Jaques: I have neither the scholar’s melancholy, which is emulation; nor the musician’s which is fantastical; nor the courtier’s which is proud; nor the soldier’s which is ambitious; nor the lawyer’s which is politic; nor the lady’s which is nice; nor the lover’s which is all these: but it is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness.
William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act IV, Scene 1
MAJOR WRITERS have spent little time asking why they write, much less to find an answer. They have written as their genius has impelled them. The greatness of their creation has made such questions look idle. Many minor writers have tried to find their answers to this old question. Certainly I, an ordinary Indian diplomat, now in retirement, with no claim to fame, have had to wrestle with the question why I should set out to write a book.
Over the years many friends and acquaintances have said to me that I must write. Some of those who have urged me thus have had at the back of their minds the story of an episode which brought me a measure of public notoriety one decade and a half ago. Others impressed by an occasional turn of phrase I have used or an unstereotypical view I have expressed in a conversation in a salon or elsewhere have said that if I used my gifts I should be able to write an interesting book. Such remarks have no doubt had their part in creating the conceit that there may be a book in me.
In my search for an answer to the question why I have set out to write I have thought of the answers others have given and found two in Osbert Sitwell’s preface to his Collected Stories which I thought I could adopt as my own. He said that he wrote in an attempt to preserve certain things he had seen and felt from the encroaching tides of oblivion or else to give an objective existence to some idea that had till then existed only in his mind. He also wrote because, he said, out of vanity and ambition, he regarded achievement in the arts as the highest form of human endeavour, considering Shakespeare a much greater victory for the English people than Blenheim or Waterloo. Thinking a little more deeply, I see that not all books bring fame or immortality to their authors. History of literature is full of names of poets, storywriters or critics who once dominated the literary scene but who have been forgotten by all but a handful of specialist scholars. I must immediately discard all ambition of becoming famous from what I write here. I have set out to write because I have some ideas, thoughts, feelings or experiences to give objective reality to and stories to tell.
My stories, like all real, direct human experience, are local and personal. Much of what I write about here belongs to Indian society, more narrowly to Indian government and still more narrowly to the Indian diplomatic establishment. They may be as interesting as another man’s stories from other settings. People everywhere in the world have been interested in the experience of others, or else traveller’s tales and autobiographies would have no audience.
Not gifted with the talent to create literary fiction from the distillation of my experiences, I could only write a broadly chronological narrative, mixing fact and reflection. I like to think that, even if apparently disconnected, a few common threads link my stories. It is not as if I have made conscious choices of the events to describe. The events have almost selected themselves, as they are part of the pictures I have had in my mind and which I have tried to present.
A LITTLE MORE THAN THREE AND A HALF DECADES of life as an Indian diplomat have taken me to different climes and scenes and encounters with people of different colours and professions. I was in Morocco when the French courts still pursued the Moroccan Minister of Interior over the disappearance from the streets of Paris of Mehdi ben Barka, an inconvenient left wing Moroccan politician; present in Rabat when the first meeting of Heads of State and Government of Islamic countries, at which India made an entry and, quickly, in the eyes of the host, became a non-participant, took place; in Laos when the Nixon administration was paradoxically bombing Indo-China more ferociously than ever before while ostensibly pursuing the promised goal of bringing the GI’s back home; on a desk in Delhi dealing with Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq when the Yom Kippur war between Israel and its Arab neighbours broke out; in Paris when Jaques Chirac, the kingmaker, started his guerrilla action against the king, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing; in Bangladesh when Zia-ur-Rahman was consolidating his power and when the first post-Zia Presidential election was held; in Zaire when Mobutu was an indispensable ally of the West in its defense of the free world; in Ukraine when the break up of the Soviet Union was still recent, and so on.
An American diplomat sought to recruit me to work for his government at a time when I was on quite friendly terms with someone who was openly talked of as the local KGB station chief; at another time I came close to being expelled from the country I was serving in. Rumours that I had had a hand in the assassination of a head of state had preceded me in another country. In yet another, I was told of some terrorists hired to kill me. Years later some people working under my command and control came close to suggesting that I was endangering my country’s security.
