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The poet diplomat: Story of former Indian foreign secretary MK Rasgotra

The story of former Indian foreign secretary MK Rasgotra’s life is also a narrative of India’s evolution from a newly independent nation to a credible global player. His book provides fascinating insights into the individuals and events that shaped India’s foreign policy

books Updated: Jun 18, 2016 11:02 IST
SD Muni
SD Muni
Hindustan Times
Rasgotra,india's foreign secretary rasgotra,indian foreign policy
President Zail Singh, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, PV Narasimha Rao and Foreign Secretary Maharaja Krishna Rasgotra at Palam Airport to receive President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt on 30 November, 1982. (Virendra Prabhakar/HT)

Foreign policy discourse in India is becoming increasingly lively. The energy and dynamism injected by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India’s foreign policy have added spice and glamour to the debate. Substance, however, has come from scholarly writings and informed personal accounts published by retired and distinguished policy makers and diplomats.

Books by former foreign secretaries like KPS Menon, Subimal Dutt, YD Gundevia, TN Kaul, Kewal Singh, JN Dixit, Muchkund Dubey and Krishnan Srinivasan stand out as a class by themselves. The latest addition to this category by Rasgotra is different from many of its predecessors for its unique thrust and flavour.

This is the story of a “poet diplomat” as Rasgotra was once introduced to Mrs Gandhi. It is a narrative of India’s evolution from a newly independent nation to a credible global player, while the author rose to the heights of becoming a distinguished diplomat from an ordinary college teacher. The book has many notable aspects. To begin with, it portrays the persona of the author; a soft and sublime poet, a devoted family man and a committed practitioner of diplomacy. Supported by Sardar Khushwant Singh and inspired by Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Rasgotra published his first collection of poems (Do Partain) by 1957, which was read and appreciated even by Prime Minister Nehru. Another collection of poems remains unpublished.

A family man, he is a conscientious son, a loving husband, who graciously acknowledged the contribution of his wife in his life and career, and is an affectionate and caring father. The book also tells us about his spiritual encounter with Satya Sai Baba’s “Divine Effulgence” (p279), and his supple and throbbing heart which was always vulnerable to Keat’s “thing of beauty”. He confesses the flamboyance of his heart which leapt “up into a rumba dance” on first seeing Vijay Laxmi (Nepali leader BP Koirala’s sister), “as a young beauty”. (p308).

PV Narasimha Rao, MK Rasgotra and US ambassador to India, Harry G Barnes Jr., receiving US secretary of state George P Shultz on 29 June 1983. (Virendra Prabhakar/HT)

The book provides fascinating insights into the individuals and events that shaped India’s foreign policy. Nehru’s architectural role and enduring legacy, as also Mrs Gandhi’s astute firmness and strategic pragmatism inspired and reinforced the author’s professional confidence and resolve. Nehru bashers would do well to learn from Rasgotra’s account that Nehru was the first to deploy back channel diplomacy in vain to encourage Tibet to seek UN membership much before the Chinese militarily occupied it (p7). On Kashmir, Nehru did not invoke Chapter VII of the UN Charter to avoid the possibility of Pakistan’s US and British mentors’ direct UNSC-authorised military intervention (p382). Nehru’s attempts to straighten the military bulge in Poonch before accepting the UN Ceasefire Resolution was frustrated by the British Indian commander Roy Bucher (p383).

Nehru’s Ambassadors, ranging from Vijay Lakshmi Pandit to S Radhakrishnan, Krishna Menon, and KM Panikkar, as also many others, whom Rasgotra had the occasions to work with, like Sir GS Bajpai, Subimal Dutt, CS Jha and LK Jha, have been analysed for their strengths and weaknesses. Turf wars (ICS v/s IFS v/s Political Appointees), ego clashes and petty personal rivalries that are inevitable sins of human dealings have not been absent in India’s diplomatic conduct. It is disturbing to know how Sir GS Bajpai worked to counter Nehru’s China policy through Sardar Patel’s famous letter of 7th November 1950. (p8, 9 and 13). Ambassador LK Jha went even further to denigrate Foreign Minister Dinesh Singh, TN Kaul and PN Haksar as being sold out to the Soviets on the 1971 Treaty, (p 253-54). One wonders if there are any accountability procedures in the MEA against such serious lapses.

Read:Rasgotra, Nehru and the N word: History with a twist?

The author made a personal mark on many of India’s diplomatic moves. Among them are the struggle for African decolonisation at the UN during the 1950s, the aborted Second Afro-Asian conference planned by China and Pakistan in 1965 to isolate India, the opening of fresh engagement with the US in 1982, resolving the Tarapur nuclear fuel issue in the face of internal resistance from Foreign Minister Narasimha Rao and G Parthasarathy, and the structural streamlining of the MEA in New Delhi and the Indian Mission in London. Rasgotra’s narrative underlines India’s struggle to find its place in the world in the face of opposition from powers like US and UK and hostility of neighbours like China and Pakistan.

The two countries that the author worked in and liked most are Nepal and the US. The US gave India anxious moments during Nehru’s period but it put up the strongest opposition during the emergence of Bangladesh, denting Rasgotra’s ‘guru’ like image of Dr Henry Kissinger. Rasgotra and India’s Washington Mission worked hard to mobilise American public and bureaucratic opinion against the Nixon-Kissinger “tilt” towards Pakistan. The “tilt” failed because the US underestimated India’s diplomatic resilience, ingenuity and guts, and Kissinger failed to practice the principles enunciated in his own book, A World Restored. (p266-67).

Rasgotra explored Nepal the most through extensive tours and engagements. His is the best understanding of its people and politics. His lament for King Mahendra and his sons not respecting the true value of democracy, therefore, appears to be misplaced. The Palace, since Mahendra’s reign, had become the hub of what the author describes as the “Durand Syndrome”, of playing China or other forces against India in pursuance of its narrow survival and prosperity (p310). This reviewer wishes the book also had a critical assessment of India’s approach and policies that played through cronies at the cost of long term national interests i.e. democracy, security and hydropower. Pakistan, another neighbour, will continue to remain a real challenge for India’s policy makers, as underlined by the author in his confidential, informative and analytical assessment of talks with General Musharraf in August 2000. (pp404-412).

The book has much more than all this. There is an over view of India’s foreign policy and its possible future directions cast within the framework of Kautilya’s Mandala principles. Written beautifully, with well-chosen words and skilfully crafted sentences, it is a smooth, enjoyable read. Policy makers as well as critical observers and analysts of India’s foreign policy will find it immensely useful.

SD Muni is professor emeritus, JNU and former special envoy and ambassador.

A Life in Diplomacy
MK Rasgotra
Viking Penguin Books
PP 437; Rs 699

First Published: Jun 17, 2016 21:44 IST