A diplomat’s insights

Print edition : July 08, 2016

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U.N. General Assembly, October 12, 1960: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during a speech on colonialism by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Photo: AP

This book will be of interest not only to scholars of international relations and diplomats but also to the general public in India, South Asia and the wider world.

I READ this book almost non-stop. It reminded me of Henry Kissinger’s White House Years and of Dean Acheson’s Present at the Creation. The author is a true master of prose who effortlessly combines brevity, wit and erudition. He is a gifted poet too and the evening he met his future wife, Kadambiri, to whom the book is dedicated, the following lines from Robert Burns “kept leaping up” in his head “word by word” as he was driving back to his flat:

To see her is to love her

And love but her forever

For Nature made her

what she is

And never made sic

another.

The first chapter is “Foreign Policy in Independent India”. Jawaharlal Nehru, in his speech on September 7, 1946, a few days after taking over as vice chairman and member for external affairs of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, said:

“We propose, as far as possible, to keep away from the power politics of groups, aligned against one another, which have led in the past to two World Wars and which may again lead to disasters on an even vaster scale....”

The author draws attention to the implications of the phrase “as far as possible” and draws the correct conclusion that Nehru’s policy did not mean “an inflexible posture of equidistance between the two power blocks”.

However, when Nehru spoke, he had neither a functioning Foreign Office nor a Foreign Service cadre, and Maharajakrishna Rasgotra has given a detailed account of how the two were created. The pre-incarnations of the Indian Foreign Service go as far back as 1784 when Warren Hastings was Governor General. Nehru asked Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), who was in Washington as Agent General mainly to carry out propaganda to justify the United Kingdom’s response to India’s demand for freedom, to come back and put together a new diplomatic service and a Foreign Office.

Rasgotra, comfortably settled into the Punjab Education Service teaching (Class 11) English language and literature, decided not to appear for the second competitive examination held by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) in 1948.

Fortunately, he was forced to write the next one by his mentor, Principal H.C. Kathpalia of Government College, Ludhiana. At the interview, candidate Rasgotra was asked whether he had come across a person called Thailand. (Siam had just changed its name to Thailand.) He answered, “A person called Thailand? No Sir. I have not heard of a person by that name. But, Sir, there is a country of that name. But, perhaps, Sir, there might be a person named Thailand also! It is a big world, Sir.” As he came out of the interview, the candidate was a bit nervous, not being sure that he was in. “I was lingering, wending my way out in a long corridor, when I felt a friendly pat on my back and a gentleman, who was part of the board, said: ‘Well done, Mr Rasgotra. Well done. I am Ray.’” The reader will note what a born raconteur the author is and how informal and cheerful the UPSC was then as compared to its rather grim formality now.

Life in London

It was the practice then to send the newly recruited diplomats for training to London. Life in London when Rasgotra joined Wadham College at Oxford in 1950 “was austere”. Every day at breakfast he had a fish called kipper, “more bones than fish”. While applying for membership of the Oxford Labour Club, he wrote his name as Maharajakrishna Rasgotra and a rumour went round that an Indian prince of the kingdom of Rasgotra was studying at Oxford. High Commissioner V.K. Krishna Menon took special interest in guiding Rasgotra. What is striking about Rasgotra is that in the early stages of his career, he was lucky to come across powerful seniors who spotted his competence and brilliance and gladly “adopted” him.

In his first posting abroad to Washington, as third secretary/vice consul, Rasgotra was given advance information on a confidential basis about the United States’ decision to arm Pakistan by the desk officer for India in the State Department; the third secretary recorded a note. However, his seniors were not prepared to concede that such a junior officer could have ever on his own picked up credible information on such an important matter; it was decided to include a few lines in the monthly political report rather than send a special dispatch. A “bright Under Secretary”, the author does not name the person, grasped the significance of the matter on reading the political report and brought it to the notice of Joint Secretary T.N. Kaul, who took it to Foreign Secretary K.P.S. Menon, who brought it to Nehru’s notice and he took consequential action. “A lesson I learnt from this episode was never to reject out-of-hand information brought by a junior officer or spurn its source.” The author learnt about the plans to arm Pakistan in June/July 1953 and the U.S.-Pakistan pact was signed in February 1954.

If the U.S. had not armed Pakistan, Nehru and his Pakistani counterpart, Mohammed Ali Dogra, would have agreed on a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir and the course of history of the subcontinent might have been different. The author points out that it was the U.S. arms supply that caused the periodic military coups and the break-up of Pakistan in 1971. It is such insights that make this book valuable for the reader.

Rasgotra moved to Kathmandu from Washington in 1954. He travelled widely and found out that Prime Minister M.P. Koirala’s party had been spreading baseless rumours that Indian agents were working to “alienate the Terai from Nepal”.

