"I am going to show you something I am very proud of," says Michel Steiner, German ambassador to India, one of the busiest diplomats in Delhi, at ease with living under a probing, public gaze. What he shows you is a Sunbeam Talbot of 1944 vintage, which once belonged to the King of Kashmir. This vehicle was to be used for St Nicholas's (a sort of Santa Claus) day. On December 6, every year, St Nicholas arrives on an elephant at the German embassy to greet students. This year, he came riding the Talbot.
Steiner likes to do things in style. His style of diplomacy has, however, got him into the headlines, and, at times, into a controversy. The 2013 Zubin Mehta concert in Kashmir organised by his embassy, for instance, got him mixed press. Steiner says his objective was clear. For him it was a concert for the people of Kashmir "conveying a message of hope".
A former career diplomat requesting "absolute anonymity" considers it a publicity coup. "How many diplomats would dare to do something like that in a state like Kashmir? Steiner may come across as over-enthusiastic but in political parlance, it is being pro-active at his job, though in a country like India, it may backfire." The event was beamed live in 55 countries and, seen in that light, it was an undeniable success.
"We had to face some opposition, but in the end it all went off well", says Steiner, who belongs to Bavaria, the land of exotic sausages and a beer-loving people. The envoy, however, has turned vegetarian for some years now. He relishes all sorts of kulfi and grilled paneer. Though diplomacy is often an inescapable mix of both alcohol and protocol, he doesn't even sip wine.
What seems to drive him are on-the-job challenges in the country of his posting. One such challenge was hosting Narendra Modi, then the Gujarat chief minister, for a lunch, two months after taking office in India and soon after Modi became chief minister for a third term.
"We are representatives of foreign governments. India is a democracy with active democratic institutions. We have to go by the decision of the people. I felt we should end the policy of not reaching out to the leader, " says the envoy on his decision to invite Modi for a lunch, one of the early signs of Europeans ending their decade-old non-engagement with Modi.
Why was no such overture made when Modi was chief minister for a second term? Was it because a BJP government at the Centre was still not a certainty? "I wasn't ambassador during his second term," he says diplomatically, while revealing that most EU envoys were supportive about the move.
Sanskrit replacing German in Kendriya Vidyalayas, has, of course, put Steiner in the hot seat. He has been vocal about the issue and reached out to all players including RSS ideologues. But he declines to comment further. India has taught him many lessons in life, he says. "Unlike other countries in the region (he has served in Pakistan and Afghanistan), in India, things get done but it may take time. But it will get done," he says.
Indians, too, have their own impressions, good ones, about Germans. "Many people here think all Germans are very hard-working. That is not the case," says the envoy with a chuckle. "India is an old country and an old civilisation with inherent strengths. It has great promise, not just in the IT sector."
About Indian bureaucracy, he holds back his praise. "A changing India needs a bureaucracy that adapts to change faster," he says.
India and Germany are poised for an important diplomatic calendar year in 2015. Narendra Modi will be visiting Germany in April and chancellor Angela Merkel will be paying a return visit. Both countries are looking for greater cooperation in technology and skill development. Germans are also eyeing a multi-billion-dollar defence deal in case an Indo-French deal doesn't come through. So despite the bad blood over the Sanskrit issue, the ties between India and the biggest economy in the European Union is on an ambitious track.