RAW farewell in DC, bailed out in Bucharest, a sulking Bollywood star, Talbott waiting for a taxi: My very Indian Foreign Service.
It is a matter of printed record that I had promised this instalment of First Person, Second Draft along with the National Interest last week, questioning the ministry of external affairs’ over-the-top reaction to their diplomat-versus-her-maid issue in New York. So I can’t be accused of indulging myself with a convenient afterthought, given the sharp reaction from the Indian Foreign Service community. Let me admit that I have spent much of my working life with wonderful members of the same service. We journalists, particularly reporters, get a free ride on other people’s brilliance. Most of them were, in any case, civil servants, and given the kind of stories I pursued, so many were from the IFS. It is therefore that I count some of the finest members of the service as my closest personal friends. I spent many wonderfully productive hours with so many of them, and such fun evenings too. But I also argued with them, which sometimes upset some. There was a cover story in India Today (‘India’s Foreign Policy: Losing Direction’, December 15, 1991), which I reported with Shahnaz Anklesaria Aiyar, and considerably more recently, ‘Indian Fossil Service’ (National Interest, IE, June 28, 2003) and last week’s ‘Our Indian Feudal Service’ (National Interest, IE, December 21), the casus belli for now.
I can list many stories of brilliance as well as monumental errors of judgement, of sacrifice as well as greed, of pompous misuse of privilege as well as utterly humble propriety. But of all the services, if the IFS is the most thin-skinned (the IPS is obviously the most thick-skinned), there is reason for it. The fault lies, as usual, with us journalists. For decades, the MEA has had a most loyal press corps dutifully reporting all its diplomatic conquests. Every foreign visit by an Indian prime minister is a stunning success, every trouble with the neighbours invariably their fault. But the growth of media post-1977 slowly began challenging this. It is still a work in progress.
I have the survivor’s instinct to begin this story-telling with a character from the IPS, though in diplomatic garb. This was our RAW resident chief at our embassy in Washington in the mid-1980s, harmlessly designated minister (consular), but charged with keeping an eye on the CIA, ISI, Azad Kashmiris