Rasgotra was transferred to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) as Under Secretary (Foreign Service Personnel). At that time there were no rules regulating the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officers’ entitlements. A typical case was that of an officer in a mission abroad for whom unfurnished accommodation was found and the mission asked for sanction to purchase furniture. The DFA (Deputy Financial Adviser) refused saying that the officer abroad should have exactly what an officer of the same level in India would have got. The DFA made short shrift of Rasgotra’s argument that there was need for proper furniture for diplomatic entertainment. The DFA’s position was that the furniture would be sent from India. Rasgotra immediately decided to outwit the DFA by getting an estimate from Cox & Kings for the transportation of the furniture and its periodic replacement. That estimate was obviously higher than the amount the mission had wanted and the DFA had to yield.

At 32, the author had often “thought of remaining a bachelor while in service and taking to a life of study, reflection and spiritual pursuits thereafter”. All that changed one evening when he met Kadambiri at a party and recalled Robert Burns’ lines as mentioned above.

When King Mahendra of Nepal visited India in 1957, Nehru asked Rasgotra to be the liaison officer. The visit lasted two weeks and the royal couple went to many places. When the king invited the Rasgotras to dine with them and Rasgotra asked Foreign Secretary Subimal Dutt for permission to accept the invitation, the latter was “dumbstruck for a long minute or two”. Finally, Dutt asked Rasgotra to accept the invitation and also mention it to Nehru, who approved it with alacrity without seeking any explanation. Similarly, when Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of the United Kingdom came in 1958, the liaison officer was Rasgotra. On his return from Oxford, Rasgotra had spent a while at the MEA doing protocol work and Nehru had spotted him then.

Insider stories

There are a number of insider stories. There was a ban on serving alcohol at dinners and receptions. Foreign Secretary K.P.S. Menon brought it up once by saying: “A little drink helps loosen the tongue of the guest.” Nehru shot back: “Yes, indeed; and what about your own tongues?” In 1958, as Ambassador to the USSR, K.P.S. Menon sought permission to serve alcohol at three functions he was hosting. The clinching argument was that the Soviet guests would be “unhappy” without vodka. The decision was that sherry, light wine or vodka, but no champagne, would be served at the small dinners; no alcohol at the big reception; and no Indian should drink.

I remember that when Indira Gandhi came to Vienna in 1971 in the context of the Bangladesh crisis, the initial instructions were not to serve alcohol at the banquet she was to host. But from her first stop in Brussels, we got instructions to serve alcohol, but no Indian was to drink. As it happened, Foreign Secretary T.N. Kaul was the first to pick up a glass of white wine and the rest of the delegation followed his good example with alacrity.

The year 1958 saw Rasgotra as First Secretary at the United Nations. He was given the 4th Committee dealing with decolonisation and the work of the Trusteeship Council. He did an exceptionally brilliant job in accelerating the pace of decolonisation.

We all have heard or read about Nikita Khrushchev’s shoe-thumping at the U.N. General Assembly. Rasgotra gives the background. One afternoon, he was taking Nehru around. The lights were on and some sound was coming from the big hall though no plenary session was on. Rasgotra got closer and saw a strange sight: Harold Macmillan was rehearsing his speech, rather abusive of Khrushchev, to be delivered the next day. When Rasgotra told Nehru of this, he did not believe it in full. The following day, Macmillan was even more theatrical and humiliated the Soviet leader, who thumped his shoes on the table.

Let us see how the members of the Indian delegation reacted to the theatrical performance of the British Prime Minister. Nehru, V.K. Krishna Menon, and Rasgotra did not like it. But, Foreign Secretary Subimal Dutt, in his book With Nehru in the Foreign Office, says that Macmillan was “in his best parliamentary form”.

While travelling with Nehru, Rasgotra asked whether there was a solution to the Kashmir problem and, if so, what it might be. The “brief and prophetic answer” was: “There are problems in human affairs to which there are no solutions.” After a moment’s pause, Nehru added: “Except Time.”

V.K. Krishna Menon was an outstanding orator. Sir Pearson Dixon of the U.K. tried to pick holes in some of the words used by Menon, who shot back: “Sir, I can understand your difficulty in understanding what I have said; you picked up your English on the streets of London, I devoted several years of my life to learn it with the care and respect it deserves!” Derisive laughter silenced Dixon who did not open his mouth for the rest of the session. When Zafarullah Khan of Pakistan interrupted Menon by repeatedly shouting “Plebiscite”, Menon turned to the Chair and said: “Plebiscite, Plebiscite, Plebiscite! Sir, ask this gentleman whether his country has ever seen a ballot box!” Krishna Menon had a reputation for being allergic to the U.S. In the mid 1950s, Menon had asked for F104 fighter jets against payment, but the U.S. rejected the request on the grounds that it did not want to upset the military balance in the subcontinent. Post-1962, when the request was renewed, the answer was that India could not afford the cost.

