August 28, 2016


Book Review

[All we experienced was the more than year long Indian economic blockade in 1989 when King Birendra refused to accept the draft new Treaty of Peace and Friendship that sought to give India first right and thus total control of all our natural resources. One wonders if Rasgotra had a hand in its formulation since he was recalled as Ambassador during the violent demonstrations in Kathmandu when India sought to annex Sikkim; and he was asked, by PM Indira Gandhi in 1985, to come forth with a new Nepal policy.] 

Discussion on "A Life in Diplomacy" a book by Maharaja Krishna Rasgotra. 
Please watch video here >>

'A Life in Diplomacy' is a remarkable book written by an author at his ripe old age of 9O and done within a span of one year without notes or reference to dairies!

It opens with a chapter on Nehru's rationale and philosophy behind the doctrine of nonalignment. Largely, the chapters are structured around his career path as a diplomat in different positions and countries, including the UN. There is a chapter entitled 'About Myself' which touchingly describes his childhood, adulthood and his initial career as a university teacher of English in pre and post partitioned India for three years; before he entered the Indian Foreign Service in 1949 at the age of 25 years with his MA in English from Punjab University.  

Yes, it is a beautifully scripted personal and professional account of his life as a diplomat but does not end there. He also chooses to hark on the likely future envisioning India as a great world power and offers us a methodology to understand its power trajectory using Platonic, Kautylian and Machiavellian insights and his 21st century Mandala model built on bilateralism  (Appendix P. 395). 

In short, whither India in the 21st century? As per his foresight, it will be engaging with all nations, while maintaining the closest security, political and economic relations with USA, Japan and Russia. By implication, he sees China as a rival in its global power play, if not an adversary or enemy. But always favouring talks with it- be they at the official, semi official or unofficial levels.

I first came into contact with the author in 1973 and was struck by the beauty of his wife, Kadambari Viswanathan (to whom he dedicates this book) and how graceful and handsome a couple they together made.

They were impeccably polished, cosmopolitans and outstandingly suave as a diplomatic pair. 

There is an interesting anecdote that when he was serving in England, as they attended the races on one occasion, rumour swirled that veritable Indian royals were in attendance! Caused, perhaps mistakenly, by his first name, Maharaja, as well as their charismatic personalities and public demeanour. He tells us that while he was serving in the United States he was actually offered a career in films by a Bollywood producer director.

Seeing him as described above, I was completely surprised to read that he came from a small village from Jammu; a son of a self educated middle school headmaster. Rasgotra studied in his father’s school, seven km away from his village. He did his High School in an establishment, owned and managed by Sunni Muslims twelve km away, travelling by bicycle. 

After Class V, as his ancestors had roles as pundits in the Dogra Royal Court, he also pursued Sanskrit until his BA, which he did from Hindu College, Amritsar. The department was headed by an Oxford graduate, who influenced him greatly. His Master’s in English he obtained from Government College, Lahore. I get the impression that, unlike many Kashmiris who have grown up to abhor Pakistan, he loved life in a United Punjab; accepts the reality of Partition and maintains goodwill to Pakistan and Muslims.

He went to becoming a college teacher of English as a young adult of 22 yrs teaching in a girls’ college. He mentions that the “allure of teaching Keats and Shelly to young and beautiful Punjabi damsels with romance in their big eyes were not without risks”.

I am surprised, too, by the fact that he wrote and published poems in Hindi: which poetry also led to his being stared at, winked at and made faces at—anything to get his attention--by the girls in the Girls’ College in Sailkot. All told, the three years as an English lecturer he enjoyed the job. His sharp eye for spotting feminine beauty is admitted once more when he writes he was dumbstruck on first seeing in the 1950s,Vijay Laxmi Koirala, sister of  B P Koirala, married to a Pakistani Foreign Secretary. He says his heart did the rumba.

Undoubtedly, he is a complete Nehru admirer. He tells us, in defense of Nehru’s Tibet policy, which is much criticized these days, that Nehru actually sought twice, through informal channels (as India’s representative to Lhasa was an Englishman) to get Tibet into the UN prior to the Chinese invasion in 1950; but it got no response from the Dalai Lama and his cabinet. This covert diplomacy was premised on the fact, insists Maharaja Krishna Rasgotra, that since 1911- with the fall of the Manchu dynasty— Tibet was 'effectively independent’ when it stopped to pay tribute to the Chinese Imperial Court. It was hoped that if Tibet, on its own initiative, sought to be a member of the UN, then, member countries of the UN would perhaps support it. But it was dashed when China invaded Tibet in January 1950.

It may be underscored here that when Tibet did eventually ask Nehru to sponsor it into the UN, Rasgotra simply says that it was “ too late”; and that is why Nehru refused to take up the matter further. It may be noted that the Nepal India Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed in 1950 and, surprisingly, there was no interest to sponsor Nepal as a UN member state.

