Has the ‘Foreign Service’ declined?

Indian diplomats and foreign secretaries were earlier made of a different mettle

S Jaishankar, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Embassy of India, Beijing
S Jaishankar, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Embassy of India, Beijing

Ashis Ray

In 1949, Subimal Dutt of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), as commonwealth secretary in the ministry of external affairs, was assigned to visit London to investigate the “high expenses” of the Indian high commission. It was virtually a career-ending task.

According to Amit Das Gupta, his biographer, Dutt’s report was “a bomb-shell”. Nehru was embarrassed and asked Dutt if he could change the report. The latter declined. It is unthinkable in the present scenario in India that an officer who refused to please the Prime Minister would later be rewarded with the post of foreign secretary, that, too, for an unequalled six years.

The Indian Foreign Service (IFS) was envied as the crème de la crème of the Indian bureaucracy. The most academically meritorious of young men and women, emanating from the best of Indian academia, not to mention persons educated at Britain’s leading universities, aspired to become and were absorbed as diplomats.

K P S Menon, also of the ICS, was the first Indian national to be appointed foreign secretary between 1948 and 1952. He then became ambassador to the Soviet Union for a staggering nine years. Quite remarkably, his son of the same name and grandson Shiv Shankar Menon, known as "Kookie" to his friends, also enjoyed the distinction of serving as head of the service.

King’s College London educated Triloki NathKaul, better known as “Tikki”, who, too, became foreign secretary, undertook crucial postings as deputy high commissioner in Britain and ambassador to the Soviet Union and the United States (US). Of a pro-Moscow persuasion, he would visit the British capital often, fulfilling his role as one of the directors of India League. The Americans were allergic to him and the Brits had mixed feelings. But he never lost his charm or sympathies for communism of the Moscow variety.

When I became a foreign correspondent, JagatMehta, a Cambridge University graduate, was foreign secretary. The latter segment of his tenure coincided with a desultory period in Indian politics, when Charan Singh, who never proved his government’s majority in the Lok Sabha, was notionally prime minister and an equally unimpressive Shyam Nandan Mishra was the external affairs minister (EAM).

Maharaja Krishna Rasgotra, a young tutor at Government College Lahore, joined the foreign service after Indian independence. In November 1981 he was ambassador to France and in-charge of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s visit to the country. He handled this important summit with the first socialist president in French history, Francois Mitterand, skilfully enough to usher in France’s gravitation from closeness with Pakistan to intimacy with India, indeed into becoming its most reliable strategic partner today. In this, it has to be said, Brajesh Mishra as principal secretary to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, played a defining part after India's isolation, following its testing of nuclear weapons in 1998.

The following year Rasgotra was appointed foreign secretary. Then in 1988 he was posted to London as high commissioner. Post a dinner at which he sat next to Margaret Thatcher the entire evening, he was glowing. Two and a half hours with a prime minister as a captive audience and vice versa over loosening effects of whisky and wine was gold dust for a diplomat! His term, though, was cut short with Rajiv Gandhi losing the December 1989 general election.

Though I encountered him once in London, my memory of Romesh Bhandari as foreign secretary is of him and his wife seamlessly taking to the dance floor at a White House banquet in 1985, after Rajiv and his consort Sonia politely excused themselves - bearing in mind political ramifications in India - from waltzing with President Ronald and Nancy Reagan. The Bhandaris filled in to maintain protocol.

Jyotindra Nath Dixit was indigenously trained as compared to some of his Oxbridge predecessors, of a serious inclination and apparently less attracted to social diplomacy, although with a pipe in one hand and cocktail in another he could be a picture of a partying diplomat. With India cornered after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao went about neutralisingpotential western hostility by elevating diplomatic status with Israel, the Chinese threat by signing a Peace and Tranquillity Treaty and by adopting a Look East policy aimed at the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). All these coincidentally occurred during Dixit’s watch as foreign secretary.

And then there was Sati Lambah, a pro on Pakistan, who had Islamabad high society eating out of his hands and spilling the beans all at once! The comparatively lower profile Krishnan Raghunath was a crisp communicator, as were foreign secretaries immediately before him, namely Krishnan Srinivasan and Salman Haidar. Shyam Saran thereafter discharged his duties at the top with aplomb.


They were solid and slick in composition, navigating India through a choppy but ethical path of non-alignment and subsequently adjusting quite effortlessly to the post-Cold War world. Among the women who rose to the prestigious post of foreign secretary, NirupamaRao stood out. Yet, such was the richness of talent that countless unfortunately missed occupying this position. I will mention just one. Satyabrata Pal, who after retirement, suffered a surprising accident and ultimately died as a consequence.

Narendra Modi was shunned by the Indian high commission in London during his 2003 trip to the British capital as chief minister of Gujarat at the invitation of Hindu hardliners. In 2005, the mission advised him he was likely to be arrested if he re-visited. He backed off.

In contrast, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, now EAM, as ambassador to China, showcased him before Chinese leaders and reportedly gave him a tutorial on foreign affairs during his sojourn in 2011.

It is debatable as to whether a tilt towards the US – that, too, during a untrustworthy Trumpistpresidency - which Jaishankar is party to, is in India’s best interests. His proximity to the powers-that-be, if not as final arbiter, has coincided with a crumbling of India’s special relationship with Nepal, relations with Pakistan reaching rock-bottom and now a definite downturn in ties with China.

A quadrilateral quasi-military alliance with the US, Japan and Australia is inconsistent with India’s long held principle of an independent foreign policy. It may be a recipe to restrain China from further provocation on the border; but could be counter-productive in an endeavourto bring Beijing to its senses. Besides, it irritates Russia, still the biggest source of India’s arms supplies; and could even render France uneasy.

Indian diplomatic missions are mandated to act on behalf of the Indian Republic, not any ruling party. While when Congress was in government, individuals admittedly leaned towards it (K Natwar Singh being a case in point), this was not overtly widespread or at the expense of opposition leaders, parties and state governments.

A virus permeated the system in 2014. Senior diplomats began to look over their shoulders, RSS activists were planted at embassies and high commissions and local loyalists of Modistarted bossing over pliant or petrified heads of mission.

France, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has historically been accredited an experienced envoy. In 2017, a first time ambassador was deputed to Paris. High Commissioners to the United Kingdom arrive and depart like trains in the London underground. Diplomacy is about style and substance. Both appear to be diminishing.

India’s 1991 economic reforms – while a foundation for prosperity – triggered a migration of the bright boys and girls of India from the modest remuneration of the IFS to meaty compensation in the private sector.

What remains to be seen is how good the crop of IFS intake has been in the past 20 years.

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Published: 14 Jul 2020, 8:26 PM