Nuclear test

Nehru’s decision to grant asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959 led to the 1962 war, which could have been prevented only by handing over the Dalai Lama to China, a step Nehru refused even to consider. Before the 1962 war, President John F. Kennedy made a little-known offer to Nehru. The U.S. knew that China was planning a nuclear test; Kennedy wanted India to test ahead of China and was prepared to help technically. Nehru was not disinclined to accept the offer. He promptly instructed Homi Bhabha to “work out a plan of action on a most urgent basis, should we finally accept Kennedy’s offer”. The only other person Nehru consulted was G. Parthasarathy, who asked for a couple of days to think it over. Parthasarathy talked to B.N. Mullick, “India’s pretentious intelligence chief”, and to U.S. Ambassador J.K. Galbraith, who had brought the offer. Both of them were for India accepting the offer. However, Parthasarathy advised Nehru to reject the offer.

The main arguments for rejecting the offer were as follows: First, the seismic and other signatures of the test would have brought out the U.S. connection and Moscow “would have isolated India totally”. This argument does not hold water as the USSR-China break-up had started and Moscow needed India’s support. The second argument was that any testing would have dealt a mortal blow to India’s policy of non-alignment. Kennedy had made it clear that there were no strings attached. Unfortunately, the correct decision in India’s interest was not taken, possibly also because Nehru’s faculties had started to decline. Strangely enough, he chose not to consult Foreign Secretary Subimal Dutt. Rasgotra correctly endorses the contra-factual argument that had India tested, China would not have attacked her in 1962.

Foreign Minister Swaran Singh sent Rasgotra as Deputy High Commissioner to London in 1972, charged with the task of reducing the strength of staff to 400 from the then level of 1,200-plus. Rasgotra accomplished the task brilliantly and painlessly. He moved to Kathmandu from London as Ambassador. There he handled with singular courage and diplomatic skills the protests in Nepal over the integration of Sikkim, which is in sad contrast to what is happening now.

From Nepal, Rasgotra went to Holland and then to France from where he returned to India as Foreign Secretary in November 1981. Indira Gandhi had received an invitation from United States President Ronald Reagan. External Affairs Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, G. Parthasarathy and Principal Secretary P.C. Alexander advised her against accepting it. Indira Gandhi was inclined to accept it. Rasgotra first talked to those who opposed the visit, but failed to make them change their mind. He prepared a long note arguing the case for the visit and sent it to Indira Gandhi, who approved it. The visit was a great success. The reader will note that when the Foreign Secretary has direct access to the Prime Minister, no PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) can stand in the way.

In the summer of 1995, A.B. Vajpayee, Leader of the Opposition, wanted to meet Rasgotra who had retired by then. The conversation turned to nuclear matters and Vajpayee asked whether it was time for another nuclear test. Rasgotra replied that one test was not enough, a series of tests was required. Vajpayee put into the manifesto of his party that there would be nuclear tests. Asked about the reference to nuclear tests in the manifesto, Rasgotra told foreign ambassadors that it was meant seriously. None of them took him seriously and they were all unprepared for the tests in May 1998.

The last chapter is “Foreign Policy: Past and Present”. The author makes a number of useful points. We shall mention only a few. First, non-alignment was not a mere idealistic concept. “It was a policy in which pragmatism, idealism, and realism went hand in hand, and Nehru used one or more of these traits in his conduct of relations, at different times, with a neighbour or a great power or in the United Nations Security Council on issues which included Kashmir, the Suez Canal crisis, Goa’s liberation or Soviet Russia’s military intervention in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.”

Second, there is need for a firm, stable, and unwavering neighbourhood policy. Rasgotra quotes Machiavelli to the effect that it is better to be feared than loved.

Third, the author has drawn a 21st century “mandala” on page 395 with China at the centre. India needs a closer political understanding and cooperation with the U.S. “to deter or deal with any misadventure threatening peace and security in the region”. The reader will note that this is the direction in which the present government is moving. The author advises Prime Minister Narendra Modi not to have any doctrine attached to his name as “a combination of principles and pragmatism makes for a successful foreign policy”.

Rasgotra admires Machiavelli and Kautilya. But to that worldly wisdom is combined deep spirituality. The author became an atheist with the death of his elder son in an accident in 1967. Five years later, before going to London as Deputy High Commissioner, he met Sathya Sai Baba and became his devotee. Rasgotra says he had a vision of transcendental luminescence once when he, 85, was waiting for Sai Baba who was coming towards him.

The book is elegantly brought out with carefully chosen black-and-white photographs that recall the past. The editing is more or less diligent. On page 18, there is a reference to K.M. Kannam Pillay. The correct name is Kannampilly. In chapter 6, dealing with Rasgotra’s first posting in Washington, there is no mention of the Ambassador’s name. The reader has to do some research and find out from an earlier chapter that it is G.L. Mehta.

This book will be of interest not only to scholars of international relations and diplomats but also to the general public in India, South Asia and the wider world. Anyone who wants to get a feeling of “being present at the creation” should read it. We are all deeply beholden to the doyen of India’s diplomatic corps for this magisterial work, which he, at 90, completed in 10 months. Younger people would have taken longer to write a book of this length. Obviously, Rasgotra is a fast “dictator”.

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