Thursday, September 26, 2013

September 26, 2013
 From Paddy Fields to the World Parliament

From some to awesome, from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from the mundane to the memorable, from man to superman, is the law of evolution. The transformation is slow and gradual for humanity, but for individuals, it is dramatic, a revolution in a single lifetime. It is the evolution of an individual human being that adds up to the transformation of humanity. As Armstrong said, a small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind.

Imagine a boy, born in a village, with no electricity, whose playgrounds were the paddy fields, flooded in certain seasons and dry in others, whose toys were made out of coconut leaves and used bicycle tires, with no idea of the world outside. Subsistence farming ensured that there was plenty of food, but not much else. He had one pair of clothes for the school and a topless outfit for the home, either a tattered pair of shorts or a coarse loincloth.

He walked to the school, barefooted, balancing himself on the slippery, narrow tracks in the fields, rain or shine, and read with the help of a kerosene lamp. His ambition was only to do well in class, with hardly any competition in a village school. What guided him was a dream that his father had, that he should conquer the world, not just be the best in the state or India. The widest horizon he could visualize was the Foreign Service, a magic wand, he thought, that would transform a village boy into a globetrotter. His father’s dream became his own, though he did not know what it meant, or how to accomplish it. But he toiled on, from school to college, in frustration and excitement, in failure and victory.
He went through College with the singular objective of competing for the diplomatic service, chose literature rather than science, read everything that he could get hold of from the libraries, read newspapers and meticulously took notes that filled many notebooks. The  Hindu editorials were the staple of his learning, both for language and information. Academic success gave him the courage to tackle the Civil Services examination. Pursuit of a dream energized him even when there were setbacks.

And finally, the fairy arrived with her magic wand in the form of success in an examination, which literally transformed him from being one in a billion struggling  
Indians into one in less than a thousand diplomats, consisting mainly of princes and other privileged men and women from Oxford and Cambridge. It was truly turning from some to awesome. It was an intoxicating experience as he moved from one world capital to the other, initially as a minor functionary, but eventually as an Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, authorized by the President of India to speak on behalf of a billion people. His identity merged with the identity of India, his voice became one with the voice of the motherland. He became an Excellency, not just a simple human being.

The glamorous places on the political, cultural and tourist maps of the world became part of his daily routine, driving past the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, the Dzong in Thimphu, the red square in Moscow, the Empire State Building in New York, the lions park in Nairobi, the fabulous beaches of Fiji, the White House in Washington and the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. He sat across the table with world leaders, Brezhnev and Clinton, Castro and Tito, negotiated with world class diplomats and signed agreements that served the best interests of the country. Even when he was expelled from a country and hurt in an armed attack, the feeling was of elation that he went through them for his country. Having pledged to do whatever was required to be done, a few drops of spilt blood or a couple of metal pieces in the bones made no difference.

He turned every challenge into an opportunity and treated every experience as part of the learning process. He sipped bitter green tea with relish at tea ceremonies with the geisha, gulped down yak buttered and salted tea not to offend the Bhutanese monarch, burnt the gullet with undiluted vodka to celebrate India-Soviet friendship and drank kava, which tasted no better than gutter water to savour the bliss of the lotus eaters of the South Pacific islands. He ate raw fish in Japan, raw meat in Moscow, tasteless corn meal in Kenya and flourished on burgers and hot dogs in the US and relished schnitzel and wines in Austria. He watched the kabuki theatre in Tokyo, the Nutcracker in the Bolshoi Theatre, heard Jazz in New York Village and enjoyed opera in Vienna. He wandered in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Hermitage in Leningrad, the Space Museum in Washington and the Museum Quarter in Vienna. He lived in temperatures ranging from -30 degrees in Moscow to +40 degrees in Delhi. Magnificent libraries, high domed Cathedrals and manicured parks were daily fare for him. Could any one wish for more, having been born and brought up beside the muddy waters of the paddy fields?

