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Indian diplomats must do more than just diplomacy

By B S Prakash
January 14, 2013 13:13 IST
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An Indian diplomat should aspire to represent something even larger than the government, even larger than the somewhat abstract concept of the 'Indian State', says Ambassador B S Prakash who recently retired from the Indian Foreign Service after 38 years as a diplomat.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

"When she hugs you, is it the psychic energy or the kinetic energy that she transmits?"

I was being asked by a prominent banker at my end of the formal dining table at the dinner I was hosting. Ma Amritanandamayi, the 'Hugging Amma', had been on a visit recently and the banker had been intrigued by the stories in the newspapers.

At the other end, I could hear my wife explaining for the umpteenth time in her life that when we say that the Indian food is spicy, it does not necessarily mean that it is chilly hot, only that it has spices and flavours. She was telling the guests that all the 'red' in the curries was not because of chilies.

My ostensible reason for that event in the country where I was the ambassador was to informally inform our guests about the friendly investment climate in India, despite some hiccups that had changed perceptions.

But not for the first time, the conversation and the evening itself was taking its own course, and I was finding it a bit difficult to steer the talk to our growth story.

Indian diplomats wherever they are and whatever their work, political, economic, or consular have dealt with some perennial issues. You would think, Pakistan, Kashmir, the relationship with China, terrorism and our nuclear policy are such issues. You would not be wrong.

These are some of the bread and butter issues, or should I say, the roti and dal, or rice and rasam issues of our foreign policy. Every Indian diplomat, wherever he is, and whatever his level of competence, is expected to know at least the basics of such issues and to explain or expound -- depending on his capacity -- such core concerns.

But at the end of a long innings as an Indian diplomat, I say this too: Unlike his counterpart from many other nations -- say Sweden, Argentina, Kenya or Canada -- the Indian diplomat is also called upon to hold forth on other esoteric aspects of India.

Therein lies a challenge and in my mind, a very special privilege for those representing both Bharat and India. The maya of that duality and the underlying advaita itself is a worthy subject for an Indian diplomat.

Ask even those in senior positions in the government as to who the Indian envoy 'represents' and often the ready answer is "Why, the MEA of course" meaning the ministry of external affairs.

I believe that this answer is both inaccurate and inadequate. An Indian ambassador does report to the MEA, but he represents all of Government of India, at the very least.

The failure to understand and internalise this notion often leads to silos and blinkered visions within the government, with parts of it believing that an Indian ambassador has only the so-called political function.

By definition and by design the official representative of a country in another can (and should) bring an integrated and authoritative view of his country's interests to any discussion -- whether macro-economic, big bucks-commercial, or purely cultural.

Not seeing this is the bureaucratic turf war, also seen in other systems, but my main point here is broader.

An Indian diplomat should aspire to represent something even larger than the government, even larger than the somewhat abstract concept of the 'Indian State': He should rejoice in representing the ethos of India and all of its grand sounding facets: Civilisation, culture, customs and cuisine.

Besides, whether he wants it or not, is capable or not, it will be a part of his day to day function!

Let me illustrate from my own experience.

I was sent as a young officer to Germany and my assigned duty was to learn the language and later to supervise the visa section. I started with great zeal and had an expanded definition of my work that included promotion of tourism.

I took upon myself, as only very young officers do, of trying to speak in German to as many visitors to the office as possible.

What engaged me almost every day, those days, more than thirty years ago, was conversations with parents of young students worried about their children getting 'lost' in India in the Rajneesh ashram.

There were vivid stories those days in the German media of wild happenings in the environs around Pune and ordinary Germans sought me out to ask me not so much about the 'art of living' as about the 'craft of loving' supposedly in the ashram.

Was it my job to talk to them? Was I qualified to comment? I honestly do not know to this day. All I know is that I had an interest in philosophy, and a curiosity about the human condition, not only in the abstract sense, but also in terms of anxious parents apprehensive about the paths being taken by their offspring.

I am rather sure that I was cautious and equivocated a lot, but my point here is that I could not stay totally disengaged.

Another time, another place

In Sri Lanka at a particularly difficult time, apart from all the well established and repeatedly articulated positions of India's policy about the ethnic issue, there were other questions and perceptions that one had to frequently encounter.

Some on the Sinhala chauvinist side had to be reminded that Buddhism too emanated from India and that Tamils were not the majority in India! Fierce loyalists of the LTTE cause from Jaffna had to be told something else: That their aversion to Buddhism as manifest in their hostility to the Sinhala clergy had nothing to do with us and that our understanding of Buddhism was very different.

And yes, the rest of India too (and not only Tamil Nadu) was sensitive to the injustice facing them.

Later as consul general in San Francisco, my core professional concerns related to economy, investments, technology and the hugely successful NRIs on the West Coast. But every aspect or facet of India had its own enthusiasts and I soon found that you cannot be the representative of India and convey an attitude of indifference to say, spirituality, the sitar, the virtues of organic vegetarian slow cooking, or natural healing.

Whatever fad, fancy or fashion that was blowing across California attracted some fringe group that wanted to engage the representative of India.

Of course, all this is indeed the fringe activity quite apart from the essentials, as I said. The unceasingly troubling neighbour, the looming large presence across the mountains, the shifting priorities of the pre-eminent power, the sensitivities and the insecurities of the smaller fellow South Asians, and the big global issues of the day: War and peace, nuclear threats, terrorism, climate change: Such are the substantive concerns for Indian diplomats.

But there is an element of representing the 'eternal India' that will inevitably be a part of everyday work too. Not everyone need be a scholar, or a believer, but should be knowledgeable about the other kind of essentials: The classical arts, faiths, curry, caste, godmen, and the billion plus demography, to name some.

Also to be a diplomat is to engage in the day hours as well as the night hours and to know when and who to talk to about BARC and who to talk to about Bollywood.

Wit can play a part too

A lady friend of ours in California used to wear an extra large bindi to add to her strikingly flamboyant Indian attire that evoked curiosity even in this age of ubiquity of 'dots'.

"So huge and colourful. Is it like a third eye, does it signify anything special?" she was asked.

"It signifies that I am tri-sexual," she answered, exuding mystery.

"Wow, great, what does it mean actually?" she was asked again.

"It means that I will try anything sexual," she answered.

B S Prakash can be reached at

You can read more of Mr Prakash's columns here.

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