As lobbies rule, personality-driven diplomacy undermines India's clout
India is perhaps the only country where choosing the place and timing of diplomatic postings is done, not just by the government but also by serving IFS officers. With the PM imposing his diplomatic doctrine through the National Security Adviser (NSA), various lobbies have come into play to grab key capitals and sensitive senior secretary-level posts in South Block. This is nothing new as foreign policy and choice of key diplomats are the PM’s prerogative. But never before have personal prejudices or preferences played decisive roles in choices. Diplomacy is an instrument to gain control over turns of internal affairs. So, persons well versed with the enigmatic intricacies of global dialogue are chosen to engage foes and friends. Of late, individuals with powerful connections have infiltrated the system to promote personal interests. Setting new precedents, even the PM’s special envoys are invited, bypassing all diplomatic channels for a week, to facilitate an emperor’s visit. In another case, former President K R Narayanan’s daughter Chitra Narayanan continues at her desk in Switzerland since 2008, and was given an extension on medical grounds. Her successor Rajesh Prasad has been cooling his heels in Delhi for a year. In an unprecedented move, the NSA makes it a point to accompany the newly-appointed foreign secretary to Bhutan only to undermine her authority as the point person dealing with neighbours. It doesn’t matter if the one chosen to lead a mission doesn’t know the language or the socio-political culture of the host country. New diplomats go by the belief that if you are out of sight, you will also be out of mind of decision-makers. Hence, they always remain within sight either physically or through patrons in South Block. Of late, officers with little knowledge of a country are being picked for ambassadorial positions because they have acquired mutually beneficial proximity with the establishment. Even those likely to retire soon have been picked to handle key positions abroad, leaving South Block with not many talented seniors. A peek into the kind of appointments likely to take place during the next few months tells a tale of confusion, chaos and charity.
The choice of Indian ambassadors to P-5 nations such as US, UK, France, China and Russia not only defines the contours of the country’s global role but also decides the fate of senior diplomats. Four ambassadorial positions in the US, UK, China and Russia are likely to fall vacant in the next few months.
Though no final names have been announced, it is certain that Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar will be envoy to Washington. Currently in China, his only qualification besides pedigree is that he was joint secretary (America) in South Block when India signed the N-deal with the US. He has always been part of the nuclear establishment. He was one of the PM’s favourites for the post of foreign secretary. Jaishankar is likely to be replaced by Ashok Kantha, the Secretary East, since he knows Chinese and has served in Hong Kong. Both, however, who would’ve retired in 2015 would now get an additional year each, since their new two-year tenures mean they would hang up their boots only in 2016. Similarly, Russian-speaking special secretary P S Raghavan is expected to become ambassador to Russia after Ajay Malhotra retires in November—he, too, will get few extra months.
Jaimini Bhagwati, the High Commissioner to London, retires next month; the government is yet to decide on his successor. Since he is not an establishment favourite, he is unlikely to get an extension. Moreover, Ranjan Mathai’s name is being pushed for London despite his lacklustre performance as head of Foreign Service. Even the fate of appointments to important countries like Japan and Germany is uncertain. Deepa Gopalan Wadhwa, also Russian-speaking, continues to head the Tokyo mission. There is no sign of a replacement for India’s ambassador to Germany after Sujatha moved last month. With many senior officials who are experts in their fields retiring, India’s diplomatic hierarchy is left with inexperienced hands to deal with the P-5 power structure. Many feel that the combination of Jaishankar, Raghavan, Kantha and others aren’t equipped to handle the P-5 establishment. With little knowledge of economics and security strategy, coupled with political instability at home, India’s diplomats are likely to flounder than flourish.
With the well-known and better-connected leaving South Block to take up plum assignments, only inexperienced and junior officials will be left to lead various divisions. For example, both Anil Wadhwa and Dinkar Khullar who will take over as secretaries are much junior to most ambassadors they will be dealing with. Moreover, there is a shortage of experts to handle the 56-member Nuclear Suppliers Group. With increasing interference from PMO and NSA’s office, most diplomats want to work outside the country.
The situation with our neighbours is worse, thanks to policy paralysis and the wrong choice of some diplomats. For example, Y K Sinha, an expert in Arab affairs, is the high commissioner to Colombo and Ranjit Rae, who speaks German, is ambassador to Nepal. South Block chose Pankaj Saran as high commissioner to Bangladesh even though he is an expert in Russian. Since most Indian ambassadors in the neighbourhood are looking for the next best destination, relations with neighbours are at their worst.
Never before has management of diplomatic talent been so casual and personality-driven. As the PMO and NSA refuse to give any elbow room to South Block mandarins and the external affairs minister, India’s credibility and clout in international diplomacy is plummeting faster than the value of the rupee. The age-old saying that “diplomats were invented to simply waste time” is turning out to be true, at least for India.
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