To further back Nehru’s foreign policy, he asserts that British and US support of Pakistan, as well as the fact that the Indian army (and Navy too), were under the command British officers, made it impossible to have a military presence in Poonch prior to accepting the UN Ceasefire Resolution. He goes on to suggest that Nehru did not invoke UN’s Chapter VII since this would have led to direct US and British military intervention sanctioned by the UN Security Council. It is implied that India, and Pakistan’s security forces, were being guided by the British through their commanding officers. 

We learn from him that the US was of the view that Non Alignment was immoral. The US believed that India should, like Pakistan, be joining the US in a military alliance against the Soviet Union. He was struck by the ignorance of the US Department of State on South Asian affairs. 

He recollects that when the renowned Journalist Walter Lippmann asked US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, “ why he was supporting Pakistan so much” , the answer came that he was doing so “ because Pakistan had the best fighters in the world —the Gurkhas”!

Rasgotra is, to repeat, a Nehruvian par excellence — going so far as to justify the flaws in his Non Alignment policy and in his China (and Tibet) policy. What perplexes me is this: he would call for a strong Indo-US policy using it as a fulcrum of India’s post Cold War foreign policy and, yet, he also cautions one to not down grade Russia’s importance to India in its effort to improve its relations with the US. Does he advocate NA-II? 

Methinks not: he simply strategizes to keep the option to play of one against the other as any smaller, weaker power would and judiciously should. Ironically, when Nepal seeks a balanced relations between India and China he would object preferring that we still stick to ’special relations’. Which is most welcome at the people- to-people level, but definitely not at the state- to- state level. The wisdom of all grandmas is as valid in diplomacy as in family life: “children never keep all your eggs in one basket only”.   
Nevertheless, on hindsight, he faults Nehru on two strategic fronts. One, Nehru turned down President Kennedy’s offer, in 1961, to help India be the first to conduct a nuclear test. This would have meant many hats in one go, as it were, for India implies the author — no war with China; no 1965 war with Pakistan; also, would have been a member of Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which it desperately seeks, and fails, to achieve even in 2016. Two, Nehru refused to accept nomination into UNSC and, on the contrary provided, China the seat.     

How much of an admirer of Indira Gandhi is he? He sees her as a compassionate and courageous leader, who “spurred the industrial and intellectual revolution her father had begun to bring India into the modern age” (P. 351). At the personal level he says, following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, “ Life was not going to be the same for me anymore. Fortunately the end of my career in the Indian Foreign Service was only three months away” (P. 351).

Rasgotra was Ambassador to Nepal during most of the Indira Gandhi’s declaration of Emergency. I am surprised that there is no reference to the extreme hard line adopted by India when Nepal demanded two separate treaties for transit and trade on the grounds that they were separate matters.

India Chief Negotiator was Dr P C Alexander (who later assumed the position of Private Secretary to both PM Indira and PM Rajib). Ambassador Rasgotra was team member who, himself, witnessed the attempted bullying by Alexander in the most undiplomatic manner! And coming from a  man who, actually, served as a senior executive in UNCTAD, which organization espouses the cause of the land locked, sea locked and least developed nations. As lady luck would have it, when Indira lost the general elections two separate treaties were made possible by PM Moraji Desai and Foreign Secretary Jaga Mehta in the1978.   

He was in direct contact with the Prime Minister as it became common practice for the PM’s Office to by pass the Minister of External Affairs— no other than PV Narasimha Rao: who is totally ignored by the author. Posting in Nepal, as Ambassador, was directly made by Indira Gandhi. 

The author believes that Rajiv Gandhi had a grand design of a new world order for peace. We in Nepal, or South Asia for that matter, never felt its ripples with Gandhi as PM and Maharaj Kumar Rasgotra as Foreign Secretary at the time of the founding of SAARC in 1985. 

All we experienced was the more than year long Indian economic blockade in 1989 when King Birendra refused to accept the draft new Treaty of Peace and Friendship that sought to give India first right and thus total control of all our natural resources. One wonders if Rasgotra had a hand in its formulation since he was recalled as Ambassador during the violent demonstrations in Kathmandu when India sought to annex Sikkim; and he was asked, by PM Indira Gandhi in 1985, to come forth with a new Nepal policy. 

Notwithstanding, demonstrating his virtual loyalty to the Nehru dynasty, he defends the passage given to the CEO of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson despite the horrors of 15000 thousand deaths with indirect harm to 200000 people. Caused by chemical poisoning and insulted by the pittance by way of a fair compensation to the victims and their families. What is most bizarre is his implying that, as Foreign Secretary, the order to release Warren Anderson was given by the Home Minister, P V Narasimha Rao when he was reporting directly to the PM Rajiv Gandhi! 

