infelicities like “prepone” make them amusing without knowing it.
There are exceptions. GJ Malik’s “The Last Days of Salvador Allende” is an enjoyable blend of history, politics and personal reminiscence, including that of a mysterious Bangladeshi scholar. Kant K Bhargava has a hilarious tale of the Italian representative to the European Economic Community opposing the duty-free entry of papadams because by some bureaucratic quirk, they were bracketed with spaghetti. Bhargava invited the Italian home for lunch and fed him papadams to prove his beloved spaghetti wasn’t threatened. The vision of TP Sreenivasan and Britain’s High Commissioner sitting glued to their chairs, refusing to stand up for or shake hands with Sitiveni Rabuka who had overthrown Fiji’s elected Government is also funny. But the veteran Jagat S Mehta’s timeless “Engaging with China” could have further explored the semantic subtleties of “negotiations” and “talks”. It was like the British foreign office claiming that Argentine’s Ambassador had presented his Government’s case on the Falkands, not made a representation.
I wish more such incidents were recollected in the tranquility of retirement. Instead, BS Das’s “Sunset for the Chogyal” epitomises the art of suppressio veri suggestio falsi. Das doesn’t mention the India-Sikkim agreement of April 23, 1973, whose false promise lulled the Chogyal into signing the tripartite agreement of May 8, 1973, of which he makes heavy weather. The miracle of the semi-literate Kazi Lendhup Dorji producing letters in flawless English demonstrating an unbelievable (to those who knew him) mastery of administrative and legal detail — thanks to a battery of senior Indian officers including Das — is glossed over. So is Das’s own persuasive — to put it politely — role as legislature presiding officer which a key Sikkimese actor in that sordid little drama, Nar Bahadur Khatiawara, exposed in a detailed memorandum to Morarji Desai.
The essay oozes sympathy for the Chogyal. But the Chogyal saw through the duplicity and commented that Das thought, “poor man, he’s suffered a lot, so let’s make him unconscious before cutting off his head”. But there was no relenting in that ruthless purpose. Das is not a diplomat; he is a policeman. As Nari Rustomji, the ICS expert on the Northeast, wrote when reviewing my book, Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim, Das’s background is in “the sinister machinations of RAW”. New Delhi sent him wherever the policeman’s mailed fist needed the velvet glove of diplomacy.
On a not unrelated topic, Krishna V Rajan, the anthology’s editor, refused to cut a birthday cake shaped like Nepal. Given Himalayan sensitivities, one can imagine the uproar in Kathmandu if word leaked out that India’s Ambassador-designate had sliced up the kingdom, as it then was. What I would have liked to know from Rajan is whether King Tribhuvan really offered to merge Nepal with India, and, if so, why India declined the offer. Journalists periodically trot this out on the basis (I suspect) of informal South Block briefings.
Such stories feed the nervousness that prompted a Nepalese official’s declaration that having breakfasted on Sikkim, India hoped to gobble up Bhutan for lunch and Nepal for dinner but the Nepalese would give India indigestion. Rajan’s account leaves room to imagine Nepalese disquiet, just as reading between the lines of AN Ram’s dispassionate dissertation on Bhutan gives an inkling of the pressures building up there because the India-Bhutan treaty was “seen by some elements in Bhutan as restricting her sovereignty”.
It’s a pity Ram, a Himalayan expert who was twice a member of Bhutan’s UN delegation and privy to many secrets, doesn’t tell us something about China’s role or royal rifts. Readers would have liked to know more about Prince Namgyal Wangchuck whom Ram obviously liked and admired but others found enigmatic and elusive. Nevertheless, his chapter suggests encouragingly that India can avoid the mistakes it made in Sikkim and Nepal. Chandrashekhar Dasgupta’s exposition of the climate change challenge is equally absorbing.
But AND Haksar’s “A Singular Summit” and KN Bakshi’s “It’s a Boy!” are as much exercises in futility as was the 1972 Simla summit they gloat over. To compensate, Niranjan Desai and Sreenivasan acknowledge the importance of India’s changed attitude to the diaspora it once treated with “snobbish disdain”, while Prabhakar Menon has produced a masterly analysis of that modern Chanakya, PV Narasimha Rao.
The Ambassadors’ Club is readable and interesting. But why does Bhargava say Ziaur Rahman proposed a South Asian organisation in 1980 when I reported his proposal from NAM’s 1976 Colombo summit? Did Narasimha Rao only think of testing, as Prabhakar Menon indicates, or did Frank Wisner, the acting American Ambassador, put an end to more advanced nuclear plans? Perhaps we shouldn’t try to compete with Jesting Pilate in defining truth.
Two final points that merge into one. Shiv Shankar Menon should know that someone who may or may not be blest with a talent for diplomacy but makes a career of it is a diplomatist. Of course, many IFS diplomatists may also be diplomats. But neither ought to use “Ambassador” as a title. This clutching at handles exposes both the social aspirations of Indians and the hypocrisy of India’s egalitarian pretensions. That’s worse than lying abroad... or at home.
THE AMBASSADORS’ CLUB
Author : Krishna V Rajan (ed)
Publisher : HarperCollins, Rs 599
The reviewer is former editor, The Statesman