In one country, I have had the border police flag down a train for us so that we could travel to a town two and a half miles away for a night’s sleep. Elsewhere, the military governor of a region had a jeep sent to bar the path of an aircraft about to start its take off run and had it taxied back to the airport terminal for us to board. In 1973 and 1974 one of my tasks was to prevent Indians travelling to Israel, which I believe I did efficiently though not using entirely honourable methods. In 1991 I was arguing for early establishment of normal diplomatic relations between India and Israel, while in 1993 and 1994 I was arguing for India dissociating itself from the Anglo-Saxon criticism of the Sudan in the United Nations for the violation of human rights.
The portrait gallery of those I have met or dealt with includes Mobutu Sese Seko, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Henry Kissinger, Hassan El Turabi of Sudan, Eduard Shevardnadze, Aslan Abassidze of Ajaria, the Patriarch of the Greek Catholics at Lviv and many others. I once sold a ship or, rather, I was asked to sign the sale deed because of the importance of my hand and seal. On another occasion, several years later, because of the same importance of my hand and seal I was asked to verify the signatures of an obscure banker from a Caribbean island republic. In Morocco in 1968 I tried to sell Indian green tea, which was not there. In New York between 1990 and 1992 I was engaged in an effort to sell Indian economic reforms—deregulation, privatization, retrenchment of deficit financing— which was there hardly more than in name at that time.
I have in my working life been involved, as participant or observer from the sidelines, in public affairs, small matters and not so small. It is mostly those that I describe. At places I write about the political setting of my stories. I have neither the illusion nor claim that those are anywhere near definitive accounts. They are my personal testimony. I do not reveal great state secrets, at times deliberately and at others because I have no direct knowledge of them. Being more interested in describing what different people did or said in different situations than in dissecting their character or reputation I have for the most part not named them; where I have named them, I have done so in the interest of clarity or when I have had nothing but complimentary references to make to them, or else I have named political leaders. I do not bare my soul, which I have no courage to do. As this is not an autobiography, I have written as little as possible about myself or about my private life except for one piece of self-introduction in the beginning. I have not been able to altogether keep out my inner tensions and feelings in some situations.
In writing about events and experiences of the past I initially struggled with myself over a choice between two possible ways of treating them. One was to try to present as ‘objectively’ as possible events as they looked to me when they happened. Another was to present past events as they look to me now from a distance in time and space. I have not kept a journal nor any personal notes. I have kept copies of only a very small number of letters or comments I wrote either in official or private correspondence with people within and outside Government of India. The advantage of not having kept a journal is that it is my memory, good or bad as it may be, which has selected the contents of this writing. The disadvantage is that I have found it impossible to make a clinical separation between the first and the second perspective. I have let the two run into each other, allowing my thought process to take channels that it would take as I wrote, even allowing myself comments on some events as they were happening contemporaneously with the act of writing. I have nonetheless consciously tried not to claim insights into past events which hindsight gives me now but which I did not have when they happened. I have made a similar effort to avoid enhancing in my narrative my role in events beyond what I actually had when they happened. Likewise I have not written anything about the factual accuracy of which I am not certain. These have required a measure of self-discipline. I hope I have succeeded.
BEING A DIPLOMAT means being an observer of the political process. Someone who observes politics over a long period and in different places cannot avoid developing his own views about its nature. I am no exception, though I neither have nor put forward any grand political philosophy of my own. There still are a few puzzles about the practice of politics, which I have not been able to solve in my mind. I shall only mention them here.
Political leaders dissemble. I am not talking about hiding their real motives and intentions from rivals and enemies, which may often be necessary for survival. Nor am I talking here of the prevarication to protect a military or national security secret. I am talking about the habit among democratically elected political leaders of hiding from the people who elect them and for whose benefit they claim to work, the real intentions and motives of their actions, cloaking their projects or their plans in some moral principle or some grand philosophical design. The best recent example of dissimulation was the American-British invasion of Iraq in 2003. The grounds for doing so have variously been mentioned as the need to rid the world of a loathsome dictator, to save the world from the dangers of weapons of mass destruction or to bring democracy and liberty to the peoples of the Middle East. Messrs. Bush and Blair have shifted their positions between these justifications for the invasion so often that not only people outside the USA and the UK but also large sections of populations in their own countries do not believe them. An article in the Washington Post of 15 th June 2003 under the title, ‘If Bush is Lying, He’s Not the First’, opens thus: ‘The sign on the White House these days might well read “Welcome to Credibility Gap”’. I have mentioned the dissimulation by the American and British governments over Iraq, as Iraq is topical at the time I am writing this. Dissimulation by political leaders, autocrats and democrats alike, is a widespread phenomenon. I have never fully understood why this should be so. My reading of books on political science, political morality or history has not helped.
