Hardeep Singh Puri, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party and former permanent representative of India to the United Nations says in the last six or seven years, the foreign office has not been encouraged to make its contribution. In an interview with Akshat Kaushal, he speaks on why he made a career change.
What was the inspiration behind joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?
There are only two national parties. If there is disillusionment on the national security front with one of them, and the other party has a very clear position on national security, then the question itself stands answered. I have been an admirer of the BJP and its approach to national security, which is anchored more deeply in a sense of nationalism. For me, the issue was not whether I would join the BJP or some other party, but when I would join it.
It seems you are suggesting that the Congress is less nationalistic than the BJP.
I did not say that. The Congress is a party with a great history, but currently the party and the political leadership have been separated. The prime minister often says he is not the public face of the Congress. But the policy responses have been less than successful.
Critics will accuse you of being an opportunist. You want to associate with the BJP because it is seen as more likely to win the elections. You could have waited until after the elections to join the party...
People are entitled to their views. I have had a long association with people in the political spectrum. I wanted to give it a little time after I retired. I should have joined it (the BJP) in 2013 because by then I would have completed one year of retirement. I have waited because I wanted to ensure I have spent enough time after leaving active service.
Perhaps you were one of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's aides while you were in the foreign service. But, it seems, you were never comfortable working with his policies. Which aspect of his foreign policy do you disagree with?
I was certainly one of the senior-most officers in the foreign service, but to describe me as an aide would not be correct. The PM has only one adviser, which is National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon. To that extent, the PM has done himself a disservice by keeping such a narrow base. I do not believe that other avenues of advice which were available to the PM were fully exhausted - both at the political and civil service level.
One of the prime requirements in running an effective foreign policy machine is that you must allow the professionals, who work on the issues on the day-to-day basis, to be heard and consulted. It is entirely incomprehensible that the joint secretary dealing with Pakistan is excluded from bilateral summit level talks. It is well known that in the last six or seven years, the foreign office has not been encouraged to make its contribution. This has found very bold expression in the running of our policies in relations to Pakistan and China. His entirely peculiar desire to make the pyramid stand on its head and have the discussion at the PM-level, when you have the possibility of discussion at the JS level, I think, is playing to a certain audience.
So, do we have a demoralised ministry of external affairs (MEA)?
It will be unfair for me to categorise the ministry of external affairs in those terms. I find it extremely painful to say these things against the political establishment of the day. But they have to be said in order for correctives to be introduced. The MEA has a capable head of service. She is known to be courageous and outspoken, and will resolve all the issues.
What was wrong with the government's handling of the Devyani Khobragade case?
If you don't draw red lines and you don't address them in case of transgression then you convey to the other side that it can get away with almost anything. This is precisely what has happened in this case. There have been serious issues, serious provocations, of prescribed consular courtesies immunities and privileges being violated by the American side. There are issues of reciprocity involved here. When two of India's senior-most ambassadors were frisked at US airports, there was no attempt to introduce reciprocal action against the American envoy in India. I was asked to pat my turban, but I refused. They detained me for a short while, but then came and apologised. A former president of India got frisked at a US airport. But, more serious than this the daughter of a Indian consular official was locked up for 24 hours in New York for something that turned up to be a trumped-up charge. The Indian government should have asked the Americans about their interpretation of the Vienna Convention. If they were interpreting the Convention in a completely different way, that is, in terms of limited immunity then we should have discussed that issue with them.
But how could the government have handled this case differently?
For four years you tolerated American transgressions. If you would have questioned them earlier, then the Khobragade case would have never taken place. The Khobragade case is, at best, an issue that involves a dispute between an employer and an employee. The government of India has demonstrated that the employer was paying the wages which were required. The government, having not discussed with the Americans, found that Americans were unlikely to apologise and we got ourselves in this situation. I do believe the handling of the case after it took place is fine, but we should have not allowed matters to come to this pass.
You don't agree that Khobragade was not paying the minimum wages according to the US laws?
She interpreted the law to mean the salary of the employer. My own sense is Devyani's basic pay and all allowances put together barely make $4,000. Her contract with the maid says she has to pay $1,600 a month, which she was paying. So, where is the violation?
How will this episode affect Indo-US relations?
There are some consequences that will not go away. The ban on Americans running commercial facilities in diplomatic premises is unlikely to be lifted. But this is a wake-up call. Too many people in our system like to call it a strategic relationship, where everything was going on well. Those who were dealing with Indo-US relationship, like former Indian Ambassador to the US, Nirupama Rao, need to have a reality check. The rest of us were saying there was a policy paralysis, substantial issues were not moving, but the other side was projecting a rosy picture.
In 2005, the US took away Narendra Modi's visa. What would you advice him?
Modi has not applied for a visa since 2005. Everybody's advice to him has also been to not apply for a visa. The basis on which the visa was taken way by the US has turned out to be a case of fabrication of evidence and a litany of lies. The judicial clearance demonstrates that whoever took the decision on taking away his visa made a mistake. I believe he should not apply for a visa now and wait for some time.
If he has done no wrong, as you suggest, why are you advising that he should wait?
You need a visa to travel. Modi is busy with his campaigns in India. When he needs to travel to the US, he will apply for a visa.