Maharaja Krishna Rasgotra served as Ambassador to Nepal from December 1973 to October 1976. Before that, he had served in Nepal as second secretary in 1954. From Nepal as Ambassador he moved on to being India's Foreign Secretary from 1981 till 1985 under Indira and then, after her assignation, under Rajiv Gandhi.    

He tells us that Nepal and USA are the two countries he liked most in all is several assignments the world over. He served in the US from 1952-54. Then in the UN mission from 1958-62.  He served also as Ambassador to UK, Netherlands, France, Morocco Tunisia.

For his first sojourn in Nepal, Maharaja Rasgotra was hand picked by Nehru, to proceed straight from Washington DC. One can imagine why he loved Nepal professionally since he got his first taste of 'development diplomacy' as well as 'cultural diplomacy’; two aspects of diplomacy far removed from traditional diplomacy practiced in the US. 

When he came to Nepal, he was just a 30 year old charismatic bachelor who could hob nob with King Mahendra and Queen Ratna, and other Royals, with their love for poetry and poets and Bollywood. He was instrumental in setting of the historic Indian Library. His responsibility over development aid led him to travel all over Nepal by foot and horseback. He observed that the Terai was being treated like a Nepalese colony.  

In 1950 when King Tribhuvan had taken asylum in the Indian Embassy the era of micro management of Nepal's affairs had been ushered in. Both King Tribhuvan and Ambassador CPN Sinha had changed Nepal’s course of history by ending the 104 year old Rana dynasty. But Rasgotra sees nothing wrong with India engaging itself in ‘nation building’ — and that too of a country that was founded as an independent nation in 1869; exactly 188 years before India came into existence! 

He feels it was necessary transiting from an autocracy to a democracy -- reforming its military, civil administration and economy. Rasgotra grossly errs when he writes that there was such a need arising from the "widespread armed insurrection triggered by King Tribhuvan's voluntary exile” (P. 95). It could not have been more peaceful with a minimal loss of life on account of the revolt amidst the Rana clan to support King Tribhuvan and forsake their own dynastic oligarchic rule. 

Rasgotra does mention that not all in Nepal were happy with the blatant interference from India. He says it stunned India how, with all the nation building on behalf of Nepal, "anti India criticism was inspired and encouraged by a weak Nepal government to divert the blame for its failure to alleged India interference and intervention". This is the same old constant that is drilled by India’s MEA and the spoon-fed Indian press that continues, unfortunately, even today. 

Although he got on famously with the Royal family he begrudges them for not pursuing the path of true democracy and even coins a novel phrase, " Durand Syndrome”, to describe Nepalese diplomacy towards India. By which he means the Royal Palace playing China and Pakistan or any other country against India in quest “ for its own survival and prosperity (P. 310). 

The phrase Nepal's Durand Diplomacy he inherited from the British Resident in Kathmandu who in 1890 wrote to his Foreign Secretary  that " the settled policy of the durbar is to play of China against us and to make use or pretended subordination to that power as a safeguard against the spread of our influence over this country ".Rasgotra takes a notch higher when he writes that " That Nepal durbar was actually trying to reduce, if not eliminate, India's interests, role and influence in the country" (P. 310). 

Rasgotra was again handpicked, but this time by Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, to be the Ambassador to Nepal with the instructions from her that
“Nepal’s rulers can not to be trusted. They say one thing and do the opposite. I do not like that. They are not our friends…Be firm in dealing with them” (P. 297). 

He says that within two to three weeks of his arrival in Nepal, he found that the Royal regime had tilted towards China, and actively encouraged anti Indian propaganda while blatantly violating trade treaty provisions. 

He writes that the (1971) transit facilities were generous and yet Nepal chose to describe Nepal as an India-locked country. That it was, under the King's direction, accepted and signed without bickering as offered by India. On his return to India, after the end of his assignment, India Gandhi had enquired how long this stage of affairs would last and he retorted "For ten to fifteen years ... citing the logic of Nepal's Durand Syndrome”. Suggesting that it is genetically built into the Royal Court of Nepal. One may ask: is it so now that we are a secular, parliamentary republic with Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli going well beyond the foreign policy of Nepal’s monarchs?

How wrong Rasgotra’s response to Indira Gandhi turned out to be. As it happened the 1971 treaty of trade and transit came up for renewal in 1975 during his very tenure as Ambassador to Nepal. I am surprised that this period of bitter acrimony in Nepal India bilateral relations finds no space in his book. It was when Indira Gandhi opted for constitutional dictatorship with her declaration of Emergency that lasted from 1975-77.