Every time our man stood up in the magnificent hall of the General Assembly or addressed the mightiest around the horseshoe table of the UN Security Council on issues of international importance to India, he marveled at his own journey from the paddy fields of Kayamkulam to the Parliament of the world.

Our hero did not know whether he made a difference to the world, as achievements in the IFS are nebulous. There are no bridges to be built except in the minds of men. No accomplishments can be attributed to individuals. It is more a matter of intellectual satisfaction. On rare occasions, one gets a chance to play a crucial role in a crisis or shape a consensus among warring factions. None of these bothered our man, as he saw his work as a mission to be accomplished to his own satisfaction.

The evolution from some to awesome continues. Both his sons, who had better living conditions and better education than him, had their own accomplishments. One, who went to school in Manhattan near the famous Metropolitan Museum of Art, today leads the Met’s efforts to turn its marvelous collection of art into a digital resource for global education. The other is a connoisseur of popular western music, even while managing a business concern. Happily, even the next generation is showing signs of evolution.

Believe me, friends, there is no exaggeration, no hyperbole, no fiction in this tale. The person who transformed himself from “some to awesome” was none other than the speaker, now back in the back waters with a fund of memories to recall and to relish with malice to none and goodwill for all.

Thank you.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Dialogue in search of consensus

T P Sreenivasan : Sat Aug 31 2013, 04:32 hrsSmallLargePrint
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For the moment, India's government must manage, not promote, ties with Pakistan.
Once upon a time, Jawaharlal Nehru made foreign policy and Girija Shankar Bajpai and K.P.S Menon implemented it, and all was well. Even after the China fiasco of 1962, South Block, the PMO and MEA, ruled the roost as far as foreign policymaking was concerned. That changed when it came to the nuclear deal and the new friendship with the US. Polarisation on the degree of friendship that we should seek from one country or another may be acceptable, but when it comes to the strategy to deal with external threats, at least a basic consensus on fundamental issues is critical.
Today, the national consensus on Pakistan and China is limited to the recognition that both are in illegal occupation of Indian territory and that the continuing claims of these countries pose a serious and imminent threat to India. Beyond that, there are as many opinions as there are people. The government itself is clear on the minimum requirements of a possible settlement with both China and Pakistan, but for the rest, it does not rule out any option. It is ready to go the extra mile for peace and rules out the use of force, even a limited strike, as an option. Wherever possible, India is willing to work with both countries in the UN and elsewhere on issues of common interest.
On Pakistan, the basic consensus is that Kashmir is an integral part of India legally and constitutionally, and that the borders cannot be redrawn. This can be stretched to mean conversion of the Line of Control (LoC), but Pakistan rejected that option long ago. No one in India has any doubt that Pakistan perpetrates terrorism as part of its policy. After Sharm el-Sheikh, we saw that India is not in favour of acknowledging that in Balochistan, Pakistan is a victim of terrorism.
Beyond this consensus, Indian and Pakistani moves are carefully watched by the people of India. Neither the hawks nor the doves hold any particular appeal. The government of the day cannot presume that its mandate to rule the country gives it a free hand to negotiate a deal with Pakistan. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had greater credibility as a peacemaker than any other prime minister before or after him because of his long association with the Jan Sangh. Still, Lahore and Agra became tombstones, not milestones, on his road to peace. His bus journey to Lahore became a fiasco not only because of Kargil, but also because it was evident that tourists would travel to Lahore and terrorists would use the same bus on the return.
We trust our leaders with the future of the nation, but not with settling disputes with our neighbours. Such a limitation of the power of the executive must be accepted by every government. Including Kashmir on the agenda of the dialogue with Pakistan was clearly a risk that PM Narasimha Rao took at a crucial moment. He did so in greetings he sent to Benazir Bhutto from New York, ostensibly under pressure from the US. His ingenuity was put to the severest test to explain a major change in policy. He managed to convince the country that Kashmir was included only to discuss terrorism in J&K, but subsequent developments showed that Pakistan used the agenda item to try to extract concessions from India. Rao paid heavily for his act of statesmanship. Every government that seeks a settlement beyond managing the status quo will have a tightrope to walk on.
The most recent government effort to salvage the gains of the Track II dialogue by tweaking a few words in its statement to Parliament was the most eloquent example of the tight leash placed on it by the people. The opposition may have exploited it politically, but the entire nation felt uncomfortable with the unfamiliar language used. The nation was convinced that the terrorists were part of the ISI. In one stroke, the government lost credibility, even arousing suspicions it was not on the same page with the armed forces. It was also unclear as to why the government believed that it could have a deal with the civilian government in Pakistan against the wishes of the latter's powerful armed forces. The "mantras" developed over the years to react to Pakistani actions cannot be altered, even with good intentions. What the country expected was an unambiguous statement on the identity of the culprits and a strong affirmation of the right to self-defence. To imply that even a limited engagement is ruled out is to decimate the value of the arms we have accumulated.
The first step necessary for any serious dialogue with Pakistan is an acknowledgment by Pakistan of the imperatives of normalcy in political relations and cooperation in trade and economic activities. There should also be convincing signs that the terrorist outfits have been dismantled. A smokescreen of dialogue simply gives Pakistan legitimacy and an opportunity to seek financial resources.
Recent events have once again revealed that no consensus exists in India to establish peace with Pakistan at any cost. The distrust of Pakistan transcends the religious divide. The existence of a China-Pakistan nexus cannot be wished away. The mandate that the government enjoys as of now is to manage the relationship with the least damage to lives and property, and to establish an image abroad of sweet reasonableness and willingness to engage in a dialogue in an atmosphere of peace. Any change will have to wait for a more propitious moment.
The writer, a former ambassador and governor for India of the IAEA, is executive vice-chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council


