The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Fresh air and plain-speaking in the MEA

India’s foreign secretaries are very good at redrawing the world — with the stroke of a pen. It is not unusual to find an incoming foreign secretary, bereft of ideas, deciding to redefine Europe, making Turkey part of the Continent in South Block’s agenda. Never mind the reality that the European Union is a long way from accepting Turkey as such. Similarly, South Block’s description of its territorial division dealing with east Asia and south-east Asia has changed so many times that had these been real changes, this crucial area of the globe would have become unrecognizable to the real world by now.

This month, however, South Block has felt fresh air in its majestic corridors: a new foreign secretary determined that substance should triumph over the window-dressing engaged in by a long line of his predecessors, with only a few exceptions. In the very first week after assuming office as India’s 26th foreign secretary, Shyam Saran did some plain-speaking with joint secretaries in the ministry of external affairs who constitute the core of the ministry’s process of policy-making.

It is not merely enough for joint secretaries to list the options to the foreign secretary while deciding policy or making up the Indian government’s stand on an issue. That even a junior under-secretary can do, he argued. Instead, joint secretaries should bring to bear on policy their expertise and their understanding of issues, and make specific policy recommendations to their superiors. They should stop playing safe, opting for the easy way out of problems and fully participate in decision-making. The MEA is now on the threshold of one of its biggest re-organizations. Perhaps for the first time in a decade, a brand new team is taking over at its helm. In addition to the foreign secretary, new secretaries too are taking over: except for one incumbent, the MEA’s top tier is to have a wholly new look in terms of personnel.

In a change that is virtually unprecedented in the history of the Indian foreign service, Saran has told the external affairs minister, K. Natwar Singh, that he wants his secretaries to be fully part of his team. In the past, foreign secretaries have kept for themselves 95 per cent of the work in South Block, leaving just about five per cent for the two, sometimes three, other secretaries. Extremely insecure foreign secretaries have gone further and kept 98 per cent of the work to themselves. That is about to undergo a historic change when Shashi Tripathi joins Rajiv Sikri and Saran to become the triumvirate that will be the MEA’s diplomatic face for the next two years.

Saran has shown that he is capable of leading a team that has to consolidate the single biggest achievement of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government — of dealing with the major world powers as an equal and not as the non-aligned bull in the china shop of international diplomacy or as the congenital dissident in the arena of global negotiations. It is a tribute to Saran’s brand of diplomacy that he has not been allowed by South Block’s political leadership to serve in two of his most recent postings for no more than a year-and-a-half at each station. He had done only one year and two months of his eventful stay in Jakarta as ambassador when his interests were demanded in Nepal.

Ambassadors often measure the success of their tenure by the number of VIP visits from home that they have hosted in their country of accreditation. Vajpayee did not visit Indonesia during Saran’s tenure in Jakarta. But Saran opened the eyes of both the Association of South-east Asian Nations and New Delhi to what is possible between the two beyond what has become a virtual cliché — the so-called “Look East” policy of the Indian government.

The full potential of Indo-ASEAN relations is far from realized — except in Indonesia and to an extent in Singapore. Saran turned relations between India and Indonesia into what they were intended to be in the first place when Indonesia became free from Dutch colonialism in 1949. When Saran persuaded Bollywood’s Shah Rukh Khan to visit Indonesia as part of a four-week, four-city Festival of India that he organized in 2002, he created what amounted to the nearest equivalent to another revolution in that country where Khan is a cult figure, almost like Indonesia’s national heroes.

It is a testimony to Saran’s organizing abilities — which he will need aplenty as foreign secretary — that the only Festival of India in Indonesia in four decades was put together in just six weeks. And what an event it was! Indonesians marvelled at the 500-year-old Indian textile exhibit that Saran persuaded a private collector in Australia to lend to the festival. India’s capabilities became a talking point in Jakarta homes after the capital’s biggest department store organized a spectacular “India Month”.

The profile that Saran created for India and the respect he earned for New Delhi in Indonesia stood the chargé d’affaires, Amar Sinha, in good stead and enabled him to weather successfully the biggest crisis in Indo-Indonesian relations in recent memory within days of Saran’s transfer to Kathmandu. Bank Artha Graha — a mafia-controlled institution with links to Indonesia’s powerful, but notoriously corrupt, army — decided to dispute a contract with Polaris, a Chennai-based financial services software firm, as an excuse to extort a fortune from the Indian company.

It illegally detained the chief executive of Polaris, Arun Jain, who had arrived in Jakarta to negotiate the dispute in good faith. Jain was held incommunicado at the bank’s headquarters while other Polaris employees, similarly held hostage, were threatened by the bank’s hatchet men at gunpoint to sign pay-off documents. The mafia that controlled Bank Artha Graha demonstrated that they were above the law. Sinha defied conventional wisdom within the ASEAN when he combined New Delhi’s resolve to stand up on behalf of Jain with a campaign in the Singapore and Hong Kong media citing the Polaris case to discredit Indonesia’s claim of being business-friendly. Jain and his colleagues were freed after the intervention of the Indonesian foreign minister, Hassan Wirayuda.

Saran’s tenure in Jakarta was cut short as New Delhi groped for its traditional and historic role in Nepal as the kingdom lurched from crisis into deeper crisis: he was rushed to Kathmandu to head the Indian embassy there. The National Democratic Alliance government had not paid adequate attention to Nepal in the months preceding the crises in the kingdom, caught up as Vajpayee and the then external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, were with dealing with the Big Powers as a fallout of the Pokhran nuclear tests.

Surprising as this neglect of the world’s only Hindu kingdom by the Bharatiya Janata Party was, it threatened some of the foundations of India’s neighbourhood policy. Within six months, Saran put Indian interests in Nepal on the road to recovery. He gained the confidence of King Gyanendra by stopping the flow to Narayanhitty Palace of confusing and multiple messages on sensitive and top-secret subjects from New Delhi, messages which were often contradictory and delivered through more than one intermediary. He also rewrote the rules for India’s dealings with Nepal’s main political parties.

History will judge Saran’s role as ambassador in Kathmandu on a par with Rajiv Gandhi’s in his final year as prime minister, when Rajiv’s policies put Nepal on an irreversible road to democracy. Saran recognized that Nepal’s place in international affairs was undergoing a historic change with the United States of America and its allies taking an interest in Kathmandu for the first time.

India’s policies towards Kathmandu could not remain moribund or warped in time under those circumstances. Although Saran’s tenure in Kathmandu was also cut short by the call to take over as head of the IFS, he will have time as foreign secretary to see through what he started in Nepal. He will also have the opportunity to look afresh at the fires he put out as envoy earlier in Mauritius and Myanmar, and pick up those threads from where they were left off. That is, if the political leadership in South Block recognizes the worth of a diplomatic fire-fighter who has become a potentially outstanding foreign secretary, and leaves him alone to do a professional job.

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