India’s elite diplomatic community has usually fought shy of publicly commenting on current foreign policy trends, but last week’s letter by one set of retired diplomats attacking another set of retired diplomats has burst open this particularly polarised can of afflicted beings.
For a service that always prided itself on nuance, the letter firmly places the group of 33 former ambassadors that has signed it, called the Forum of Former Ambassadors of India (FOFA), in the pro-Narendra Modi camp; while statements by the Constitutional Conduct Group (CCG), a larger body of retired civil servants, are largely seen as critical of the Prime Minister.
This letter was not FOFA’s first foray into the public domain. Like the Ministry of External Affairs, FOFA has earlier been critical of Justin Trudeau’s comments on the farmer protests, of the World Trade Organization’s “double standards” on agriculture, and been in favour of French President Emmanuel Macron taking a tough line on Islamist terror attacks. FOFA’s best-known member is former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, who, in 2002, refused to entertain criticism of the Gujarat riots by the European Union.
The burden of FOFA’s latest argument is that there is unfair criticism of Modi’s foreign policy, when in fact, there has always been continuity – for example, the 1998 nuclear tests were conducted under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and led to the 2008 Indo-US nuclear deal under Manmohan Singh. (Except, FOFA forgets how the BJP tried hard to stymie the nuclear deal during Singh’s tenure and even prevented the PM from speaking during a vote of confidence in Parliament.)
But what riles FOFA most is not just CCG’s criticism of the Modi government, but that internationally reputed foreign policy practitioners like former National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon and former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran – both of whom are signatories to CCG statements — have especially disputed Modi’s foreign policy handling of China as well as the Covid crisis, while accusing him of “image management.”
The big difference, of course, between FOFA and CCG is that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) takes a keen interest in the former. Senior and powerful RSS leaders like Krishna Gopal and Dattatreya Hosabale, the number-two man in the organisation only next to Mohan Bhagwat, have addressed FOFA meetings. While Chandra Wadhwa, RSS functionary in charge of the RSS’ ‘vishesh sampark’ or ‘special initiatives’ project, and India Foundation trustee, is the only non-ambassador who regularly posts RSS documents on the Forum’s WhatsApp group.
Some would say, so what? After all, the RSS makes no secret of wanting to make friends and influence people, so what’s wrong if it seeks to win over a group of retired Indian diplomats?
As for the diplomats in question, it is entirely up to them if they want to be guided and influenced by one or another thought process or ideology – after all, the freedom to practice and believe in anything you want is the underpinning of a democratic state.
In which case, one might ask, why the secrecy? Why does FOFA want to hide its association with the RSS? Last week’s letter, in fact, makes no mention of the fact that FOFA has such a relationship with the ruling BJP’s ideological mentor.
Questions to FOFA’s convenor, Bhaswati Mukherjee, and Chandra Wadhwa, asked around the time Hosabale addressed the forum some months ago, did not yield any response. “Speak to the Ambassadors,” was all that Wadhwa would say.
Certainly, this is not the first time that the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) has been split wide open. Former IFS officer Brajesh Mishra, who became famous for his interaction with Mao Ze Dong (when Mao ‘smiled‘ at Brajesh Mishra) when he was posted in Beijing in 1970, quit the service in 1981 because he disagreed with Indira Gandhi’s refusal to openly condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; he later joined the BJP in 1991 and became Vajpayee’s powerful National Security Advisor in 1998.
It’s not even the first time that a former diplomat has joined politics and become a serving external affairs minister like S. Jaishankar. Former IFS officer of the 1953 batch, K. Natwar Singh, joined the Congress in 1984 and became minister of state in Rajiv Gandhi’s government and a full-fledged minister in 2004, when the Congress returned to power under Manmohan Singh. Mani Shankar Aiyar, who resigned from the IFS in 1989 to join the Congress party and later became petroleum minister, has been very critical of the BJP.
The charge of former diplomats turning politically partisan doesn’t hold water — that’s what they are expected to do.
IFS officers have joined all kinds of political parties — Pavan Varma joined Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal in 2013; Meira Kumar joined Congress in 1985 and rose to become social justice and empowerment minister in 2004 and Speaker in 2009; while Hardeep Singh Puri, minister for urban affairs and civil aviation in the current Modi government, joined the BJP in 2014.
With us or against us
In today’s deeply polarised politics, George W. Bush’s “you’re with us, or against us” mentality prevails. Even the simple act of asking a question, for example, about Modi’s June 2020 statement at the all-party meeting that neither was there any intrusion by China into India nor were any posts taken, is treated as unnecessary interest.
But what is significant is that FOFA criticism of the “other side’s” view on how India should deal with China – for example, maximising benefits by allowing controlled entry of Chinese investments into India – is exactly what the Modi government is contemplating. Principal Economic Advisor Sanjeev Sanyal had said in March that “except for strategically sensitive sectors,” India will clear Chinese investment proposals.
“If someone wants to set up a button factory in India, how does it matter if the company is from America, Indonesia or China,” Sanyal had asked.
Meanwhile, FOFA believes that criticism of the Modi government’s handling of the Covid pandemic is akin to “joining with foreign lobbies…to diminish the PM’s image at home and abroad.” FOFA might remember that it was Indira Gandhi who first mastered the “foreign hand” argument, as she shut down dissent at home. And now it seems dissent is breaking out in the forum itself after the publication of the letter.
Time was when foreign affairs was the glue that brought politicians of different hues together – the most memorable example being in 1994, when PM P.V. Narasimha Rao asked Vajpayee to lead the Indian team at the Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva to counter international criticism on the human rights situation in Kashmir and lingering criticism of the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid.
Today, India’s diplomats are ranged on either side of the fight for India’s soul. The RSS has picked its own. Will it be a fight to the finish?
The author is a consulting editor. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)