My second poser is related. There are leaders—political, religious and politico-religious, who come to believe they are men of destiny for their people. Others claim—or their followers claim—that they represent divinity or are incarnations of some divine being. Yet others claim a right to rule derived from their sanguinal or doctrinal lineage. I have found it very difficult to believe that as persons made of ordinary flesh and blood such people should not have occasional doubts about the truthfulness of such claims. It would be unnatural if at some point they did not see the falsehood on which they based their moral, spititual or political authority. If they never saw the falsehood, they would have been so completely blinded by the exercise of authority, by the fruits of power and by the veneration and adulation they received that they would never have doubts. Their deception would be indefensible. If on the other hand they did see the falsehood and yet did nothing to change or destroy the illusions which supported their authority, the deception they practiced on their followers would be morally even more reprehensible. Yet such leaders are happy to lead people in large numbers the world over, and the masses often hypnotise themselves into following them.
Hadrian, the Roman emperor, in the part historical, part fictional reconstruction, ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ by Marguerite Yourcenar says at one place that he wants to work for the good of his people, but for doing so he must remain emperor. There are very few political leaders who do not thus rationalize their desire to continue in power. The dividing line between the personal interest and ambition of a political leader and his dedication to the public good is often non-existent. Some are able to transcend their personal ambitions and interests and promote general welfare while others allow political power to so poison their moral sense that serving their personal interests and ambitions becomes their main aim while the public is served up illusions. I have no difficulty in understanding that autocrats with no checks on their political power can behave thus. That democratically elected leaders also should become or be able to become so self-serving passes my understanding. Not only in developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America, but elsewhere too, there are many such leaders. For political leaders even in democratic societies, political survival or chances of re-election often assume greater importance than the well-being of the people in whose interest they in theory rule.
I have not been able to understand why financial corruption should so often be associated with politics. I do not have in mind only the dictators or popularly elected leaders in the Third World, who habitually use their offices for amassing illegal wealth for themselves and members of their family and clan, but also political leaders and political parties in the liberal democracies of the affluent industrialized world breaking the laws of their own making to collect money for their political parties, for fighting elections or for personal benefit. A string of Japanese leaders was indicted for corruption between 1980 and 1996. One former Italian Prime Minister indicted for corruption lived for many years in exile. Not only were sleaze and corruption in the days of Mitterrand’s Presidency as well as in the Mayoralty of Paris under Jacques Chirac widely discussed but also a close associate of François Mitterrand, a former Foreign Minister, was tried for corruption and a former Chiraquist Prime Minister, accused of corruption, has been sentenced to a suspended term in jail. The otherwise unblemished reputation of Helmut Kohl lost much of its sheen towards the end of his political career because of his involvement in a case of illegal funding of his political party. In the United Kingdom, where political life is usually free of scandals of financial wrongdoing by politicians, eyebrows have been raised about the manner of collecting some of the funds for the Millennium Dome. In the USA, candidates in elections frequently accuse their rivals of breaching the law about campaign finance. I wish I could better understand why in so many places legitimate democratic political activity should get enmeshed with financial misappropriation.
My last puzzle has to do with the strategic doctrines or long-term objectives of major powers—doctrines that live on for decades either in their original forms or metamorphosed. The Monroe Doctrine has had a remarkably long life. The Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere seemed to rise with a new breath of life during the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998. At the time of the political upheavals in East Europe and the Balkans in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin wall, there seemed to be a revival of 19 th century ambitions of European powers. In 1996 and 1997, I wondered whether the rapid expansion eastwards of both NATO and the European Union were not in part meant to hem in the traditional regional ambitions of a unified and powerful German state. And many people have remarked on a new Great Game after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Likewise for an outside observer seeing how old Anglo-French rivalries in Africa are played out even now can be interesting.
