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The business of diplomacy

Sanjaya Baru  |  New Delhi 

A good diplomat, it used to be said, was one who knew how to handle protocol and alcohol. The practitioners of the trade, however, long believed that diplomacy was all about statecraft, about handling treaties and traitors. Political work was regarded “high” diplomacy while commercial work was “low diplomacy”. In keeping with this world view, the elite Indian Foreign Service (IFS) was quite happy to leave commercial work to members of the lesser cadres in the civil service.

The world of the Indian diplomat has changed. An important chronicler of this change has been former diplomat Kishan Singh Rana (IFS, 1960), ambassador and high commissioner to many countries and author of many including (2000), (2002) and (2004). Rana has teamed up with to produce this book under review — a compilation of essays by Indian practitioners of 21st century diplomacy.

A set of 27 chapters divided into five sections (including sections on export promotion, investment and economic aid, managing networks and regulatory environment), the book offers a glimpse of the actual practice of commercial/ trade/business/economic diplomacy by Indian diplomats.

The range of essays written by some of India’s bright diplomats – many still serving – shows the long road already travelled. Foreign service officers are quite happy to take pride in not just crafting free trade agreements and multilateral economic diplomacy, but also in helping promote the export of Indian garments and fashion (Apoorva Srivastava, IFS 2001), Indian footwear (V S Seshadri, IFS 1978), frozen meat and tea (A Gopinathan IFS 1977), granite (Harsh V Shringla, IFS 1984) and mangoes (Sujan Chinoy, IFS 1981) to China. Nothing is too small, nothing belongs to the “low road”. The very fact that serving officers are willing to take pride in having done their bit for Indian producers and business marks a sea change in attitudes to commercial diplomacy.

The sheer range of issues tackled in this slim volume makes this a worthwhile read. Jawed Ashraf’s (IFS 1991) essay on hydropower diplomacy in Nepal is a useful comment on an example of as yet unsuccessful diplomacy, while Leela Ponappa’s essay on the India-Sri Lanka free trade agreement is a testimony to the role of political leadership. It was Atal Bihari Vajpayee who took the initiative, over-ruling objections from many in government and the consistent lobbying of Indian business and plantation interests.

The book’s strength is that it gives a flavour of new Indian diplomacy. The book’s weakness is that it just gives a flavour. These are mostly first-person accounts of actual experience, with little contextualising. Many of these chapters could easily have given more information, some data, more background and some additional reading. Most chapters read more like hurriedly written recollections than well-thought-out essays. Even Tarun Das’ essay on track-two diplomacy could have been more detailed given that he has contributed enormously and has wealth of information at his fingertips on how track-two dialogues funded by Indian business facilitated track-one initiatives.

Businessman Som Mittal’s forward-looking essay on the industry-government partnership offers policy makers and diplomats a useful guide on how to improve on existing experience. Mittal emphasises the value of public diplomacy, with the involvement of business in it, for the pursuit of the larger goals of both economic and political diplomacy.

The concluding essay by Rana and Chatterjee has some useful suggestions for improving Indian business and economic diplomacy, but here, too, more could have been offered to the reader drawing on the specific experience of individual diplomats as recorded in the various chapters of the book.

The fact that Indian diplomacy has come a long way in its willingness to grapple with the challenge of promoting Indian trade and business does not mean that enough is being done. Many Indian business leaders complain that they do not get enough assistance from Indian embassies abroad in the way Western embassies in India help Western businesses. More importantly, residents of other countries complain that Indian missions are neither well-equipped nor well-staffed to deal with business and commercial enquiries.

While the profile of business and business persons has risen in Indian diplomacy, India is still far behind both Western and east Asian countries, which unabashedly bring business interests to the centre of diplomacy. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Finland, his counterpart was quite happy to seat the President of Nokia next to him at an official banquet, rather than a senior Cabinet colleague, offering the Nokia boss a unique opportunity to promote his business interests with a visiting head of government. In New Delhi’s Hyderabad House, business leaders rank along with additional secretaries in the protocol hierarchy at official banquets!

and (edited)
CUTS International, Jaipur, 2011
285 pp; Rs 450

First Published: Wed, April 27 2011. 00:11 IST