Touchy diplomats

An Australian diplomat observed that while some Indian Foreign Service men are among the world’s best, many are like village yokels

The controversy over what can and can’t be done to Italy’s ambassador exposes Indian bungling as well as the shoddy reputation abroad of all our institutions. Daniele Mancini might have lied but the two marines may not have absconded if our police, administrative and legal processes inspired confidence.

Reprimanding errant ambassadors isn’t easy though the Americans, priding themselves on being the “arsenal of democracy”, have fine-tuned the technique of diplomatic one-upmanship. Indian foreign service and defence officers visiting the US for official talks are usually chagrined to find themselves paired with Americans below them in rank. If they object, the state department or Pentagon quietly leaks to the media that touchy Indians suffer from an inferiority complex.
It took a naturalised American to give the native-born a taste of their own medicine. Daniel Patrick Moynihan complained that Henry Kissinger, his junior in rank, always managed to get out first from Air Force One after a flight. The student of Metternich had all the tricks of the old Habsburg empire up his sleeve. Admitting that L.N. Jha was his equal in diplomatic manoeuvres, Mr Kissinger spitefully forbade senior American officials to meet India’s ambassador during the Bangladesh war.
A brush with protocol I recounted in Looking East to Look West: Lee Kuan Yew’s Mission India was when Harry Chan Keng Howe, Singapore’s high commissioner, came home to dinner. The meal went off pleasantly but he dropped in at my office next morning to say that though he had the place of honour on my wife’s right, the khansama hadn’t served him first. He wouldn’t have minded if Sachin Chaudhuri, the former finance minister, on my wife’s left, had been served first. Instead, the khansama had given precedence to the junior British diplomat sitting next to me.
I tried to plead that patriarchal India accords the most importance to the host and whoever sits beside him. But Harry nursed too many memories of colonial Singapore’s racism to be convinced. He may have been right too. The khansama came from the Bengal Club with its own whites-only legacy. Given Indian prejudices, I can believe an ethnic Indian Singaporean envoy who told me that his Chinese aide received better treatment in New Delhi.
I once watched an Indian envoy on home leave throw a tantrum in South Block because the receptionist wouldn’t let him walk up the broad marble stairs into any room he wished. He had no diplomatic privileges in India and needed a permit like us humble mortals. His Excellency was mightily offended.
So was the unknown retired Excellency who telephoned me out of the blue in Singapore to demand the numbers of several of my colleagues. When I explained I couldn’t hand out phone numbers without the owners’ permission, the man barked peremptorily, “I’ve just told you I am a former Indian ambassador to Ruritania!” He might have been giving orders to his half-witted peon. No wonder India’s relations with Ruritania had taken a nosedive, I mused.
Such episodes confirmed for me an Australian diplomat’s observation that while some Indian Foreign Service men are among the world’s best, many are like village yokels. Lee Kuan Yew would blame this on the quota system. That isn’t quite fair. You don’t have to be a quota entrant to hanker after diplomatic rank or make handsome profits out of exploiting the V.S. Naipaul character’s notorious “craze for phoren”.
Indian breaches of protocol generally arise out of ignorance or clumsiness, not calculation as in the US. The senior K.P.S. Menon recalled Jawaharlal Nehru having to write a personal letter of apology to a South American ambassador who had been wrongly seated at an official dinner. However, the ambassador would have been at fault if he had carried out his threat to walk out. The late Gerardo Zampaglione, a seasoned Italian diplomat, explained to me the last thing a diplomat who feels he has been insulted should do is to create a scene. Protocol demands he sit quietly where he has been placed but refuse to touch a drop of wine or eat a morsel of food. Presumably, the host is expected to take note of this prandial satyagraha. I didn’t ask Gerardo what happened if the host put it down to his guest suffering from indigestion.
What causes worry beyond protocol problems is the sorry image of Indian institutions. Danes and Italians can’t forget Mary Tyler, the British school teacher accused of being a Naxalite and a Chinese agent, spending five years in Bihar prisons without trial. Prosecution and defence lawyers were suspected of colluding to prolong the case.
I don’t know if Mr Mancini really was ordered not to leave India. Kunwar Natwar Singh says New Delhi just can’t impose such a ban. It would flout the Vienna Convention. Mr Natwar Singh boasts the triple credentials of career diplomat, politician and princely connections.
The story going round Delhi’s social circuit at one time was that Romesh Bhandari, the veteran foreign secretary and governor, introduced his wife to a European leader as the daughter of the Maharaja of Patiala. Whereupon Mr Natwar Singh promptly produced his spouse, saying she was “the daughter of both the Maharaja and Maharani of Patiala”.
Time was when a country always gave an adversarial ambassador 24 hours to depart before declaring war. Nowadays, countries don’t declare war, at least not formally. So ambassadors needn’t quit. In fact, reports of the India-Italy tiff suggest Mr Mancini can’t.
Of course, he isn’t under the constraints Indian envoys in Pakistan always suffer. Nor is there any question of the barbaric treatment China meted out to India’s representatives during the Cultural Revolution. Delhi society probably lionises the Italian as it does all white and off-white VIPs. Indian bungling is matched only by Indian obsequiousness.

The writer is a senior journalist, columnist and author

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