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‘Foreign secretary, you are losing hair!’

| RAJIV BHATIA
Published : Jul 13, 2016, 2:31 am IST
Updated : Jul 13, 2016, 2:31 am IST

It was a traditional ceremony for signing an agreement with Finland in 1983.

It was a traditional ceremony for signing an agreement with Finland in 1983. The Finnish foreign minister and Maharajakrishna Rasgotra, foreign secretary, sat down to sign, with their prime ministers standing behind them. Afterwards, PM Indira Gandhi told the latter, “foreign secretary, you are losing hair!”

Three decades later, Rasgotra, at age 90, began writing his book, A Life in Diplomacy, and finished the task within ten months. His strong memory has stayed on, if not the hair, though, as a matter of fact, he still has more hair than some of his successors born around the time when he became a diplomat! His aide Arif Khan used to say that a guardian angel had implanted “a mini recorder and a tiny camera” in the author’s head, thus giving him a phenomenal audio-visual memory.

It is an exceptional book – neither dull history nor a full-fledged autobiography. It presents a fascinating account of India’s trials and tribulations since independence with a focus on foreign policy — as largely seen by an ultimate insider, policymaker and thinker. The world that independent India faced was unfriendly for the first 25 years. It has since changed beyond recognition. “Indeed, today, the world wants India to succeed and wants to be a partner in its success.”

Rasgotra joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1949 and served with distinction in important positions until his retirement in 1985. This period has been followed by years of thoughtful contribution, as a private citizen, to foreign policy discourse and reflection. The book relates a multi-splendoured story in a reader-friendly style. With its 26 chapters spread to 437 pages, it is a must read for everyone interested in India’s place in the world.

The author went to Washington DC in 1952 to serve as third secretary in the embassy. It was the time when secretary of state Dean Acheson used to walk to his office. It was also the age when a junior diplomat could be invited to a White House reception. Acheson introduced Rasgotra as “this young friend of mine” to President Truman.

As an under secretary in the ministry of external affairs, Rasgotra and his wife hosted Nepal’s King Mahendra and the Queen to a dinner at Moti Mahal restaurant in Delhi in 1957. When PM Nehru heard of the royal desire, he readily approved. “Well, why not Do what the young couple want,” he commanded Rasgotra. The book is filled with interesting anecdotes, which makes it eminently readable. But its true value lies in its serious stuff: a sympathetic critique of Nehru, his China policy and Non-alignment; a realistic assessment of India-US relations during Nehru and Indira Gandhi years; and a no-nonsense approach towards Nepal and other neighbours. The author’s pen-portraits of leaders like Kissinger, Brezhnev, King Hassan II, French President Giscard d’Estaing, Jayaprakash Narayan, Atal Bihari Vajpayee as well as those who were outstanding ambassadors such as Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Krishna Menon, and S. Radhakrishnan are imbued with freshness and originality. His pen presents them as real people.

Rasgotra himself comes through as a highly cultured and warm-hearted person with interest in all facets of life. He reveals his intensely human side in the poignant description of the pain he and his wife suffered over the tragic loss of their young son. His experiences with Sathya Sai Baba will also interest readers.

In the context of contemporary debate on the Modi government’s foreign policy, the author has done well by composing the last chapter ‘Foreign Policy: Past and Future.’ It mirrors the life-long experience and contemplation of an outstanding diplomat of his generation. Foreign policy, he stresses, begins with a country’s neighbours, but it must not remain “trapped in the region to the neglect of the state’s interests and role in the larger world.” He delivers the final verdict on Non-alignment by pointing out that “pragmatism, idealism and realism” went together in it. By unveiling his 21st century “Mandala” theory on Asia’s new security paradigm, Rasgotra breaks new ground. He explains the significance of “an unprecedented proximate constellation of five powers — China, India, Russia, US and Japan.” Their policies and interactions “will decide the questions of war and peace in Asia.”

The book projects China as a continuing “problem” for Indian foreign policy; and it has a prescription to suggest. Many may endorse it, but others may find it somewhat uni-dimensional and pro-West. On Pakistan, he offers a neat formula: we should either “forget” about Musharraf’s commitment of 6 January 2004 (that Pakistan would not permit any territory under its control to be used to support terrorism “in any form”) and engage in talks, or take “a firm stand” and await Pakistan to fulfil its commitment before resumption of talks. The trouble is that neither simple nor complex formulae seem to work when it comes to India-Pakistan relations.

The last page entitled “Summit Diplomacy” is a calibrated comment on PM Modi’s contribution to foreign policy and governance. The veteran diplomat is inclined to see Modi as “India’s man of destiny”, while also highlighting the contributions of several of his predecessors, including Dr Manmohan Singh.

This reviewer, in his capacity as director general, Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), had invited ambassador Rasgotra to deliver a talk on his diplomatic experiences in October 2013. The ex tempore lecture at Sapru House triggered countless requests and pleas to him to write his book. He has graciously given credit to ICWA.

At the end of his tenure as high commissioner in London, Mr and Mrs Rasgotra paid a farewell call on Queen Elizabeth II. As she had just returned from the Commonwealth Summit in Kuala Lumpur, the author asked her how it had gone. He writes:

With a merry twinkle in her eyes, she said, ‘What summit, high commissioner! Rajiv (Gandhi) did not come and Benazir was heartbroken.’

Rajiv Bhatia is a former ambassador and distinguished fellow, Gateway House