Book Review | India vs UK – The story of an unprecedented diplomatic win

Updated: October 09, 2021 12:37 PM

Akbar and I, both batch mates, retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2020, within one month of each other. Both of us hung up our boots as the world stumbled into the grip of the first wave of Covid…we both could not fly out of our respective stations due to lockdowns.

India UK tiesThe book gives us a lesson in how to win friends and influence people.

By (Mrs) Amb Narinder Chauhan, 

Akbar and I, both batch mates, retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2020, within one month of each other. Both of us hung up our boots as the world stumbled into the grip of the first wave of Covid…we both could not fly out of our respective stations due to lockdowns. Eventually, the special flights of the Vande Bharat Mission took us out to India, and, back home, when I shared notes with Padma, Akbar’s wife, she gave me the heads up that he was writing a book! Here we are with a brilliant piece of literary work “India vs UK” by ‘Akbar the Great’, as I always prefer to call Syed Akbaruddin. True to his calling, Akbar never lets you down! Well, then, he has the special talent to translate the proverbial song and music of diplomacy into a treatise focused on one, but arguably a landmark event, the election of Justice Dalveer Bhandari to the International Court of Justice in 2017.

Syed AkbaruddinAkbar rightly recalls India’s firm commitment to multilateralism.

Though winning elections in international bodies has become a habit for India, this election remains sui generis. India’s success, in the ultimate analysis, drew upon India’s civilizational attributes and its credentials as a modern and democratic society. Apart from the process of elections at the UN that the book minutely brings out, internationally it was seen as the privileged post World War II order giving way to the collective will of the membership of the UN. The mandarins of diplomacy will read it ‘as an example of a stabilizing development in an age of revisionism…’

A diplomat is like a duck who wades the waters with a very calm and serene exterior, what is not visible is the furiously pedaling away of the legs underneath…the book brings out in diary form how Indian diplomacy collectively pedalled away to victory, with heavy lifting by Akbar and his team in New York. It brings out in the minutest of detail the skills required to wade through the humongous United Nations General Assembly, and the more exclusive United Nations Security Council, of which we are currently a non permanent member, but with aspirations to be a permanent one. The entire project was executed with war-like planning, precision and discipline, down to the importance of body language, the ‘whispers’ in the corridors etc.

The book brings out, among other nuggets, the importance of nurturing ties with a broad spectrum of States, ‘if some have their own priorities still others can be counted upon to support us’. It is very heartening to be reminded that Belgrade, where I was Ambassador then, supported India. Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, used to be the capital of what are now 6 states of former Yugoslavia: Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovenia and North Macedonia. A capital that hosted the first summit of NAM in 1961 (the plaque can still be seen in the foyer of the impressive National Assembly of Serbia), Belgrade has remained a steadfast friend that India can always count upon. Serbians say they love India and that they do not know why…when their then PM and now President Aleksandar Vucic, met PM Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad in January, 2017, he said, ‘We are loyal people, and we will always be loyal to India…’ Which other HOS/HOG has ever said so on the Indian soil! I had the unique privilege when in 2017; Serbia abolished visas for all Indians, irrespective of the colour of passport, the only European country to have done so.

Akbar rightly recalls India’s firm commitment to multilateralism. This was very visible during the 70s and 80s when India rode like a colossus on the world stage in the movement against apartheid, a role that India has not been able to replicate since… I recall my time in the Africa Division of the Ministry of External Affairs as a junior officer when we signed the historic agreement on the establishment of diplomatic relations with South Africa, after 50 years of boycott!!! This agreement came at the end of 2 years of calibrated opening up of relations beginning with the release of Nelson Mandela-with every brick of apartheid falling; we took a step forward… and when we opened trade relations, overnight South Africa became our largest trade partner in Africa, and the largest market in Africa for our exports. Imagine the sacrifice that India and its people made because we stood up for values!!!! Multilateralism was once again in play in 2008, when as Joint Secretary in the Ministry; we rewrote our Africa policy and hosted the first historic ‘India Africa Forum Summit’. It is no surprise that Africa voted enmasse to make India a non permanent member of UNSC in 2011! And today, ‘India carries the burden of vaccinating the world’ as the US based ‘Foreign Policy’ journal puts it.

Akbar has alluded to the importance of soft power in diplomacy. In a more recent example, India’s soft power was in full play when The Indian Foreign Office spearheaded worldwide celebrations of the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi in 2018-19. It was decided, inter alia, that all Indian embassies abroad would arrange planting of 150 trees on the World Environment Day on 5 June which would be dedicated to Bapu @150. It was left to the Environment Ministry of the Czech Republic, where I was posted as Ambassador, to educate me that trees could not be planted in the month of June as they would die! However, in deference to the importance of the day, one tree was symbolically planted in the Indian embassy premises and the rest 149 later! Very thoughtfully, the host government decided to do so on October 2, the birthday of the Mahatma, and in a moving gesture chose a picturesque village to plant an orchard of 149 fruit trees with a memory plaque. And, in the ultimate tribute to the biggest Indian brand abroad, the Prime Minister of Czech Republic, Mr Andrej Babis himself came holding the spade to do the honours, along with his Environment Minister. Could there have been a greater tribute to India-‘the land of Gandhi’- as all school students of former Czechoslovakia are taught? That this soft power effort dovetailed with the country’s overall environment project was the proverbial icing on the cake!!! This finds special mention in a recent book written by the Czech PM who at the time of writing is seeking re-election!

He brings out the hands on and subtle handling of the matter of the election by then External Affairs Minister, the Late Smt Sushma Swaraj, who gave the required go ahead while clearly indicating that she was ready to assume full responsibility. Her finger on the pulse of the Indian Foreign Service cadre was of such high order that, for instance, in all my personal meetings, if I would begin a sentence she would finish it. In her, we had a Minister who ‘understood’ us. Further, she never failed her ilk….she always had time for Indian women ambassadors for a one on one meeting. She is missed. And in now EAM Dr S Jaishankar we have a Minister who will not shy away from listening to advice from his erstwhile junior colleagues.

The last minute help and understanding of the United States at the instance of their then Permanent Representative to the UN, Nimrata Nikki Haley (Randhawa), cited in the book, reminds me of the similarly helpful attitude of the European Union (EU) towards India in first half of the decade of 2000, in negotiating a deal with me, when I was posted as Counsellor/Minister in our Embassy in Brussels, to avoid a Panel at the Dispute Settlement Body(DSB) of the World Trade Organization (WTO), where India ran the risk of losing hands down. EU on its part wanted to save its ammunition for still higher stakes against the US (and China). How otherwise political and military allies can be at each others’ throats during trade wars!!! That this helped India buy time to change its trade defence rules to make them more WTO compatible, was an added bonus.

The book gives us a lesson in how to win friends and influence people. For this reason alone, the book is a must read as a guide to the theory and practice of diplomacy. Further, it should be prescribed as a text book in all liberal arts colleges and universities in India. Hopefully this case study will inspire civil service aspirants to list Indian Foreign Service (IFS) as their first option. Let me assure you, it’s a dream job.

(The book reviewer is a former ambassador. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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