Books

MEA in the days of Narasimha Rao

G. Srinivasan | Updated on September 28, 2012

BL29_2_DIPLOMATIC_CHANNELS

Indian bureaucrats, either in the civil or in foreign service, are not usually given to writing their memoirs, lest they jangle the nerves of their past masters. But Krishnan Srinivasan, who served briefly as Foreign Secretary in 1994-95, is not exactly the staid sort to be cowed down by the prospect of unsavoury consequences.

His book, Diplomatic Channels, is a frank assessment of the country’s leaders under whom he served over the years in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS). The book makes a realistic evaluation of India’s sui generis concepts such as non-aligned movement (NAM), close to the heart of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

In the opening chapter, the author is remarkably outspoken , making a candid comment on former Foreign Minister Dinesh Singh. He says that “Dinesh Singh always saw himself as being in the Cabinet as a counterweight to the Minister of Human Resources, Arjun Singh, who was regarded as being opposed to P V Narasimha Rao on behalf of Sonia Gandhi”.

Sonia and Rao

The author recounts how Narasimha Rao would brusquely interrupt Dinesh Singh at Cabinet meetings and give the floor to some other minister. After he suffered a stroke, Dinesh Singh became superfluous to everyone but the Foreign Secretary, who had to make him feel an essential part of the Ministry. Of the two deputies in the Ministry, the author refers to R. L. Bhatia as a journeyman, wrongly placed in the External Affairs Ministry and strongly given to better ties with Pakistan and the former Communist bloc.

According to the author, his colleague Salman Khurshid, now a Cabinet Minister in the UPA, is more than capable, but he did not take the necessary pains to master any subject — a summary judgement that is unlikely to please the incumbent Minister! Khurshid was at his best on Kashmir, but one topic, however, important and brilliantly presented, cannot represent a Minister’s complete repertoire, the author wryly observes.

Yet another grim observation pertains to the ‘non-existent’ relations between Narasimha Rao and Sonia Gandhi. Both kept their distance in the halcyon days of reforms. The author says that Narasimha Rao probably regarded Sonia as a critical observer of all his actions and that she considered him an unworthy successor to the Nehru-Gandhi inheritance. How Sonia regarded Narasimha Rao is not known, but there was clearly no love lost between them. The author also makes an interesting comment that none of the Prime Ministers after Nehru has been capable of organising time properly. However, he says, Narasimha Rao gave quick decisions when presented with clear options, “often in the teeth of contrary advice from the military or intelligence”.

NAM and shortcomings

On the non-alignment policy, a major theme in the tome, the author contends that the Indo-Chinese border conflict of 1962 posed a serious test. It was evidence of the use of force and aggression by a major power against a non-aligned country. The author bitingly adds that “in contrast to China’s views about India, Nehru held a rather romanticised view of China, an approach that represented the triumph of wishful thinking over strategic thinking”.

More dispassionately, the author says, “India moralised against the Cold War, but had its own Cold War with Pakistan and New Delhi opposed non-alignment by others when it came to its relations with China and Pakistan. Nehru showed an indulgence to communist states he did not show to the West and this and the free rein given to Krishna Menon, stoked Western alarms about India”.

The author is right in observing that non-alignment compounded matters for itself by not internalising its own precepts such as human rights, equality of economic opportunities and peaceful settlement of disputes. Lack of collective action and collective self-reliance eventually turned out to be grave lapses. Little wonder NAM did not survive the collapse of the Soviet Union and the onset of economic deregulation.

The book also consists of various monographs the author has penned for Indian dailies on subjects ranging from caste, charity, inflation, competitiveness, to the pains of multiculturalism, besides contemporary happenings across the globe. With a career in IFS spanning over four decades, the author has focused on the practical difficulties in administering the country’s foreign policy at a time when the world was in transition over the last two decades. The book is worth poring over, though its high cost might be a dampener.

Published on September 28, 2012

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