Global Talk on Opportunities and Challenges  (September 9, 2013)

A bewildering array of opportunities beckons the young people of India today. Making the right choice of discipline in the University, choosing a career in the public or the private sector and deciding to live in India or abroad are options they face. Ability, aptitude and inclination are crucial factors in making these choices. Equally important is the awareness of the merits and demerits of each option.

Even after the advent of immense possibilities in the private sector, the fascination for serving the Government has not abated. A fair and transparent method of selection, the sense of security, the assurance of equal opportunity and the prestige of authority attract young people to the civil services. There too they face a difficult choice of services, particularly those who secure high ranks in the examination.

As someone who spent 37 years in the IFS and still following developments in diplomacy, I have become an evangelist for the IFS and I have no hesitation to say that for a young person with talent and a spirit of adventure, the Foreign Service can be an exciting career. When I see the diminishing enthusiasm for the IFS, I remember a story of my days in the Soviet Union.   

If you asked anyone in the Soviet Union what he thought of Pasternak’s Dr.Zhivago, he would say it is a horrible novel. If asked whether he had read the book, he would say no. In other words, he simply parroted an opinion fed to him without checking it himself.

The same thing happens when I ask young aspirants to the civil services as to why they do not opt for the Indian Foreign Service. They admit that they do not know much about the IFS, but they know it is not for them. They like the authority and glamour of what they have seen of the IAS and the IPS, but do not realize that greater opportunities await them in a diplomatic career.

As a result, the top service of the country has no takers among those who are on the top of the civil services list. From a time when those below the 20th position could not aspire to the IFS, we have come to a stage when even those below 200 can get in. A lack of awareness and the fear of the unknown are responsible for this sad state of affairs at a time when foreign policy has become more complex and we need our best brains to run our diplomacy.

The greatest charm of the IFS is the opportunity it affords to represent our nation in the chancelleries of the world and at the United Nations and other multilateral organizations. No one can aspire to a finer moment than the one you  get to speak for India at the General Assembly or the Security Council. Your individual identity merges with the identity of a nation and your voice becomes the voice of a billion people.

