In most democracies in recent years, many public figures, comprising politicians at all levels, senior civil servants and functionaries, including military officers, have shared their experiences and memories after hanging up their boots. The Whitehall lot started this trend in the mid-1950s and their counterparts across the Atlantic followed suit.
The French, always more eclectic, had titans like Andre Malraux writing about their experiences even when they were in office. Malraux published his autobiography, Antimémoires, in 1967, when he was still serving in President Charles de Gaulle’s government as minister of cultural affairs.
No such chutzpah for the desi lot. The rules just won’t allow it. In any case, it would have been very problematic if a book like Shyam Saran’s present one had been published when he was in office. The Official Secrets Act is usually cited to explain the scenario, and it must indeed be pointed out that the information Saran reveals in his book falls squarely within the purview of this draconian colonial legislation in a number of instances. More on this issue later.
Saran is an archetypal Lutyens zone glitterati. Once in, never out, is the rule by which this coterie runs itself. After having walked the corridors of power, these people never leave the scenes of their crimes, so to say. Some habitués of Raisina Hill have told this writer half-seriously that the spirits of people like Olaf Caroe (the notorious British foreign affairs czar, who drafted the Indian colony’s international posture) and his native successors still float around the splendid rooms of South Block, where our Foreign Ministry is located. Just for the record, we continue to use the quaint colonial terminology “Ministry of External Affairs” even though we should have redesignated it as Foreign Ministry after 1947.
In the case of Saran (using the abbreviation “SS” for him would be unfair), his career record in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) was a copybook one. He rose through the ranks, served the tricolour in various climes and was eventually anointed as Foreign Secretary. After he retired, he served as prime minister Manmohan Singh’s special envoy for nuclear affairs and climate change, and as chairman of the National Security Advisory Board. A substantial portion of this book pertains to this part of his career.
At the very beginning, Saran clarifies that this book is neither a “typical memoir” nor “a thesis on India’s foreign policy”, though it does contain elements of these two genres, as it logically should. It starts off with a rambling discourse on the country’s cultural roots, including complicated themes like Hindu cosmology, Kautilya’s elucidation of the doctrines of statecraft etc. Saran then focuses on how this cultural dimension panned out in independent India’s foreign policy doctrines from 1947 till the end of the Cold War and in the complicated post-Cold War world.
Saran then assesses our neighbours Pakistan, China and Nepal, and how they impact our foreign policy. He clarifies that he has chosen these three countries because of his own personal experience and understanding. It is not clear why he excluded Myanmar from this list, since he also served as our man in Yangon, and his readers would have benefited from his insight into this important neighbour of ours.
The third segment studies the impact of globalisation and technological upheavals on what he terms a “borderless world”. Here, Saran covers the India-US nuclear deal and the climate change debates and accords, including the Copenhagen summit that was a painful episode for India. Finally, in the last section, he studies the future scenario, with special emphasis on the space, cyber and maritime worlds.
It is more fruitful if we look at the first, third and last aspects of Saran’s book and return to the second theme at the end. It is now almost obligatory for scholarly tomes on politics, society, economy and law to have a quick glance at our civilisational roots. Saran is no exception and in this book there is the requisite obeisance to our Indic roots and their impact on statecraft and governance. There is an interesting reference to Sardar K M Pannikar’s work The Principles and Practice of Diplomacy. One can well imagine Saran and his confreres poring over this tome in the library and corridors of Sapru House in the heart of the capital, where the IFS mandarins in their probationary period underwent their training courses after descending from the balmy heights of Mussoorie’s National Academy of Administration, now renamed after Lal Bahadur Shastri.
This segment really does not get to grips with the issues it raises. There are tantalising vignettes that promise to give the reader deep insights, but Saran chooses to deal with them cursorily. He contrasts “the brutal world” of Kautilya’s Arthashastra with Ashoka’s stand that state policy must be based on a moral obligation for the welfare of the people. Saran interprets the well-known moral stance of vasudhaiva kutumbakam as “common humanity”, a surprising and misleading interpretation, when the widely and generally accepted version would be about the entire world being one family.
