Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar clashed late last week over whether Indian diplomats were “arrogant” or “confident” – Gandhi said that European bureaucrats had called them arrogant, during the ‘Ideas for India’ conclave in London, while Jaishankar refuted him by calling diplomats confident and defenders of national interest.
Twitter is ablaze with how Jaishankar got the better of the Congress leader with his retort.
But what has got lost in the social media noise is Gandhi’s subsequent comment in the same interview about his concerns regarding China’s troop presence in Ladakh and the fact that Jaishankar somewhat agreed with him.
If politics weren’t so polarised today, this second-hand exchange between Gandhi and Jaishankar might remind one of a time not so long ago when foreign policy was not as partisan and how political parties came together to protect national interest.
But in today’s broken politics, Gandhi’s comment about “arrogant” Indian Foreign Service officers was bound to provoke a retort. Here is what he said:
“I was talking to some bureaucrats in Europe, and they said the IFS has completely changed, they are arrogant. Now they are just telling us what orders they are getting. There’s no conversation.”
Jaishankar, who is elected to the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat, and served as an IFS officer for a few decades, rising to the top job of Foreign Secretary before he retired and joined the BJP, was quick off the mark.
“Yes, the Indian Foreign Service has changed. Yes, they follow the orders of the Government. Yes, they counter the arguments of others. No, it’s not called Arrogance. It is called Confidence. And it is called defending National Interest,” Jaishankar tweeted.
Here is where the script becomes somewhat shaky.
Washing dirty linen in public
Was Jaishankar implying that the national interest had not been served or defended before the Narendra Modi government came to power? Or that Indian diplomats didn’t counter arguments and/or weren’t confident about their diplomatic skills?
Of course not. Jaishankar is clearly scoring a political point because not doing so would be akin to acceding to the Opposition leader. Of course, speaking up also implies that he is making a hole in the same boat in which he had sailed for so many decades.
Neither was there any need for Gandhi to speak about India’s broken record abroad. There is something to be said about not washing your dirty linen outside. Criticising the government, the prime minister and the ruling party in another country is just plain bad manners.
Fact is, one came away cringing after hearing the Gandhi scion speak in the UK. The crux of his speech was that the people of India either shouldn’t have elected the BJP or have been hijacked into doing so – “captured” is the word Gandhi used – by the RSS, the corporate class and the media. It’s probably the worst thing you can say about your fellow countrymen and women, not least because it allows them no agency of their own.
How Rahul Gandhi views the world
So, let’s look at what else Gandhi said in his Cambridge conversation. In the hour-long interview, he had a lot to say about China, the US, Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The comment about China is especially significant, not just because Jaishankar happens to agree with him in this case, but because Gandhi is right about the BJP allowing no real discussion in Parliament about the presence of Chinese troops in Ladakh for the last two years. The PM’s comment in 2020 that there is no foreign presence on Indian territory is certainly contradicted by the fact that 15 rounds of talks have since taken place with the Chinese side – what, one wonders, are they talking about in that case?
Gandhi tells his interlocutor in Cambridge that Chinese forces are sitting in Ladakh as well as on the Doklam plateau in Bhutan – the latter “designed for Arunachal Pradesh.” Like it or not, he adds, we have to prepare for that problem because we don’t want to get caught off-guard.
Just before this, he brought in Ukraine.
“What is Ukraine,” Gandhi asks his interviewer rhetorically, then answers his question. “Ukraine is Russians saying to the Ukrainians that we refuse to respect your territorial integrity. We are going to attack you in these two districts.”
“This is what Putin is doing. Please recognise the parallels in what is going on in Ukraine and what is going on in Ladakh and in Doklam,” Gandhi goes on to add.
But he isn’t done yet.
“I raise the China issue because I’m worried about India. I’m worried that Chinese troops are sitting inside India and I can see what is happening to Ukraine,” Gandhi says.
“I said this to the foreign minister (Jaishankar) in one of our conversations. He said, you know what, you have a point. That’s an interesting way to look at it.”
The China question as well as the ongoing tensions between China and the US occupy a large part of Gandhi’s current concerns.
“For the first time in the history of the planet there are two visions. The Chinese terrestrial vision and the US maritime vision,” Gandhi tells his interviewer.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an attempt to turn the planet into a terrestrial trading system, which the Chinese are financing. The US knows that it has a real competitor in China. Gandhi goes on to add that, of course, India has a key relationship with the US.
Perhaps the interviewer didn’t push Gandhi a bit more. Perhaps if there was a little more time, some thoughts would have been clearer – or less garbled.
For example, his thoughts about the Panchsheel, the 1954 agreement between India and China. Gandhi seemed to toy with the idea of “neutrality.” He seemed to lean in favour of what his grandmother, Indira Gandhi, said more than 50 years ago on a trip to the US when she was asked whether India leaned Left or Right.
“I like what Indira Gandhi ji said when asked do we lean Left or Right. No, we stand up straight.”
That, in a nutshell, is the world view of the man likely to inherit the Congress party.
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.