Nepal demanded that there should be two separate treaties for transit and trade vehemently turned down first in Kathmandu and then in New Delhi by the Commerce Secretary, P.C. Alexander who later became the Personal Secretary of both PM Indira and PM Rajiv Gandhi. As luck would have it, it was her defeat in the general elections that made it possible for Nepal to have two treaties, which was made possible by PM Moraji Desai and Foreign Secretary Jagat Mehta.  

It seems that Rasgotra was also instrumental in getting B P Koirala to return to Nepal. It is well known that B P Koirala's activities in Bihar and UP was disliked by Indira Gandhi and she wanted him to get back to Nepal. Especially as he was close to George Fernandez , who Rasgotra says she intensely disliked. 

He thus plays the BP card with King Birendra to get him back when he tells his sister, Vijay Laxmi in 1975, that B P's exile was a waste and he should directly write to King Birendra that he wished to return as a loyal citizen to lead a peaceful life. And that he should write several requests. It is written by him that at a dinner in the Indian Embassy in 1976, King Birendra mentioned that he had received two letters from B P Koirala and wondered why he wished to return? 

As Rasgotra says, India's foreign policy goals in Nepal are stability, democracy and prosperity. He ignores that these goals can never be met when India chooses to blatantly patronize Nepal’s political leaders with funds and instructions that has dearly cost politics of Nepal the vital need for democratization of political parties from within and the development of a culture of democracy. They remain the necessary and sufficient conditions for a ‘true democracy’.

Such a short sighted policy of ‘calibrated instability’ is bound to back fire as the more educated, much travelled and more patriotic and self confident youth of Nepal begin to see through the anti-national machinations of its political leaders.  

But it has to be admitted (even after this third devastating economic blockade of Nepal in 2015 that sent more people into absolute poverty than the megaquake of the same year, high resulted in a GDP growth of just 0.77%; down from the targeted 6.5% and also below the trend growth of 4.5%) that it is, after all, PM Modi who realizes the folly in this hackneyed Indian diplomacy when he agreed to have two Eminent Persons’ Groups, one from each country, to jointly and severally, review the entire gamut of our bilateral relations; and, through dialogue and debate, come forth with a joint recommendation for change befitting the 21st century. Will it make a difference, that is the historical question that remains to be seen? 

Reading Maharaja Krishna Rasgotra’s survey of India’s diplomacy one gets the sense that it will be a mountain to climb until and unless our own diplomatic calibre and capacity is strengthened across ministerial lines right away, to take up the onerous task of effective negotiations with India even prior to the recommendations of the Joint GEP. This calls for stability on the bureaucracy so that Secretaries and Joint Secretaries can properly learn from their organizations’ memories.

I say this because Rasgotra is critical of an Indian foreign policy that gives highest priority to " improving relations with our neighbours”. Even goes so far to condemn PM I K Gujral for his policy of non-reciprocity to all neighbours as "revealing an outstanding innocence of the reality of international relations”
(P. 376).

This shows that he is a hardliner, if not a hawk, when it comes to dealing with neighbours. And there are many such in the defense and foreign policy establishments in India, including the media. 

His subscribes to the strategic importance of bilateral relations over regional and sub regional relations. This is why he, naturally, played down the importance of SAARC - and regionalism - for an India that aspires to be a world power and a globalisation that is found on regional blocs. Rasgotra was Foreign Secretary in 1985 when SAARC was inaugurated. 

His perspective of a good neighborhood policy is Machiavellian out and out, borrowed from British Imperial rule and christened as the Nehru doctrine. Rasgotra's motto on neighbourhood policy may be summed up thus: " Take a firm, stable and unwavering policy”. Never mind ’neighbourhood first’. 

As a first rate diplomat, and unlike so many hardliners in the establishment, his style of diplomacy subscribes to the principle that 'talk talk is better than no talk or war or use of force by other means'. He believes in constant formal and informal dialogue with all countries — Pakistan, China, Nepal or whoever. 

In his first meeting with Pakistan President Zia Ul Haq he tells us that Zia had offered a no-war pact which was ignored by hardliners in India. He believes that Indo-Pak relations would have changed forever with such a pact. 

He also tells us about his struggles within his own ministry to get a new direction into India’s foreign policy when he got PM Indiria Gandhi to call on President Nixon in 1982 despite fierce opposition of FM Rao and other pro USSR bureaucrats.  

As a final word, it is an easily readable book, beautifully written, that all diplomats and international relations scholars, students and, especially, our editors, anchors and journalists would greatly benefit from. If you wish to understand the intricacies and perplexities of foreign policy making and diplomacy in India with all the in-house personal rivalry between prominent actors this is the book to read and treasure.

* The author is Professor at SAIM & former Finance Minister of Nepal.