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Monday, 9 November 1998

Diplomatic Dinosaurs - Left Behind in a Changing World


(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)


Ten years ago, a young Indian diplomat in a European capital
briefly let fall his mask of official politeness. "Most of our work
is looking after VIP guests", he groused, "our promotions
depend on this, and not on how well we understand the country
and suggest responses useful to India". And because most VIP
visitors would sooner go to floor shows or supermarkets than to
experts in trade or terrorism, a career-minded diplomat quickly
finds out all that is necessary about such locales in order to
entertain a dignitary from home. lf in the process the "training"
of a diplomat resembles a course in hotel management (the guest
is always right), that is bagatelle when compared to the satisfaction
of dozens of VH’s who saunter out of the guest houses that go
by the name of Indian embassies abroad.

In the corporate world of the past, the production departments 
had primacy, with marketing being almost an afterthought.
Today the creation of a need through professional manipulation
of tastes is at the core of the business process. The practitioners
of this skill are usually highly-trained and well-paid, often more
so than those in other disciplines. If we considered that the job
of Indian diplomats is similarly to identify ways in which this
country's capabilities can cater to the perceived needs of other
countries while bringing benefits to India, then it is evident that
the ministry of external affairs is still in the pre-market era,
where form has primacy over substance.

Diplomats' Promotion
Had the criteria for career "progression been based on 
achievements like, for example, an increase in the import of
goods and services from India or changes in a country" policy
in a manner beneficial to Indian interests, many of our diplomats
would perhaps have been tempted to abandon the role of escorts 
and innkeepers for VIP guests. However, the diplomat’s
professional skills are seldom judged relevant when deciding on
promotions. They are done arbitrarily, often a diplomat who has
been given what is termed a "hardship" posting is posted to a 
comfortable western country like Austria or Belgium to
recuperate. If the diplomat’s inability or lack of desire to execute 
his duties has made the country where he is posted currently 
indifferent or even more hostile than before to India's concerns, 
then his promotion to a "soft” assignment is hastened.  

While the pace of change is accelerating the world over, in  
the selection committees for choosing new officers "crass"  
individuals from the world of commerce, journalism or public  
life, are effectively kept out and at best are permitted token  
appearances between the closed ranks of soon-to-be-retired, just-  
retired or long-retired diplomats. Much discussion takes place ,
over the number of prize missions that have fallen to political  
appointees. Naturally any officer with an iota of loyalty to his  
profession will strive to ensure that such appointees trip up and  
eventually fail, so that they can be replaced by civilised persons 
who are well-versed in the use of the appropriate cutlery and the 
choice of the right wine. 

No Reason 
Despite their snooty disdain for "organised labour", most  
administrative fraternities function most effectively in a trade  
union mode, not subject to accountability. This country should  
adopt a system of encouraging movement from fields like   
marketing and communications to die diplomatic corps with  
highly trained professionals working as diplomats for three to   
five year terms. This would help create a diplomatic system 
more relevant to current priorities: enhanced trade and security.  

There is no reason why a "political appointee" should necessarily   
be a politician. He or she could be a scientist (in a country with 
which technological cooperation is significant) or a marketing 
professional (where enhanced trade is sought) or from the 
communications industry (where a change in perception needs  
to be introduced). What is urgently required is a network of  
genuine specialists down the line, serving within the diplomatic 
corps for specified periods or even permanently. Just as war is 
too serious a business to be left to generals, diplomacy is far too
crucial a field to be monopolised by foreign service officers. 

The standard response to most suggestions for substantive 
change is that things are proceeding perfectly at present. Those 
in charge of external relations point with pride to the "improving" 
relations with practically every country. That most such 
"improvements" are a consequence of continuous concessions to 
external susceptibilities is, of course, glossed over. Thus troops
in Kashmir are unable to use helicopters to pursue mercenaries
from Pakistan, Sudan and Afghanistan, because to do so would 
hurt the feelings of these three countries. India has to play down
major technological achievements in the rocket field, because
enhanced activity there would lead to frowns from capitals that
regard bullock carts and camel rides as being more "natural"
fields of activity for a ”backward" country than the launching of
satellites or rockets. Thus the so-called "regional bully" has to
watch meekly while terrorists in our northern states get trained
in Pakistan, and insurgents in north-eastern states get support
from Bangladesh. 'The diminishing significance of India in its 
own backyard is clearly underscored by the fact that two
neighbours are able to foment insurgency at their will in this
country and even countries like Thailand harbour Indian citizens
who are engineering insurgency here by remote control.

There is a clear correlation between the declining effectiveness  
of Indian diplomacy and the increase in externally-backed 
insurgency within our borders. Had this country followed the 
example of China, and developed its defences openly and 
energetically, it would arguably have witnessed an improvement 
in its security environment at a much lower cost than it is 
incurring at present. To accept the western argument that the 
rolling back of India's nuclear and space programme will lead to 
a peace-oriented response from our western neighbour is to
ignore the instability that permeates this region. 

In 1972 major concessions were given to the late Zulifikar Ali
Bhutto in order to prop up a "democratic alternative" to the
Pakistani army. This strategy failed and the concessions went to 
‘ waste, just. as Indian forbearance did in 1948 when the army was
prevented from liberating the whole of Kashmir by Jawaharlal
Nehru. Should Benazir Bhutto make promises that Pakistan will
roll back strategic defence programmes, the situation within that
country makes it probable that she will be ousted by one or  
another fundamentalist group or the army, which will soon 
renege on such promises. In the meantime, India would have lost  
a lot of crucial time.  

Secular Forces 
By flirting with the fundamentalists, Bhutto has strengthened a 
force that has the potential to topple her. Whether in Pakistan, 
Afghanistan or many of the CIS states, there is a need to buttress
secular forces and prevent the movement towards
fundamentalism. A more active Indian diplomacy within this
region—stressing this country’s economic base and secular
traditions—is called for in place of the present passivity. Such a 
policy needs we backed by a credible deterrent force that will
prevent any other spillover of fundamentalist violence into 
India.

In the face of the instability in our neighbourhood, it is 
astonishing that even the proposed national security council has 
not yet been formed. As for introducing basic changes in the 
training and composition of our diplomatic corps, this may 
prove beyond the vision of our MEA that saw nothing wrong 
with functioning without a political head for over a year. The 
price for the present will be paid for by the future.

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