The Exotic Life of a Diplomat

The Ambassador’s Club is an important scholarly work and a great read for anyone interested in Indian foreign policy.

What do you do when a foreign government declares you a persona non-grata? Or if your golf partner walks into the Fijian parliament and takes the cabinet hostage? Or if the king of a neighboring country is a follower of Sai Baba and wants a darshan?

When writing non-fiction, a lot of academics are told to look for colour – for some human element to bring their writing alive. The Ambassador’s Club: the Indian Diplomat at Large edited by Krishna V Rajan bursts at the seams with colour. The purpose of the book is to provide those of us outside diplomatic circles glimpses into the situations that the foreign service has to deal with. The book is situated at different time periods across the world: Amin’s Uganda, Allende’s Chile, Sikkim at the time of annexation among others. The diplomats are men, who are stuck with knotty problems, with protocols, fussy leaders and national interests to consider.

Some chapters of the book do provide accounts that are virtually unknown. Unlike other countries, India does not have a policy of declassifying sensitives files even after decades. The Indian archives have largely been restricted and unmined for the wealth of history and policy. Therefore, the memoirs of important policymakers are what we depend on to draw on experiences. Of course, even past retirement, most members of the Indian Foreign Service (like other branches of the government dealing with sensitive topics) do not go into specifics that would go against the government, divulge national security interests or people who have served in intelligence and so on.

Some accounts (Jagat S Mehta’s reflections on China for one) within the book remain merely historical accounts that little reflect the ambassador’s own experiences. Some others are memories of time spent in a foreign country at a crucial time in bilateral or international affairs. TP Sreenivasan who served In Fiji at the time of the 1987 soft coup has few insights on being the only Indian ambassador to have ever been expelled from a country. Similarly, Krishna V Rajan’s own account of his time in Nepal shows us the attitude of Indian bureaucrats and politicians towards Nepali politics at time when the Hindu Kingdom was transitioning into a parliamentary democracy.

Other chapters that are of note include Chandrashekar Dasgupta’s memoirs of the climate change negotiations and Prakash Shah’s time as the UN Special Envoy to Iraq. The former is interesting because it is considered a triumph of Indian foreign policy in negotiating a deal conducive to India’s development. In it, Dasgupta also dwells on the tension between the various ministries showcasing how bureaucratic politics rules over everything else. Prakash Shah’s account of serving as Kofi Annan’s special Envoy to Iraq comes at a time when IAEA was expelled from the country and declared that they were holding weapons of mass destruction. Shah however has a unique view of the situation and expresses surprise when UNSCOM report suggests non-cooperation on behalf of the Saddam Hussein government.

The foreign service in India is one of the smallest in the world: they recruit between eight and fifteen people every year and currently have 600 officers manning 162 missions and posts. Compare that to the 14000 foreign servicemen of the United States of America, the German foreign service that numbers 8200 or 7500 Chinese diplomats. So, there is a real ambassador’s club and most of us will never understand its rules, its pressures or its secrets.

With each of these accounts, the amount of tact required in dealing with the various stakeholders (from heads of state to the Indian diaspora) is overwhelming. The innovativeness of ideas seems to be a necessary pre-qualification for someone within the service. There are small details within these chapters that are unavailable elsewhere in the public domain. These make the book not only an important scholarly work but also a great read for anyone interested in Indian foreign policy.

Every chapter in the Ambassador’s Club is engaging because of the exclusive nature of the club itself. Through it, we get a peek into the lives of the women and men who serve as India’s representatives beyond her borders. The book is a treasure trove for those interested in international relations and is highly recommended for anyone who is intrigued by the exotic life of an Indian diplomat.

About the author

Hamsini Hariharan

Hamsini Hariharan is the Associate Editor at Pragati. She is the host of the the States of Anarchy podcast. Her research interests include Chinese foreign policy, Asian geopolitics, and India's worldview.