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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 39, September 12, 2009

At Random

Saturday 12 September 2009, by K. Natwar Singh


It never rains but pours. There is a severe drought in large parts of the country, but there is no political drought. The Bharatiya Janata Party is hell-bent on committing political hara-kiri. Such disarray has never been witnessed in our country. An erstwhile colleague of L.K. Advani has woken up after his expulsion from the BJP. What was he doing all these years? The BJP made him the Foreign Minister, Defence Minister and Finance Minister. But strange things happen in politics. Yesterday’s villain is today’s hero and vice-versa.

Indian democracy needs a strong Opposition party. The BJP was filling that role as long as Atal Behari Vajpayee was at the helm. L.K. Advani is a poor substitute. His is not a rounded personality. He makes the Bharatiya Janata Party look as if it is suffering from anaemia. He lacks warmth, a sense of humour and has a narrow vision. His autobio-graphy has, in spite of L.K. Advani hawking it around, sunk like a stone in a water tank. In his case charisma is missing. He desperately wants to become the Prime Minister. Now it is all over. It is sad but what a relief! Mohan Bhagwat has an engaging personality, his disarming candour is such a contrast to the grim faces of most of those in the BJP leadership. As he said, the Bharatiya Janata Party will “rise from the ashes”. How long will that take? First and foremost the jockeying for posts must be abandoned. No Indian political party has at this level washed its soiled political linen in so public a manner.

The Samjwadi Party shot itself in the foot by opportunistically supporting the UPA during the debate last year on the nuclear deal. Now its leaders are saying “it was the greatest blunder” committed by them. Had the SP not voted for the nuclear deal, the history of India would have taken a different course.

The RJD and its all-too-lively leader are in a muddle and a mess.

The BSP’s one-point agenda has failed. Behanji can’t become the Prime Minister. The ubiquitous Satish Mishra is nowhere to be seen.

The Left has been left behind by the fiery lady of Bengal. Mamata Banerjee has a lot going for her. Whenever she chooses to she can more than rock the Sonia-Manmohan Singh boat.

However, the Congress party has never had it so good. Hundred days are over. How much has been done? No one really knows or, to put it more bluntly, no one really cares.

As an ex IFS man, I naturally take interest in the activities of the IFS. Over a hundred Heads of Mission were in New Delhi in the last week of August. It is commendable that the Ministry has made this an annual exercise. An Indian ambassador in Chile or a High Commissioner in Fiji does need a break. Some of our diplomats do not get a home posting for many years. I left New Delhi in 1971 as ambassador and was away for eleven years—functioning in Warsaw, London, Lusaka, Islamabad.

I was External Affairs Minister for about 18 months only. Had I continued I would have carefully looked at the pressing needs of our diplomats. When they are posted at headquarters they spend months in a ghetto-cum-slum called the MEA Hostel on Kasturba Gandhi Marg. It needs to be pulled down and a lesser architectural monstrosity built to reflect the 21st century requirements.

The new External Affairs building will be functional by the end of the year. It was originally to be called Videsh Bhawan . I changed it to Nehru Bhawan and Nehru Bhawan it will stay.

I have purposefully refrained from commenting on our foreign policy. It is in the fitness of things that the new MEA team, S.M. Krishna, Preneet Kaur and Shashi Tharoor, be given time to settle down. The first two have no previous experience of diplomacy and foreign affairs. The third Minister has had too much. He is good copy for the media, but that should not be his priority number one. I am sure by now he is aware that there was not much rejoicing in South Block at his appointment. He is brilliant—that, in the Indian context, is his main handicap. Mediocrity has its uses.

No criticism. Only one unsought advice (the only advice worth taking): get on with closer to our neighbours. The foreign affairs debate in the Lok Sabha on Sharm el-Sheikh was disappointing. One wise Minister said the Sharm el-Sheikh Joint Statement was unilateral. Unilateral for whom—India or Pakistan? Another gentleman pronounced that the Joint Statement had no legal sanction. Really! Where do you live?

The Prime Minister in his statement did not even mention the word Balochistan. That’s quiet an achievement!! Throughout the day-long debate the UPA-II leader’s stern demeanour gave the game away. And she turned the screw at the meeting of the Congress Parliament Party. The practice has been to congratulate the PM after every foreign visit. This time Sonia Gandhi did not do so and made no mention of Sharm el-Sheikh. The message was loud and clear.

I served in our UN mission in New York from 1961 to 1966. I heard John F. Kennedy address the UN General Assembly. I was present at his funeral in Washington. On that occasion I first saw (not met) Robert Kennedy and Edward (Ted) Kennedy.

Robert Kennedy opened the Nehru photo exhibition in New York in early 1965. I met Ted Kennedy in 1982 in Washington, when the Senator came to call on Indira Gandhi. I was present at the meeting.

Edward Kennedy re-invented himself several times. He bounced back each time. By the time of his death he had become something of a cult figure. He was Senator from 1962 to 2009. His early endorsement of President Obama made certain that Hillary Clinton did not make it to the White House.

What is amazing is that during his fatal illness he planned every detail of his own funeral. His funeral service was watched by millions all over the world. It was very moving. It combined sorrow with appropriate style.

The question on the lips of most Americans is: who after Ted Kennedy? His son’s tribute to his father at the service in the Boston Church was immensely impressive. It brought tears to many eyes. The mantle might fall on him. The Kennedy’s have grit, grace, style and wealth. The family is exceptionally ambitious and vigorously public-spirited. It cannot be written off.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is one of the great religious personalities of the world. When he arrived in New Delhi in early May 1959 (he crossed over from Tibet on March 30, 1959), I was attached to him as the liaison officer. He was not quite 25 and spoke no English. There was no mistaking his aura. His enchanting laughter won all hearts. I saw him a few years ago and am the better for it. He is the last of his line. He is now in his 75th year. I find it incomprehensible why our Chinese friends are so paranoid about His Holiness. What harm can he do to a mighty power? He has gone to Taiwan on a humanitarian journey. China was a Buddhist nation for centuries. Some of the largest statues of the Buddha can be seen in different parts of China. These have been well preserved by the Government of the People’s Republic. This befits a great civilisation and a great people. Generosity of heart, openness of mind, nobility of character and respect for spirituality make life’s journey worthwhile. The Dalai Lama embodies all these qualities in his person. Jawaharlal Nehru always treated His Holiness with very great respect. So do hundreds of millions all over the globe.

The author, a former Minister for External Affairs and an erstwhile Secretary in the MEA, is now an author and a commentator.

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