INEVITABLY, A GREAT DEAL of what I write has to do with diplomats and their activities. Diplomats, in the commonest meaning of the word, are people who work at the permanent embassies states maintain in each other’s capitals or people who work in the ministries of foreign affairs of governments. As a convenience I call such people professional diplomats. Diplomacy in the related meaning of the word is what professional diplomats do.
It is in Renaissance Italy that the five or six city-states started maintaining permanent embassies in each other because of the felt need to keep a watch on which of them was allying with which against whom and work to make and unmake alliances. As the practice of keeping permanent embassies grew, the number of embassies and legations in major European capitals also grew. Governments started having specialized ministries of foreign affairs whose business was to deal with diplomats and diplomacy. Rules about precedence, —so that unlike the French and the Spanish ambassadors to Great Britain in the beginning of the seventeenth century, ambassadors did not have to fight duels to decide who would go first—privileges and immunities were codified. In time in different capitals informal, unwritten but discriminatory norms about the access of diffrent foreign ambassadors to people at different levels in the local government also came to be framed and observed. In any capital ambassadors of some countries have better and easier access to crucial people in the local government than others.
Such professional diplomats still report to their governments on what is happening in the countries they live in and speak on behalf of their governments to the governments to which they are accredited, apart from keeping a watch on and intriguing against each other. Modern communications and rapid international travel have taken away from most of them any central role in creating alliances, working out compromises, coaxing, cajoling or threatening their interlocutors and negotiating agreements and treaties. The process starting with the Congress of Vienna in 1815 where Castlereagh, Wellington, Metternich, Talleyrand, Tsar Alexander and others negotiated directly with each other culminated by the middle of the twentieth century in a world in which most embassy diplomats were left with a great deal of peripheral work which had very little to do with real diplomacy.
The entire post Second World War political arrangement in Europe was worked out not by ambassadors but in meetings of leaders in Moscow, Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam between 1943 and 1945. Since then the habit of conducting serious and not so serious business between states through special envoys from capitals or directly over the telephone or in face-to-face meetings between foreign ministers and heads of government has become ever more entrenched. If the USA wants Saudi Arabia to buy a particular kind of warplane the President of the USA telephones the Saudi King; if the British government wants to garner support in the Middle East for Anglo-American military action in Iraq, the British Prime Minister personally travels to a number of capitals. Heads of government and foreign ministers even routinely congratulate each other by telephone or facsimile transmission on election and re-election and condole with each other when there are major natural or man made disasters in their countries. The traditional ambassador has become at best a facilitator of negotiations and contacts. Diplomacy in the sense of managing relations between states will be a necessity as long as there are sovereign states pursuing their interests, which compete, or conflict with those of other states. Fewer and fewer embassy and foreign ministry diplomats are left with any but a marginal role in serious diplomacy in this other sense of the word.
The work of negotiating except on minor matters having passed to envoys from capitals or directly into the hands of ministers and heads of government, assisted no doubt by their aides, the traditional ambassador and his supporting staff are left the tasks of reporting, speaking on behalf of their governments, at times strictly according to scripts, and ceremonially representing their countries. In the case of Third World countries embassies can often be little more than tour mangers. One Third World Ambassador I knew very well at one time told me that he spent two of his five working days each week at the airport or commuting to and from it because each flight from his country to the capital he was serving in and each return flight transported some high ranking personality requiring the ambassador’s presence at arrival and departure. Another expended his energies on negotiating special rates with hotels for visitors of different rank from home—these special rates were useful when important people came on private visits. Other ambassadors can be involved in performing less innocent tasks on behalf of those under whose commands they function.
