6. Back to the Backwaters – Words, Words, Words

Chapter Six

Back to the Backwaters

We had decided many years ago that we would return to Kerala after my retirement from service, like some of my senior colleagues, K. P S. Menon and Thomas Abraham, did. I saw no reason to live in Delhi without any official position, particularly, since Kerala offered a quieter, greener setting, with a more moderate climate. By the time we were ready to come home, Kerala had become acknowledged as ‘God’s Own Country’, because of its scenic beauty and level of social and cultural development. It is difficult for foreign service officers to define their hometowns, but we have always had a sense of belonging to Kerala and we are delighted to be back home. We are also able to take care of my mother in her old age. A Malayalam saying has it that, ‘whatever you may accomplish on top of the coconut tree, the applause is only when you get back to the ground safely.’ We are enjoying the applause.

I encapsulated my foreign service experience in a letter to my colleagues on the day of my retirement in the following words: Two military coups, two expulsions and two broken limbs in an armed attack are not the stuff that diplomatic dreams are made of. But there was abundant recompense for them in the 37 years that I have completed today in the IFS. I walked in and out of the White House and the Kremlin, worked in the United Nations in New York, Geneva, Nairobi and Vienna, broke bread with the high and the mighty, encountered celebrities in various fields, presented credentials to more than 10 heads of state and, more than anything else, spoke for a billion people of India on a variety of issues. My three stints in the United States in crucial positions still constitute a record. No other career could have offered me the kind of experience that the foreign service did.

As I leave the service, the overwhelming thought is one of elation and gratitude that my family and I have withstood the demanding professional and personal challenges the service presented. This is no mean achievement, considering that the casualty rate in the foreign service is comparable to that in the fighting forces. Strong physical and mental faculties are absolutely essential for diplomats to survive and succeed. More importantly, on account of my mother’s faith and prayers, an invisible hand guided us through our trials and tribulations and kept us out of serious harm even in difficult situations.

I joined the foreign service in 1967 to fulfil a fond dream that my father cherished. I developed my own dreams as the years passed. Lekha and the children developed their own aspirations. I have a choice today of either declaring success on the basis of my modest achievements or of lamenting failure on account of my unfulfilled aspirations. All said and done, it is merely a matter of attitude. I prefer, therefore, to cherish the opportunities I got rather than regret the missed ones.

The foreign service I leave tomorrow is more attractive than the one I joined 37 years ago. Gone are the days when English schools for children were a nightmare, the medical scheme was restricted and home leave provisions were complicated. Hard stations and poor foreign allowance do not go together anymore and housing has improved. Promotion prospects have not suffered to the extent that was anticipated. The foreign service has become less attractive not because it suffers in comparison with the other services in terms of legitimate earnings but because it, rightly, has fewer avenues for illegal enrichment.

The opportunities that the service offered to my children will remain a lasting legacy. The frequent changes of schools and the environment may have taken its toll, but the education they gained from life in several countries and continents has made them true citizens of the world. They have, at the same time, retained their Indian identity even more than some children brought up within the country itself.

One area where change has been painfully slow in the foreign service is the posting policy, which continues to be highly personalised and patronage-ridden. Postings should be on the basis of science rather than arts. A scientific method, based on strict rotation is possible and desirable. The recent tendency to be flexible about gradation of posts in the process of selecting heads of mission detracts from the importance of promotions to various grades. The performance assessment system too is antiquated and needs refinement. A point system is more efficient than a descriptive system in making an accurate assessment of the officers. The painful process of obtaining financial sanctions even for projects that are patently essential remains a serious handicap for our missions abroad. The delays do not contribute to economy in expenditure for which the cumbersome procedures were originally designed. Instances of colossal waste of money in property deals on account of such delays are legion. My project for the renovation of the Vienna Chancery is a classic case in which simple bureaucratic hitches, rather than points of dispute, delayed it for three years and more. Instead of completing the project before leaving, I am leaving as the work begins.

The role of the foreign service is in projecting and implementing policy rather than in shaping it. But in our own way, we contribute to policymaking in imperceptible ways. Our foreign policy has evolved over the years as a collective response to the changes in the world. Each of us, therefore, feels comfortable with the policy even if there may be differences about strategy. It is rarely that our diplomats have felt aggrieved enough about policy to protest about it.

The public opinion in India has begun to believe that India is on the threshold of being a developed country and a major power in the world. Many in India consider permanent membership of India in the UN Security Council a short-term goal. The foreign service knows better than others that the reality of the world is somewhat different. India’s views are respected, but they are not yet decisive in world affairs. Our traditional constituencies have withered away as we have moved on to pursue our own interests rather than the aspirations of any group of countries. The gap between Indian aspirations and world realities will pose the greatest challenge to the Indian diplomats in the years to come. Diplomatic activism can succeed only if it is backed by solid economic and military strength of a kind that has the capacity to help or harm the world. I am afraid we have not reached there as yet. Ironically, the peak of international popularity that India had reached in the middle of the twentieth century is yet to be matched by it in the twenty-first century.

I am glad that it is from Vienna that I bid farewell to the foreign service. The traditions of the city are strong enough to renew faith in the art of diplomacy. Moreover, it was good to see that our status as a non-NPT country does not prevent us from playing a major role even in the ‘nuclear watchdog of the United Nations’, as the IAEA has come to be called. We are in a minority of the three, but we are being treated increasingly as one of the eight when it comes to nuclear matters. The IAEA turns to India when difficult issues need to be resolved even though we are not part of the regime that IAEA jealously safeguards.

I wish my younger colleagues the very best in the years to come. You should be proud of a service that has withstood the challenges of a changing world without losing its idealism and spirit of adventure.