India's presence was inconspicuous at the Manama Dialogue
- Published 14.12.16
Participating last weekend in the Manama Dialogue, which has emerged as a central element in the Arabian Gulf's regional security architecture during the 12 years since its inception, I recalled a conversation among four leaders from three continents in a New York setting many moons ago.
A meeting of foreign ministers of the Brazil-Russia-India-China emerging markets group had just concluded. Pranab Mukherjee from India, Sergey Lavrov of Russia, Yang Jiechi of China and Antonio Patriota, Brazil's ambassador in Washington, who later became foreign minister, were chatting, as they waited for the international media to arrive for their briefing in Manhattan's Millennium United Nations Plaza hotel.
South Africa had not yet joined the group, so it was BRIC without the 'S' at the end, as the group's acronym is now famously known. During four and a half decades in journalism, I have mastered the professional art of eavesdropping on conversations by leaders: so I edged nearer to the four men, close enough to listen to what they were saying, at the same time staying as unobtrusive as possible in order not to attract their attention.
Their conversation was fascinating. These leaders were not discussing policy or the state of the world, but were talking passionately about tobacco, cigars in particular. Mukherjee, who once had a trademark Dunhill pipe, was telling the other three top diplomats how he had kicked the habit, albeit with great discipline and difficulty.
Lavrov, whose love for cigars and choice single malts I have witnessed often during the decade when he was the permanent representative of Russia to the UN in New York, was hanging on to every word that the then Indian external affairs minister, now president, spoke about how he quit smoking. How much he wished he could quit too, Lavrov, a chain smoker, was saying.
Yang had tales to tell from the pages of history about Mao Zedong's smoking habit. Patriota, an untiring promoter of the abundance of good things from Brazil, was trying to steer the conversation towards caipirinha, his country's irresistible national drink made from cachaça mixed with sugar and lime. It was a moment to realize how personal friendships are born on the sidelines of serious diplomatic encounters and how they help smooth the conduct of often difficult state business.
After all, it was a bond formed between Lavrov and John Kerry, the United States of America's secretary of state, over fireside drinks and garden strolls that enabled the two men to sit down at a Geneva hotel's poolside for several hours and finalize an agreement to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons arsenal even when the positions of the two sides appeared intractable.
I recalled all this during last weekend because India was conspicuous by its damaging absence at this year's Manama Dialogue. For the record, India took part in the dialogue, but its presence went completely unnoticed by anyone who mattered at this impressive international gathering because, in an unedifying break from past practice, New Delhi was represented at a very low level.
A joint secretary from the ministry of external affairs came from New Delhi along with the vice chief of naval staff, vice admiral Karambir Singh. The Indian ambassador to Bahrain, Alok Sinha, was added to the delegation as an afterthought. To pad up the Indian numbers, also as an afterthought, the name of Soman Baby, chief editor of Daily Tribune, an English daily in Bahrain, was added as a non-government delegate from India, when he should have been part of the Bahrain non-government delegation.
A recipient of the Indian government's Pravasi Bharatiya Samman in 2009 for his contribution to the Indian diaspora in the Gulf, Baby is known as the "Chronicler of Bahrain" because he has been writing about the Gulf state since 1978, when he moved to Manama from India, and has been a pioneer of the media in Bahrain. That ought to make him a part of the participating group from Bahrain, not from India.
India's low-level representation at this year's Manama Dialogue is a sea change from the past when Salman Khurshid as external affairs minister led the Indian delegation. Year after year prior to Khurshid's participation, the national security adviser used to be the head of the Indian contingent to this conference, which made international headlines this year because the US secretary of defence, Ashton Carter, the British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, and the German and French ministers of defence, Ursula von der Leyen and Jean-Yves Le Drian, respectively, among many others of similar rank, spoke at the conference and subsequently participated in the dialogue.
Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, Senior Fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London - the organizers of the Manama Dialogue - said that the Gulf states are looking for new partners in recalibrating their security architecture to meet challenges they have never faced before. India, on the other hand, is intensifying its engagement in the Gulf region and adding a security dimension to New Delhi's outreach in the Gulf. "Venues like the Manama Dialogue offer ideal opportunities to flesh out ideas in this context," he said.
Roy-Chaudhury, who was once deputy secretary of India's National Security Council Secretariat in the Prime Minister's Office, and is now an acknowledged expert on Indian maritime security strategy, said that the focus of this year's Manama Dialogue was Daesh, the so-called Islamic State, to which India has been paying close attention. The situation in Syria and Iraq - that was also the focus last weekend - is of much interest to India, which is re-engaging this region with ministerial and commercial visits.
M.K. Narayanan, a regular participant in the Manama Dialogue when he was national security adviser, once sat in a villa at the Ritz Carlton - where the Dialogue takes place by convention - and had 14 bilateral meetings with his counterparts one after another.
This year's Manama Dialogue saw the presence of a galaxy of top intelligence officials from across the globe, among them Prince Turki al Faisal bin Abdulaziz al Saud, who headed the critical Saudi Arabian intelligence apparatus before he took up his present job as chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. India missed a rare chance to send its top intelligence operatives to informally interact with their counterparts from almost everywhere in the world under one roof.
New Delhi's current attitude, which was explicitly conveyed to me by one official in so many words, is that the Indian government does not need the opportunities offered by such fora. "We can do these things ourselves now from New Delhi without any help," said this official. Such an attitude smacks of arrogance never before seen in the annals of Indian diplomacy or in the Indian approach to national security.
Sections of the National Democratic Alliance government may think that India has 'arrived' on the regional security scene in the Gulf, but notwithstanding such a misconception, if a choice is to be made between India on the one hand and the United Kingdom, the US, Germany or France, on the other, it is anybody's guess whom the Gulf states would choose. India should work with these Western countries in joint efforts instead of trying to do things alone. A little humility in this regard can do no harm.
At any rate, fora like the Manama Dialogue offer opportunities that are unmatched during official, structured and formal bilateral interactions with Gulf states or others like Germany or the new, post-Brexit vote political set-up in the UK. The discussion about cigars at the BRIC meeting in New York is an example of what is possible when competent, high-level delegations are sent to international conferences.
True, Sushma Swaraj was not in a position to be present in Manama last weekend because of her surgery, but the external affairs minister could easily have been replaced by the minister of state, M.J. Akbar, who also happens to deal with the Gulf. Akbar is eminently suited for such interactions, given his social graces combined with a deep knowledge of Islamic history and regional politics.
As an Indian at the Manama Dialogue, I watched with envy how Singapore's defence minister, Ng Eng Hen (picture), was repeatedly buttonholed during coffee breaks, receptions and other informal occasions by ministers, intelligence officials and strategic analysts from all over the world. If Singapore is important because it is an island with a large non-Muslim population surrounded by Muslim-majority states, India is its large replica many times over. Akbar would have been sought after much more than Ng had he been sent to head the Indian delegation. Hopefully, the prime minister, Narendra Modi, will not repeat the mistake of India's virtual non-participation in such future events by the IISS and by other leading voices on global security.