Nearly no traditional ambassador would agree if I said that with the expansion of news media and the rapidity of communications, the ambassadorial dispatch has become irrelevant. I shall not argue that case though there is much to base it on. There are other, deeper, structural problems with ambassadorial reports, warnings and prognostications as indeed also with kindred reports, warnings and prognostications of intelligence agencies. In Shakespeare there is an apt parable. ‘Caesar’, said the soothsayer, ‘Beware the ides of March’. Caesar said, ‘He is a dreamer. Let us leave him. Pass.’ The problem is ancient. Caesar will believe what he wants to believe and will dismiss those who speak otherwise as dreamers. Besides it is Caesar who has to weigh the chances that the soothsayer might be right. If things go badly, either the soothsayer, or Caesar or both are decapitated. The difference is that modern Caesars are not single individuals but many people working in offices at the apex of a government whose opinions, judgments and actions take the colour of the opinions, wishes and prejudices of presidents or prime ministers who head those offices.
There is nothing new about the nature of questions that are being asked in the USA and UK in the aftermath of the US-British invasion of Iraq about the reports and assessments of intelligence agencies, the basis for going to war and whether the assessments of intelligence agencies were influenced by the wishes of political leaders. When things go wrong, there often come forward some people in the service of a government to say that they had forewarned but were not heeded. One way the soothsayer can ensure Caesar hears him is to tell him what he wants to hear. There are many soothsayers who do that.
Modern ambassadorial reports as indeed reports by experts face another problem. There is no way to describe a complicated situation briefly. A long, well argued, well-researched report, to be relevant, must be read by those who decide, but those who decide have no time to read while those who have the time to read have no authority to decide. The more important the subject matter, the more filters a report or a recommendation passes through before it reaches the level at which a decision is taken, each filter introducing its own distortion. There are those who find ways of bypassing the filters and develop direct access to the highest decision maker. For such people, gaining and preserving access to the highest political authority becomes in time the main concern. But if access to people in authority is gained or kept at the expense of the tenor or content of what a man has to say, access itself loses its value as a public good.
There may be a thousand and one issues on which an ambassador speaks on behalf of his government to the government of his accreditation. Many are of such ephemeral nature that after a period of inaction by the local government time takes care of them. On the important ones, an ambassador has very little recourse if his hosts ignore his representation or if he gets a rebuff. It is not because of his skills of communication or the forcefulness of his advocacy that an ambassador’s representation elicits a favourable response, but it is because of the power of the state he represents or because the local government sees advantage for itself in agreeing to what the ambassador is asking for or because the ambassador is able to offer something in return. My guess is that about nine tenths of moves, —a move is called a démarche in diplomatese—made by about nine tenths of all ambassadors all over the world with the governments they are accredited to, produce no results. These moves are frequently made because they have to be made either to salve consciences or because in certain circumstances involving foreign governments, domestic audiences have to be told that their government is not simply doing nothing while events of importance are happening. A ‘forceful’ protest or an ‘energetic’ démarche is frequently made for the benefit of a domestic audience.
An ambassador—ordinarily and routinely styled ‘extraordinary’—is the highest-ranking representative of one state to another. His presence in a capital theoretically symbolizes the desire of his state to maintain good relations with the other. A state ritually expresses its annoyance with another by recalling its ambassador for ‘consultations’ or by deciding to keep its embassy in the other capital at a level lower than that of ambassador temporarily or permanently. The host government likewise expresses its annoyance with another by asking its ambassador to leave. I began to doubt a long while ago if such gestures had any meaning any longer. I have gone to three capitals as ambassador where the previous Indian ambassador had left eight to eleven months earlier. These were unpopular places in countries which were not very important in Government of India’s reckoning. People simply did not want to go to those places. But between mid-1975 and mid-1976, at a time when the Indian government considered India’s relations with the Soviet Union very important, there was no Indian ambassador in Moscow. Some new US administrations have notoriously kept US embassies abroad without an ambassador for months together after their installation. Unless a government like that of the USA or India for example specifically says it is not keeping an ambassador in a capital to mark its unhappiness it is impossible to make a distinction between the absence of an ambassador for ‘administrative’ reasons or as indication of ‘displeasure’. The vast majority of people outside the tiny world of diplomacy and its extensions barely notice the absence, or indeed, the presence of an ambassador.
