Kishan Rana&’s memoir of his career as an Indian diplomat is one of a flood of recent publications, many if not most of dubious merit, by members of the foreign service, but unlike those, is more in the tradition of the early autobiographies of members of the service like KPS Menon and Yezdi Gundevia. As the author says, his intention is to relate the story of Indian diplomacy between the years 1960 to 1995 from his standpoint. While we were almost contemporaries, my career path and Rana&’s intersected only at the fag-end of our careers, during Prime Minister&’s Narasimha Rao&’s visit to Germany in 1994 when Rana took centre-stage as an energetic, efficient ambassador with excellent local contacts and notable assessments of the present and future.
To achieve the right balance in a personal record is a difficult proposition; not every life is full of memorable incident; not every diplomat experiences coups d’état, revolutions and other transformative events. There are inevitably long fallow periods in every professional life and it is always a moot question on how much background to describe, how much personal experience and how much official activity. Can the author assume knowledge, or even interest, on the part of the reader?
Confronted by these dilemmas, Rana&’s book is an amalgam; part memoir, part nuts and bolts of any diplomat&’s existence, and part handbook-cum-housekeeping manual on the Indian Foreign Service. The shortest chapters in this work are about the author&’s assignments in Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Mauritius and Kenya, which is a pity. Several other chapters and sections of chapters, deal with the infirmities of the Indian Foreign Service, what would be ‘best practice’, and what needs to be done to set these failings right. The author rightly concludes that success may best be achieved incrementally to be sustainable.
Several points made by Rana have enduring applicability. The Germans, he writes, “have an aversion to borrowed ideas”; in India then as now, “job creation was not a real Indian priority”; and on China, “China continues to practise ruthless technology harvesting” and “is perhaps more cautious in actions than its words might have us believe.” Our Prime Minister&’s wishes are frequently ignored by other departments such as the Home Ministry on visas to India for foreign scholars. He notes that “Indian leaders do not like to be associated with promoting business deals or making bold requests” and this has proved a serious failing until Narendra Modi came on the scene. Perhaps the problem was cultural; perhaps a hangover from Rajiv Gandhi’s involvement with the Bofors bribery scandal. The author is sceptical about the utility of several UN agencies; “the hiatus between the lofty aspirations … and their ground footprint” is great. In international trade negotiations, India often has more in common with the developed countries but was “inhibited” out of solidarity with the developing countries. Those Indians from civil society organisations who are invited abroad were primarily those critical of Indian policies, it appeared almost as if criticism of the government was a precondition for such invitations. He also makes the valid point that political appointees to diplomatic assignments are usually uncomfortable in dealing with foreigners and also find it hard to manage the often testy relationships within the mission.
Rana describes an Indian China expert as having “deep antagonism towards Beijing” which is reminiscent of many similarly prejudiced experts in India today, who prevent India from following a pragmatic reconciliation with our big neighbour. The “inside story of this bilateral relationship was rather different from the self-image that we had nurtured and projected,” at least in part because Nehru until the late 1950s had been ambivalent about our border claim but “different officials had pushed for a more assertive stand.”
Indira Gandhi, like her father, “cherished an opportunity to meet intellectuals” and others like Narasimha Rao emulated them both in this, but apart from their own self-satisfaction, Nehru&’s successors did not have the intellectual equipment to have any useful exchanges with savants that would benefit the country. It has never been stated, incidentally, what benefit, if any, the foreign intellectuals derived from such meetings.
There is more detail in this book about work in missions than in any previous memoir, which gives rise to the question, how much does quotidian work-related activity appeal to readers? The space given to the mechanics of stimulating bilateral relations and the arcana of the MEA&’s financial powers will prove burdensome for the general reader who is understandably more interested in people and places and unusual events, especially in exotic foreign lands. Some of the retailing of economic success and commercial negotiation is in any case well out of date, and few innovations stand the test of time; for instance, bilateral consultative groups of ‘eminent’ people have not proved enduring and have largely been allowed to atrophy by the government.
Rana presents the official line on Sikkim&’s contrived integration with India, but a very different narrative has been put forward by others. He does not reflect on whether the same process could have been differently and less controversially handled and to what extent personal pique and rank egotism on the Indian side played a role. Interestingly, the word ‘China’ does not appear in this section.
Some pen pictures of people he dealt with; their appearance, their mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, would have added much colour to his text. He was perforce closely associated with many persons in Indira Gandhi&’s circle like RK Dhawan who became controversial and contemptible during the Emergency, but the author prefers discretion. He is coy at times; it is strange after 35 and more years, he prefers to shield identities: hence ‘a prince from one of the Himalayan kingdoms’, ‘a US public figure with a checkered history’, ‘a Congress Party MP’, ‘a leading Indian businessman in London’, ‘a famous French photographer’, ‘a secretary heading a major ministry’ and ‘the wife of the then foreign secretary’. Nothing is lost and more gained by drawing these veils aside. And he is strangely deferential at other times: Pupulji for Pupul Jayakar, Shardiji for Sharda Prasad, Ushaji for Usha Bhagat, and Abid Saheb for Abid Husain, all of them long dead.
The author has not been served well by poor copy-editing, and printer&’s devils and English language aberrations that have crept in to the text, but the index of persons separate from the general index is an excellent idea and his footnoting is always useful. The chapters on his early years in China in particular are more personal and anecdotal than the others and are accordingly more fascinating. He correctly credits the wives of our diplomats for much of the success achieved abroad. In all, this is a thoughtful narrative with some welcome shafts of humour, and valuable as a historical document and for its many insights into the countries in which he served as a diplomat.
The reviewer is India’s former foreign secretary.