| In top gear
India’s new foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, could well turn out to be the biggest surprise in the Manmohan Singh government, which has so far been predictable, cautious and conservative in its actions and reactions. The United Progressive Alliance government, after almost two-and-a-half years in office, is yet to bequeath anything to history. So far, it has not yielded the stuff of a book, not even a chapter in a book of instant history. But the new foreign secretary may change all that, if he is allowed, that is.
Menon was ambassador to Beijing when Murli Manohar Joshi, human resource minister in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, arrived on one of his visits to China. Joshi had an elaborate programme, being number three in the largest party in the ruling coalition, although he was not quite de facto number three in the government.
One of Joshi’s engagements was a meeting with the mayor of Shanghai. In China’s political hierarchy, the mayor of Shanghai is not just another metropolitan mayor, as last week’s culmination of the anti-corruption drive in China and the mayor’s ouster and house arrest have shown. For long, Shanghai’s mayor has been one of the most important members of the politburo of the Chinese Communist Party. But when Joshi and Menon landed in Shanghai, what awaited them was a message at the Indian consulate general that the mayor was too busy to meet the Indian minister. Instead, the consul-general was told, the deputy mayor of Shanghai would meet Joshi.
Joshi was pleasantly surprised by the way Menon reacted to this message. Most Indian diplomats would have tried to convince their visiting Indian VIPs that the best course is to take what is being offered. Just before he left New Delhi for China, Joshi had heard the story of a senior cabinet colleague of his, who, while visiting Washington, had been enraged at being taken for granted by US legislators with whom he had had appointments on Capitol Hill. Instead of taking offence at the way his minister had been treated and doing something about it, the then Indian ambassador in Washington had started apologizing to the minister on behalf of US legislators and rationalizing with him to put up with such mistreatment.
But not Menon. Without even consulting Joshi, Menon sent a message to the Shanghai city office that a senior Indian cabinet minister would not call on a deputy mayor even if the deputy mayor was from China’s biggest boom town and was sought after by the world’s biggest conglomerates and corporations. The current generation of Chinese leaders, not used to rebuffs unlike the Zhou En-lai vintage party veterans, were shocked. Typically, they started pleading with Menon to let the deputy mayor call on Joshi at his hotel suite if the minister was unwilling to go to the deputy mayor’s office. But Menon said no. To avoid open unpleasantness, Menon informed the Chinese that Joshi was suddenly feeling unwell and, therefore, could not receive the deputy mayor in his hotel. But the Chinese knew only too well that they had bitten off what they could not chew in denying the senior Indian minister audience with the city- father.
Menon has spent nearly 15 of his 34 years in the Indian foreign service dealing with China, either in Beijing or at the ministry of external affairs. He used that experience — especially when he was ambassador to Beijing and earlier as joint secretary for China — to systematically decimate the foreign policy positions of the People’s Republic while promoting constructive cooperation between New Delhi and Beijing at the same time.
Recognizing his potential to do just that, J.N. Dixit, the veteran Indian diplomat who was foreign secretary in 1992, restructured the MEA as soon as Menon became South Block’s point man for China in July that year. He revived the “east Asia” division in the MEA — a single unit that covered China, Nepal, Bhutan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the two Koreas, Mongolia and Japan — and put it under Menon’s charge. The logic was that since China was India’s key strategic rival in Nepal and Bhutan, it made sense for the official who was dealing with China to also handle Nepal and Bhutan. In that role, Menon initiated the establishment of unofficial diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which is a major element today of India’s economic diplomacy. It is a reflection of the deficit of strategic thinking in South Block that soon after Menon departed for Tel Aviv as ambassador in 1995, the east Asia division was disbanded.
In 1987, Arunachal Pradesh became the 25th state of the Indian Union and, three years later, its assembly was reconstituted into a representative body of 60 elected legislators. Then it was decided that elections to the assembly would be held in March 1995. The Chinese claim parts of Arunachal and do not recognize the state’s current legal status within India. So, as Arunachal evolved into its integral role as part of the Indian Union, the Chinese went to Menon to protest. The Beijing official, whose task it was to deliver the protest, was a genial man schooled in Maoist tradition. He was one who had genuine warmth for India and had actually helped after the 1998 nuclear tests to improve troubled relations between the two countries through back channels. He was also someone with whom Menon had a good personal chemistry. Menon and the Chinese diplomat sat across a table, they had tea and then they came to the point. The Chinese official took out the formal note of protest from the leather folder he was carrying and pushed it across the table towards Menon. Calmly, Menon pushed it back. He was rejecting the protest on behalf of the Indian government. The Chinese pushed it again across the table, Menon pushed it right back. This process went on for nearly 40 minutes: the two diplomats kept talking in Chinese all the while. In the end, both officials stood up and the protest note lay at the centre of the table equidistant from them. Symbolically, China had delivered the protest and India had rejected it.
At a time when the Americans are undermining the Geneva and Vienna conventions and reducing Cardinal Richelieu’s diplomatic traditions to crassness, it is heartening that India has chosen as its top diplomat someone who is a spirited upholder of those traditions. Menon arrived in Beijing in August 2000, and was waiting to present his credentials to President Jiang Zemin. But the diplomatic convention in Beijing is such that an ambassador-designate could have sub-cabinet-level meetings even before he formally presented his credentials. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Menon refused to fly the tri-colour national flag on his car to such meetings during that waiting period unless the charge d’affaires — acting ambassador — was also with him in the car.
It was unfair to an incoming foreign secretary to be thrown at the deep end in Havana by the prime minister-cum-external affairs minister, Manmohan Singh, and left to publicly defend an inherently doomed joint Indo-Pakistan mechanism for counter-terrorism. Singh should have recognized that Menon has to go through a period of transformation in his new job. In Pakistan, his primary mandate was to improve relations with Islamabad. As foreign secretary, he will have the instant benefit of the “inter-agency” process: at least 15 different units of the government give the foreign secretary virtually online inputs on the basis of which he decides policy and then defends that policy both within the government and outside.
Whatever aberrations clouded India’s approach to Pakistan in Havana will be overcome. This is partly because Menon is one of the few senior IFS officers who have a working relationship with the intelligence agencies. Menon’s assignment in Sri Lanka as high commissioner was probably the most challenging of all his postings. His biggest achievement in Colombo was to have reined in the Research and Analysis Wing, the external intelligence agency — which was deciding New Delhi’s Sri Lanka policy — and brought back Sri Lanka policy-making to South Block.
It was Menon who finally made amends for Rajiv Gandhi’s Sri Lankan misadventure by re-engaging New Delhi all-round on the island. Hopefully, that approach will prevail on all fronts while he is foreign secretary and lead to a breath of fresh air that South Block desperately needs.