There are many rituals surrounding diplomatic activity. The first of these is the ambassador’s presentation of his letters of credence to the receiving head of state. Having presented ten such letters myself and participated in five other presentations, I think I can preen myself and claim to be an expert on credential ceremonies. Though in most capitals of the world the external pomp and ceremony of this ritual is still maintained, the most ceremonial being the ambassador’s ride to and return from the palace of the Head of State, the contents have slowly been drained out. In Renaissance Italy the ambassador, after presenting his letter made a declamation about his head of state and about his policies in the public square. Sometimes the declamation would be followed by a public debate. In Morocco in 1967 and in 1969, the Indian ambassadors actually made formal speeches and the king replied with formal speeches. In Paris in 1977, the ambassador and the president simply exchanged the texts of their speeches, though the ambassador, the president and the foreign minister did have a private conversation afterwards. In Tblisi in 1995, no speech by me or by Eduard Shevardnadze, oral or written, but after I had handed over my letters, my wife, a colleague from my embassy and I were invited to sit on one side of a long conference table, while on the other side sat Shevardnadze, his foreign minister, a translator, some others from his office and some pressmen and photographers. That was the ambience of my half hour—actually fifteen minutes, making allowance for translation—conversation with Shevardnadze. When the time came for my successor to present his credentials to him, he had decided to receive the credentials of ambassadors of five different countries simultaneously. In most places, after the presentation of credentials, the ambassador sits with the head of state for his tête à tête and is offered some libation—usually coffee or tea, though with Omar Bongo it was champagne and Mobutu offered me a choice between fruit juice and toddy. The ceremonial surrounding the King of Thailand is so rigid that not only did I merely exchange the texts of our speeches but also we had our tête à tête standing face to face, about three feet apart, on separate carpets. Besides, there was no question of discussing politics with him, not even my own government’s policies.
After the presentation of his credentials, it is not easy for an ambassador in many capitals to see the head of state again except if he is visiting the ambassador’s country or if the ambassador’s head of state is visiting the country where the ambassador is located. It is not always easy for an ambassador who does not represent a traditional or new Great Power, particularly in a major Western capital, to meet the Foreign Minister or the Head of Government. Most of his work is done with officials in the ministry of foreign affairs or with those in other ministries. Thus have the ambassador’s functioning, his position and his status got de-mystified.
There are other rituals attached to an ambassador. One of them, now falling into disuse in many capitals, is presentation to a visiting Head of State. In Mobutu’s Kinshasa we were presented to Hosni Mubarak, Crown Prince, now Emperor, Akihito and the Princess, Zhao Zhiang, at that time Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of China and King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophie among others. I had a brief chat with Hosni Mubarak just as my wife had one with Queen Sophie. I doubt if any of them remembered us beyond the end of that ceremony. In Bangkok, where mercifully after 1996 there was no more than one visit of a Head of State in one year, ambassadors were asked to be present at the airport at the arrival and departure of a Head of State. All that happened was that the ambassadors waited for the time of arrival and departure, file past the king or the crown prince, bow to them, shake hands with the visiting Head of State as their title was announced by the chief of protocol and go back to town after the king or the crown prince had left the airport.
Another ritual is that ambassadors when they leave the country and return to it not only inform the local government and name the embassy official who will be in charge of the embassy but also inform other ambassadors. They likewise write formulary letters to other ambassadors when they present their credentials and when they leave the country for good. Yet another is the farewell to a departing ambassador by all the other ambassadors known collectively as the diplomatic corps. For this purpose the dean (normally the longest serving ambassador in the capital) collects money from all the other ambassadors. The form of the farewell varies from capital to capital. In three capitals where I was ambassador the dean simply handed over some money to the departing ambassador with which to buy a souvenir, which, he could tell himself and his wife, was from the diplomatic corps. Why, I wondered in these capitals, bother with a souvenir at all and refused to pay my share, thus in exchange not buying any souvenir for myself supposedly on behalf of the diplomatic corps.
