A few years ago, a delightful book, Parting Shots, came to hand. It was a collection of valedictory telegrams, or simply ‘valedictories’, written at the end of their posting, or of their career, by British ambassadors. According to a century-old tradition in the British foreign office, ambassadors were encouraged to pull out all the stops in these freewheeling despatches. The result: elegantly written essays, marked by candour and humour, in which the departing envoy let rip at everything in sight—local customs, personalities, habits, headquarters, the future of the world and so on. When the ambassador happened to be retiring, the valedictory assumed an even greater significance. The fact that the valedictories were widely circulated and occasionally went up to Buckingham Palace was incentive enough for the extra turn of phrase. When the circulation was restricted in 2006 after some embarrassing leaks, the practice sadly withered.
Indian diplomacy has a less structured and more circumspect tradition. Ambassadors leave handing-over notes for their successors and many a time a retiring envoy shoots off a letter to all his colleagues. Circulation is limited to the recipient or, at best, within the foreign office. Perhaps all that is to the good; one shudders to think of the controversies that would be generated if full freedom of expression was given in the form of a widely-circulated final parting shot.
India and the World, edited by ambassador Surendra Kumar, is a far more serious and altogether safer collection than Parting Shots. Kumar confesses that collating the book was an “exhausting and exasperating experience”, as he beseeched, cajoled, flattered, persuaded or threatened his former colleagues to contribute. Nevertheless, the end result is impressive and brings within its covers the experience—over 1,180 man-years of diplomatic service—of 33 ambassadors spanning three generations, from the grey eminences to the very senior to the only just retired. At one extreme are career-wide reminiscences of two of the most senior contributors—ambassadors Eric Gonsalves and C.V. Ranganathan, full of charm and fast vanishing memories of the time, for instance, when diplomatic conversations between India and Colombo had to resort to air-Radio Ceylon channels or of Z.A. Bhutto tearing up a draft Security Council resolution and walking out. On the other extreme, we have serious, academic pieces on nuclear energy, arms control and energy security. Packed in between are analyses of important bilateral relationships—with India’s neighbours, major powers, regional organisations and the multilateral system. Diplomacy is often a matter of style and each ambassador’s is reflected in his contribution, ranging from that of the flamboyant commander of conference rooms to the poker-faced, behind-the-scenes player. But differ though they may in tone and tenor, the essays are uniformly well-researched and analysed and written with the advantage of the insider, given that they are mostly about the author’s last posting.
The book should prove invaluable to the scholar and the layman in providing an insight into important aspects of India’s engagement with the world. Given the pace at which international relations evolve, several essays will in time require an update. When that happens, the editor of a similar anthology may consider taking a hint from Parting Shots and include more of the telling personal details and enriching anecdotes, of which diplomatic life has plenty.