Nehru’s MEA

In the ministry of external affairs, great work is done and value does get delivered, though much could be done differently

I had the privilege last week to be invited to deliver the Garran Oration in Melbourne to Australia’s Institute of Public Administration. Despite the cliché that the notion of privilege implies in such a context, privilege it indeed was, since I was treading in the footsteps of such distinguished predecessors as the last three Prime Ministers of Australia and the previous Chief Justice.

And I was the first foreigner ever to have been invited to deliver the Oration, in the memory of the first and most extraordinary public servant of the Australian Commonwealth.
The eponymous Sir Robert Randolph Garran, it was said, once carried the entire official documentation of the federal Australian government in his briefcase. He had an outstanding career, creating most of Australia’s public administration systems from scratch, and retired from government in 1932 at the age of 65 after 31 years as the permanent head of the civil service, a record impossible to match.
In addition, he had a brief but important Indian connection. The Australian Dictionary of Biography informs us that in 1932, “the British government appointed him chairman of the Indian Defence Expenditure Tribunal to advise on the resolution of a decades-old dispute about the apportionment of the costs of Indian defence between Britain and India”. If you are as curious as I was about Garran’s conclusion, it was quite Solomonic. The tribunal ruled that what it called “minor danger” (local aggression on the frontiers, law and order within the country) were the Indian taxpayers’ responsibility but “major danger” — an attack upon India by a Great Power or an attack on the British Empire through India — had to be dealt with and paid for by the Imperial government in London. This seemingly reasonable solution overlooked, however, the small problem that all the current and pending defence expenditures were by this definition “minor”, whereas, since an attack on India by a Great Power had not occurred in living memory, London needed to pay nothing at all for India’s defence. (I am sure Sir Robert meant well!)
The theme of my address was advertised as “Delivering Value to a Billion People” — a reference to the 1.2 billion population of our country, which Indian public administration seeks to serve. Given the vastness of the topic, I focused on one aspect of it that has engaged me for some time — the public administration issues arising from the conduct of India’s external relations. Some of my points will be familiar to regular readers of this column, who have read me holding forth on such matters as the recruitment and deployment of the foreign service, the numbers in our diplomatic corps and so on.
Three and a half decades ago, when I was researching the doctoral thesis that became my first book, Reasons of State, the principal governmental instrument for the formulation and execution of policy — the ministry of external affairs, or MEA — struck me at the time as a flawed institution staffed by superbly qualified and able diplomats. I concluded in 1977 that problems of structure, coordination, personnel and planning in the ministry prevented the bureaucracy from developing the professional expertise and authority that could compensate for the failings of individual dominance by the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, in policy-making. That was an unduly critical judgment, which even at the time needed to be somewhat qualified. But three decades later, albeit under a very different Prime Minister, many of the weaknesses I had spotted in the ministry as a student came back to strike me as surprisingly still relevant.
Under our first Prime Minister, the brilliant Jawaharlal Nehru, many observers had already discerned the marked influence of one individual’s view of the world and its reaffirmation by an exclusive but largely powerless public administration entrusted with its implementation. This trend continued, I had argued, under Indira Gandhi, leading to the inadequate development of institutions to organise and conduct foreign policy; the low salience of foreign policy concerns in public opinion; the weakness of popular political and legislative inputs; and the low correlation between foreign policy as conceived and articulated by decision-makers and national interests in security and geopolitical terms.
Nehru bequeathed to his successors a conception of foreign policy as not the Prime Minister’s or the Congress Party’s but the nation’s, transforming opposition to its fundamentals into opposition to India’s very independence. Nehru’s brilliance at giving conceptual shape to that policy and expressing it in terms of the national zeitgeist rendered his own place at the peak of the foreign policy administration secure. But this also meant that foreign policy, unlike other arenas of action in the nascent Indian democratic polity, was not formulated by the same process of pluralistic bargaining and interest-reconciliation that marked domestic politics in the same period. It became the preserve of a few men who elevated the national genius above the national interest and were rarely checked by popular pressure or public opposition.
All this changed. Today our foreign policy is much more directly geared to our domestic interests, particularly economic. Despite inevitable prime ministerial dominance — unavoidable in an era of summitry, frequent direct contact and ease of travel and telephone communications between world leaders — the public administration of foreign policy works well, within the constraints described in my earlier columns.
In my short stint as minister of state I found much to admire in the MEA — many able, smart and overstretched staff, fine traditions of diplomatic practice, and in some cases a sense of the nobility of serving the nation on the world stage. But some matters were less admirable. Administrative procedure, for instance, runs along lines that, except by Indian bureaucratic standards, are extraordinarily cumbersome. I still recall with fondness mixed with horror the many files that reached my desk, their contents still tied, literally, with the proverbial red tape that has become the symbol of Indian administration. Though the advent of email in the late 1990s permitted more direct and rapid written communication on routine matters than had previously been possible, the official files still rule the roost, and the stranglehold of antediluvian bureaucratic norms (and attitudes) generally hold sway throughout South Block, as they do throughout the Government of India.
But great work is done, and value does get delivered, though much could be done differently. That was my ultimate message.

The writer is a member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram

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