About the most important annual ritual for an ambassador is a reception to mark his national day. There is now in most Western capitals an accepted social norm that important people do not go to large receptions to be part of a crowd. In many other non-Western capitals too this is slowly becoming the social norm. In many capitals, including Delhi for example, one person in government is named to go on behalf of the entire government to an ambassador’s reception. In most capitals there is a group of people who can be seen at most diplomatic receptions—very nice, sociable people, some of them well known names and faces also, but that is about all. Others seen at national day receptions are diplomats of other countries and a variety of free loaders. A largely attended national day reception is a measure of the ambassador’s success and popularity both in his own eyes and in the eyes of those who take note of such things. Because ambassadors attach so much importance to their national day receptions, other ambassadors attach equal importance to ‘boycotting’ them to show their country’s disapproval of the policies of the country whose national day receptions they ‘boycott’. Ambassadors of the European Union in different capitals tend to make a habit of collective ‘boycotts’ of national day receptions. I do not know how many stop to consider that these boycotts in the end may be irrelevant gestures because policy makers in any government anywhere will not take into their reckoning the boycott of their ambassadors’ national day receptions by other countries’ ambassadors in distant capitals.
I agreed with an American ambassador whom I knew who said he wished there was an international convention banning national day receptions. I have personally given a total of four or five, the last one being in 1995 which was also my farewell reception. I saw that by not giving national day receptions I immunized myself against any boycott, saved my wife and myself a great deal of bother, and my government some money, in the process losing the opportunity to become a one day celebrity.
In Bangkok, national day receptions retained some of the habits of an older era. At one stage during the reception, the national anthem of the country and that of Thailand would be played and the Head of State of the country and the King of Thailand would be toasted. Some ambassadors would read out a report card of their achievements measured in the number of high level visits between the two countries, new initiatives towards economic and technical cooperation, visits by different varieties of artistes and augmentation of trade. The foreign minister of Thailand and his deputy, and often the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were present at these receptions when in town. These were good opportunities for transacting quick business with them—opportunities which I have used. For such opportunities and for the food and drinks which were nearly always of high quality, I must not be ungrateful to the numerous hosts of national day receptions I have attended.
Much of professional diplomatic life is trivial just as much of professional diplomatic activity consists of small irrelevancies, a life time of playing cards, as someone had told me in 1961. Working at the Indian Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi I became aware that the elegantly written, ‘well informed’ dispatches from one Indian ambassador were simply articles copied from a review that appeared from the capital where the man was located. Elsewhere my wife and I were at a ‘diplomatic’ luncheon where a gaggle of diplomatic wives were engaged in a most earnest discussion of the qualities of a casserole the hostess had bought at a promotional sale the day before or earlier. Yet diplomats and their wives take themselves seriously. Except in a few major capitals where the number of embassies and ambassadors is very large, they expend much of their energy exchanging notes with each other about the political and economic situation in the country and the world, about the moral and physical health of the head of state or about the minutiae of local political and social life, observing each other, gossiping about each other and not unoften intriguing against each other—a throw back to the days of the Renaissance when in a capital there would be no more than five or six foreign ambassadors.
Ambassadors do other things such as organizing festivals to present their countries’ cuisine, concerts to present their countries’ music and dance, painting exhibitions by local painters or painters from home, all meant to further the causes of friendship and understanding. When they are not doing any of this, they worry about issues of precedence and privilege, about their cooks and allowances and sometimes about the best place to buy ivory or an antique image of a Hindu goddess or a precious ikon. Diplomatic wives join hands together for raising funds for charities—I have lived in four capitals where they raised funds for the local Red Cross or Red Crescent Society, the manner of raising funds being almost identical in each place and the competition among different embassies being equally sharp.
But I must not thus decry a profession which was mine for three and a half decades. It has been good life—easy, pampered, sheltered, decadent existence even in cities where life for the ordinary man is very difficult. For me an added attraction has been travelling partly at my own expense as a junior diplomat and on government account as ambassador. Government of India’s rules about the travel of ambassadors and their wives in the country of the ambassador’s accreditation have been generous. I have enjoyed being an itinerant. Wherever I have been head of my mission or post I have travelled extensively in the area of my responsibility, in spite of inconveniences in places—in three countries I have been ambassador in, even sleeping accommodation in some provincial towns was so close to the barest necessity that no ambassador who took his status seriously—and there are very few who do not—would ever think of going there. In all these places I have said to myself that if one of my tasks was to be a flag bearer for my country, I must make sure that the flag was seen in as many nooks and crannies as possible.
