Monday, May 13, 2013

South Block Watch .... /The Sunday Standard/May 12, 2013

Mind the Language
In the armoury of diplomacy, language and selection of words have pride of place. Over centuries, diplomatic engagement has come to mean delivery of messages couched in dignified courtesies—in a way the intended recipient understands its spirit and purpose. Diplomats over the world are taught to disarm counterparts with warm hugs and pleasant words. Moreover, the colour of the message is dictated by the level and venue of the dialogue to avoid damage to the relationship. Explanations, strong or frivolous, are handed out only in exceptional situations. Hence, South Block mandarins were left scratching their heads about the source who advised various MEA officials and even the PM to explain away the Chinese incursions as a “localised issue” and “acne” which could be cured by the ointment of dialogue. Foreign diplomats handed the briefing were aghast at India’s attempt to trivialise such a border violation. While the defence establishment favoured a strong rebuff, the invisible adviser counselled the government to show restraint and offer an apologetic justification for the amicable resolution to the standoff. Those who manage foreign policy made sure that pliable opinion-makers accepted their formulations that a solution could be found only after giving a face-saving exit route to the Chinese. The first briefing made it seem China had dismantled its five tents after India decided to remove its posts from the other side. Though a vague clarification followed, the damage was done. A five-decade-old convention of following the Line of Perception was broken and India accepted the revised border management mechanism it was opposing. India indirectly accepted that it was equally responsible for morning walk incursions as the Chinese. How and why India’s wise diplomats sorted out the standoff is another story.

Security Hazards

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s decision to set up a National Security Council (NSC) and National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) after the Kargil war was well thought out. The NDA government found that various defence establishments and foreign policy wonks were not on the same page on operational issues. The NSC was expected to offer the political leadership sound sectoral and strategic advice backed by professional and technical inputs. Vajpayee instructed his National Security Adviser to pick the best brains from defence, diplomacy and academia to collate information and provide a comprehensive assessment of the security scenario. But of late, the NSC has been packed with individuals who have personal interests to protect and have hardly made any contribution to formulating policies. After the China fiasco, the Congress leadership advised the Prime Minister to review the NSC’s composition and get rid of globetrotting members who are using the body to promote personal agendas. The leadership is particularly livid with some members writing signed articles in the media. Nothing is more comical than an NSAB member outlining options available on dealing with the recent border standoff with China in a newspaper article. While it is entirely the government’s prerogative to determine who should be appointed as a member of NSAB or its sub-committees, those concerned with the vanishing credibility and effectiveness of India’s strategic policies feel a review is needed to define the desired qualifications and work experience of NSAB members and, most importantly, safeguards to ensure that the system is insulated from undesirable elements.


The UPA government takes pride in hawking its tech-savvy image. Most of its departments are active on the official website, providing details about officials and decisions. But the NSAB is an exception. Even after spending hours, one is unable to locate or glean even basic information about the board’s composition, its sub-committees and such elementary information on how many times in a year do these bodies meet. Neither the PMO’s nor the NSAB’s website are of help. A telephone call to a senior functionary elicited sweet words but no information. The only explanation could be that it allows NSAB members to use their visiting cards to peddle themselves as spin doctors for the government in the media and at international forums. For instance, a recent incumbent who has just retired did not have even a nodding acquaintance with strategic issues, let alone any hardcore experience. Some credible officers like Vijay Nambiar were packed off prematurely to the UN. Another officer, Satish Chandra, was denied an extension. Yet another diplomat, Alok Prasad, who reportedly did not get along with the NSA, was dispatched as ambassador to Japan. Some ministers have already demanded full disclosures about the qualifications of various NSAB members and asked the PMO to direct all those who write for the media or appear on TV to either resign or disclose their relationship with the NSAB.

Retire Unhurt

The government’s decision to give yet another term in office to N N Vohra, Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, was widely viewed as appropriate and in the best interest of the state. The decision, however, dampened the hopes of several other aspirants—including a few in the PMO, along with the Deputy National Security Adviser. They were expecting any one of them to go to J&K so that others could move up the ladder. But they haven’t lost hope of extension. Deputy NSA Latha Reddy may move on to higher responsibilities, clearing the way for any of the other retiring Foreign Office mandarins. Among those in the running are serving secretary Sudhir Vyas, recently retired Ambassador to Paris, Rakesh Sood, and some others. Going by past experience, the primary qualification for the post would be—like the Foreign Secretary—a high level of ideological compatibility, functional comfort and acceptability to those who call the shots on security and diplomatic matters. Watch this space.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

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