A diplomat, they say, is an honest gentleman, who lies abroad for his country, but after the information revolution, one can hardly lie, but living abroad in different countries, getting exposed to different civilizations, learning the nuances of languages, customs and manners and savoring the flavors of multiple cuisines are delights that only a Foreign Service career can offer. One has to live in rich and poor countries and different climatic conditions, but they average out to comfortable living in mean temperatures.

To drive past the imperial palace in Tokyo, the Dzong in Thimphu, the Kremlin in Moscow, the Empire State Building in New York, the White House in Washington, the Hoffburg Palace in Vienna, the golden pagodas of Yangon, the lion sanctuary in Nairobi and the lovely beaches of Fiji every day to work, as I have done, is exciting. People spend their earnings of a lifetime to have a glimpse of these attractions, but you are paid to live in their vicinity. You dine with Kings, Presidents, Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers and do business with the high and the mighty on a daily basis. You get to play golf in Scotland, tennis in Queens and soccer in Brazil. Every one will agree that this is a life that dreams are made on. At the same time, each of these activities eventually help the diplomats to build constituencies to serve the vital interests of India.

But the questions that haunt our young people are more mundane. Are we paid enough to live in such exotic places? Will we have savings? How do we cope with the culture shock and stresses and strains of moving from country to country? How about family life and children’s education? What about the threat of terrorism and other dangers? How about the temptations of various kinds in western societies? Is there enough important work to do in our missions? Will we be alienated from India and lose our roots?

The one answer to all these questions is that none of these is a matter of concern. IFS officers are paid a foreign allowance and an entertainment allowance calculated on the basis of the living index of each city fixed by the United Nations, in addition to fully free and furnished accommodation and totally free medical assistance. Reasonable savings are possible from the emoluments. Strength of character is essential as much in the IFS as in other areas to withstand the strains and to resist temptations. Facilities for families are provided, except at a very few non-family stations and the Government bears the cost of educating children in the best schools in every city. Diplomats are only as much exposed to terrorism and other dangers as their counterparts in India.

As for the nature of work, it is true that professional achievements are more nebulous in the IFS than in domestic services. Diplomats cannot point to a bridge or road that he got built or an institution he created. But diplomacy entails tough negotiations, demanding the deployment of your speaking and drafting skills. When your argument prevails and your mission is accomplished, the sense of fulfillment is immense. Risking life to defend the rights of Fiji Indians, upholding the right of India to develop nuclear technology, negotiating climate change with industrialized nations and getting India elected to important international bodies are as important to the nation as the best feats in administration.

Most diplomats live abroad in Indian homes with Indian décor and cuisine, thanks to the Indian domestic help provided free of cost. Moreover, they have opportunities to come to India between postings and once during the three-year term. In other words, most diplomats maintain strong links with home and invariably return to India and even to their hometowns. They are much sought after for their exposure and expertise to write on global issues, to provide advice to global operations and even to reform education.

On balance, the challenges in the Foreign Service are no more than those in other walks of life and the charms are many more. The more you know about the Foreign Service, the more comfortable you feel about choosing it as a vocation. Ultimately, it is a matter of taste and talent. If you are looking for a glamorous, exciting and meaningful life with infinite variety, if you are willing to learn languages, history and civilizations all your life, if the trappings of power do not fascinate you, IFS should be your choice. You may have reasons not to choose it, but it should be an educated and informed choice. I must confess that my choice 40 years ago was not well informed. I went by a role model, an IFS officer, who did well, but fell victim to the bullets of a deranged person at the prime of his career. But if I am faced with the same choices as I did in 1966, I shall have no hesitation to choose the Foreign Service. The charms far outweigh the challenges and very often, the very challenges turn out to be the charms of the diplomatic service.

Thank you.