This Article is From Jun 16, 2014

'Why Modi Shouldn't Disdain Chamchas' by Shashi Tharoor

(Dr. Shashi Tharoor, a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram and the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development, is the author of 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.)

On June 12, new Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with the young diplomats of the 2012 batch of the Indian Foreign Service. According to press reports, he told them four things which point to his international priorities in the years ahead. One is right, one is partly right, one is wrong and one is disastrously wrong.

According to PMO sources, the Prime Minister told the group of 29 young Indian would-be envoys that their focus should be on expansion of trade and commerce and technology transfer; they should become "catalytic agents to convey the strengths of India to the world, so that mutually beneficial exchanges can take place." This is right. The days when diplomacy consisted largely of attending receptions and meetings (and faithfully reporting every marginally-useful snippet of political speculation to an indifferent Headquarters) have given way to the era of diplomacy as business. Every Indian diplomat must understand that his or her brief includes the facilitation of trade, the promotion of India as an investment destination and the smoothing of barriers for Indian businessmen abroad and foreign ones wishing to come to India. This is no longer something to be sneered at as beneath the dignity of a diplomatic grandee; it is the very warp and woof of modern diplomacy. In this the Prime Minister -- the first Indian leader who seems capable of echoing US President Calvin Coolidge in claiming that "the business of India is business" - is indisputably right.

But then he seems to have gone too far. Asking them to focus on 'zero-defect manufacturing' and 'packaging and presentation' to boost exports, the PM apparently illustrated his argument by stating that Indian herbal medicines were among the best in the world, but are lagging behind Chinese products in the world markets because of poor packaging. Similarly, he told the young diplomats, they needed to ensure that the huge diversity and range of Indian handicrafts is presented better to the world; they have not been made or showcased properly. Fair enough, but this is not for diplomats to remedy: the PM's diagnosis is right but his prescription is wrong. The problem embodied in the PM's accurate observation is one that needs to be fixed at home, by manufacturers and a vigilant regulatory system, not by diplomats. As the BJP itself has observed in a different context, if the product has flaws, no amount of marketing will sell it. The same applies to diplomats: they can only represent Indian products as they are. Making them better, and packaging them better, is the job of manufacturers and the government at home, not of diplomats.

Understandably, the PM seems to have affected the fashionable disdain for the fripperies associated with diplomacy - the "alcohol, protocol and Geritol" aspects lampooned by many in the past. "Chammach kahan rakhna hain... in sab baton se hatke kaam karo," he is reported to have said. ("Where your spoons have to be laid... ignore that kind of issue and do your work"). Sorry Modiji, aisa desh ka kaam nahin chalega. If you don't know where to place your spoons when hosting a diplomatic dinner, you come across as gauche or uncultured, and are regarded by foreigners - the others you are trying to win over with your hospitality -- accordingly. There is a reason why the procedures of protocol, forms of address, laying of tables and so on were devised and followed by diplomats around the world. They provide the common basis or platform for dialogue and civilized discourse without which the more substantive discussions and understandings would not be possible. No, you can't afford to get your spoons wrong.

Finally, Prime Minister Modi also seems to have reverted to his nativist populism of old by telling the young IFS trainees not to be swayed by the cultures of the developed countries they would be posted in, but to take pride in projecting the strengths of Mother India. "Apni ma phate purane kapdon mein bhi toh ma hoti hain," he told them in Hindi according to press accounts; "aur mausi agar ache kapdon mein ho toh bhi mausi hi rehti hain." ("Your mother's still your mother even in old and torn clothes, whereas your aunt, even in her best finery, is still an aunt.") Aside from an unsuspected and almost Wodehousean, distaste for aunts, what Modiji's statement implies is the very antithesis of what an effective diplomat should do. Diplomats should be curious about, and receptive to, the outside world; they should seek to engage with and understand the cultures of the countries to which they are accredited. If you want to represent India effectively to a Ruritanian, you will do by taking an interest in Ruritania and its way of doing things, learning its language and customs, and listening to its concerns. The Modi notion of diplomacy as stoutly resisting the siren call of foreign countries while haranguing others about the strengths of your own is wrong-headed and downright dangerous. No one will listen to you if you behave like that; and why should they? The very thought is disastrously wrong.

So here's my advice to the young IFS trainees who have just emerged wide-eyed from their audience with the Prime Minister: listen to him attentively, as you must. Heed his exhortations and feel inspired, if you are. But go back and listen to what your seniors taught you in basic diplomatic training. Unlike the Prime Minister, they've been there. They know what it takes to tell the India story to foreigners. And here's wishing you all success in doing so.

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