In the second half of the twentieth century there were no wild, unexplored places left on the earth. If there were it was not an ambassador’s calling to explore them. Some of the places I travelled to were difficult of access because of underdevelopment or of infrastructure that had deteriorated. It is human comedy that lightened up so many journeys. Others were made interesting by the beauty of nature, yet others by the literary or historical associations that attached to them. Travelling even to unknown, remote or difficult places has been as much pleasure as a source of enrichment of the spirit, as also a means of escaping the stultifying atmosphere of the diplomatic corps. Besides, it invariably put life into the dying embers of my romanticism.
IN DEALING WITH PUBLIC AFFAIRS, I have in different circumstances had before me three models to emulate, all from the world of literature. The first comes out of the second volume entitled ‘The Guardians’ of Philip Woodruff’s book ‘The Men Who Ruled India’. Philip Woodruff calls him the ‘the clodhopping collector’, an idealized figure of a bold and courageous British district administrator for whom the well being of his district was so important that he gave his all to it, defying superiors when necessary, being ready to throw away chances of advancement. Whenever I felt the courage, which was but rarely, I thought of myself as a latter day clodhopping collector.
My second model comes out of the Mahabharata. During one of the many stalemates in the fighting it seemed that for the Pandavas to gain advantage it was necessary to kill their archery and warfare teacher Drona. A warrior of Drona’s prowess was near impregnable. Krishna, the friend, philosopher and guide of the Pandavas, devised a scheme, partially underhand as usual. They would have Yudhishthira, who was known never to utter a falsehood, tell Drona that his son Ashvatthama had died and Drona, distraught by the bad news would be an easy target of an archer’s arrow. But while Ashvatthama the man had not died, an elephant of the same name had. Yudhishthira was persuaded to say to Drona: Ashvatthama hatah, naro va kunjaro va (Ashvatthama, man or elephant, has been killed). As Yuddhishthira uttered those words, Krishna and others made a big noise drowning out the second part of the sentence; Drona hearing only the first, meaning that Ashvatthama had died, was distraught enough to become an easy target for an archer. In dealing with pressures to put aside norms of propriety, I have tried to copy Yudhishthira the equivocator when I was not trying to be the clodhopping collector.
Beyond the clodhopping collector and the equivocating Yudhishthira, my most enduring model has been Jacques from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Like Jacques I have been given to standing on the margin, observing people and events from the outside like an amused critic, reflecting on them with a mixture of mild cynicism and melancholic sadness, himself not participating in the action. I would be happy if through what I have written the Jacques in me showed himself.
ALL BUT THE PRESENT CHAPTER of this book was written between December 2001 and February 2004; the first version of this chapter was completed in June 2004. After that I have kept this piece for not nine years but one sixth of that time, during which I have made many revisions, of necessity because the language in which I write is foreign for me but which, sadly, is what I write or speak the least badly. I have made no change in the substance of what I wrote in the first burst of energy, suppressing urges to ‘update’ the contents. I have written at a pace allowed by my intellectual and physical laziness, and by such other external circumstances as more or less frequent power outages in the locality next to Delhi I live in, a crash of the hard disc of the computer I have been writing on, hot weather, wet weather, cold weather and lack of skill as a typist combined with the loss of the habit of writing with pen on paper because, during my entire working life with Government of India, I had a full time stenographer and typist, to whom I could dictate whatever I wanted to write. Often the external circumstances became pegs to hang my laziness from. There was no pressure on me to write more rapidly. If I had had the need to write for money to live on, or if what I wrote was of immediate topicality, I might have, as Graham Greene said he did at one stage in his writing career, kept myself awake on coffee and Benzedrine, and been more productive.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ME in the last three decades and a half was the consequence of my own character, actions and choices, not in some previous birth but in this. There are three people who shared the fruit—bitter or sweet—of my actions and my choices. One of them, my wife, the other half of the ‘we’ who is often mentioned in these narratives travelled with me and was on my side nearly everywhere. The other two are my daughter and son. The three rarely had options and yet the trials were as much theirs as mine. To them, the unwitting sufferers of the consequences of my follies, I dedicate this book.