More interestingly, he says approvingly that P V Narasimha Rao, among all Indian leaders, represented the Kautilyan mind most completely. Yet, Saran’s admiration for Jawaharlal Nehru is evident throughout the book. In fact, while summarising India’s stance in international affairs as originally crafted by Nehru, he says that it was “well thought out and crafted and a reasonably potent weapon. It is our delivery system that leaves much to be desired”. How he manages to delink these two integrated aspects of foreign policy is something that only he can clarify.
Saran’s book becomes interesting when, in Part Three, he discusses the negotiations in the areas of energy security and climate change that he took part in. As Manmohan Singh’s Man Friday, Saran had a ringside view and also participated personally in many of the parleys. For most readers, these pages provide glimpses of the hard realities of international affairs and the author must be complimented on his insightful appraisals of the issues as well as the personalities he dealt with. He was clearly a meticulous observer, even when he was an active participant.
The last two chapters of Part Three are Saran’s personal assessments of what the future offers, both for our country as well as to the international community. These are reflective in nature and it would not be fair to critique one person’s worldview. Certainly, Saran’s distinguished career as a diplomat and a civil servant gives him a clear comparative advantage in the book’s concluding segment. There is a caveat, though. Saran cannot avoid the usual refrain of the Lutyens oligarchy when he sermonises on issues like the “inalienable” right of an individual to “live life the way he or she chose to” and even better, that “no monochromatic ideology” should be allowed to reign. Purple prose, if ever there was such a thing.
I now propose to go back to the only section of Saran’s book that is turning out to be hugely controversial. This is Chapter Five, titled “The Pakistani Puzzle”, where he discloses in unambiguous language how he and his Pakistani counterpart, Riaz Mohammed Khan, worked out a deal in 2006 that would have effectively ended the presence of the Indian Army and Air Force in the Siachen glacier. The Indian forces would redeploy and the vacated area would be jointly monitored by both sides. This amazing sleight of hand would cost the Pakistanis nothing, because their troop positions were of no danger to us.
The PM, Manmohan Singh, evidently tasked Saran to work on this agreement. Saran brags for the record how he worked ceaselessly to bring the key Indian players “on board” the harakiri express. The passengers included the-then army chief J J Singh and the ground details were allegedly worked out by the army headquarters. I would urge all Indian readers to carefully go through three pages (89–92) of Saran’s tome that give concise (and chilling) details about how a coterie in the UPA government was prepared to make a gigantic concession to Pakistan that would have compromised our national security permanently.
The conspirators included Shivraj Patil (home minister) and Pranab Mukherjee (defence minister). The mandarin who saved India’s bacon was national security advisor M K Narayanan. But for his steadfast refusal to approve Saran’s antics, India would have faced a suicidal fait accompli.
Saran and Manmohan Singh’s contemporary replay of Jai Chand’s treason is so grotesque that one has to read Saran’s bland and matter-of-fact recital of the events to fully grasp the enormity of what was planned. Revolutionary America and revolutionary France did not pardon their traitors as facilely as independent India does. Both Benedict Arnold and the Duke of Enghien were executed after they were caught out. I am by no means advocating drastic revolutionary justice of the 18th and early 19th centuries. However, even in 1945, the legendary Marshal Petain, once a French hero, was tried for collaboration and treason, and handed a life imprisonment. It was only the greatness of General de Gaulle that saved Petain from a firing squad.
Saran might have earned some grace, except for the unbridled arrogance with which he defends this action. A lifetime of national service is rendered nought by this episode. It is entirely appropriate that Manmohan Singh should write this book’s foreword. Enough said.
In conclusion, would a paraphrase of T.S. Eliot suffice? “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the wrong deed for the wrong reason.”
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