Those who miss Shashi Tharoor sorely in the ministry of external affairs are the ambassadors from the Gulf, Africa and Latin America, who are orphans once again as no minister, not even the concerned secretary, has any time for them. Former Ambassador TPS Sreenivasan recalls the minister of state's contribution, a year since his appointment
Shakespearean tragic heroes are known more for their tragic flaws than for their magical qualities. Hamlet was indecisive, Macbeth was ambitious, Othello was jealous and King Lear was vain.
But Hamlet was also a thoughtful and loyal son, Macbeth was a heroic warrior, Othello was a loving husband and King Lear was a doting father. 'Evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones,' as the Bard himself has said.
Being a minister of state in the ministry of external affairs must be very frustrating for any politician. The MoS has nothing to do with the sexy subjects the ministry deals with -- Pakistan, China, the United States, the other big powers and the United Nations.
Moreover, anyone who has no role in the posting and promotion of IFS officers directly or indirectly, has no clout in South Block. But there is so much to do in other areas and, given the right attitude and hard work, any MoS can make a mark and use the position as a stepping stone to climb greater heights.
Among the ministers of state that I have worked with between 1977 and 2004, the two who made the biggest impact were K Natwar Singh, on account of his direct access to the prime minister, and Salman Khurshid, by sheer brilliance and hard work. More recently, Anand Sharma and E Ahamed have proved their mettle and moved on to other positions.
Many others have fallen by the wayside as they were misfits in South Block. One of them read 'Namibia' as 'Nambiar', and another pronounced 'nodules' as 'noodles'. Covering their meetings with their counterparts was often embarrassing for professional diplomats. They held their breath in the hope that the minister would not say anything improper or undiplomatic.
Shashi Tharoor would have been a highly successful MoS in every respect, had he just focused on the work of his ministry. A senior official of the ministry of external affairs told me what a delight it was to work with Tharoor. He would read a brief once and understand all the nuances of the issues he had to deal with. After that, he would handle any meeting with aplomb because he understood the intricacies of international relations, with his long experience at the United Nations. He had no problem dealing with unexpected issues raised by his interlocutors and he was never lost for words. "It was a pleasure watching him at work," he said. This view was shared by many in the ministry of external affairs.
Those who miss him sorely in South Block are the ambassadors from the Gulf, Africa and Latin America, who are orphans once again as no minister, not even the concerned secretary, has any time for them. They are often at the mercy of the concerned joint secretaries, who would condescend to give them time only if there was some urgent business to do. Ambassadors would like to send cables home about conversations at the highest level possible and it is rarely that they get chances to go beyond the level of the territorial joint secretaries. Tharoor knew many of these ambassadors, who had served at the United Nations, and made it a point to meet all of them and even accepted their invitations to visit their embassies.
A delegation of Latin American ambassadors, which visited Thiruvananthapuram when Tharoor was the MoS, were all praise for him for the attention he gave them, particularly to facilitate their visit to his own constituency. Now, with only one MoS in the ministry, the ambassadors from Africa, Latin America and the Gulf have no chance of meeting the MoS. By his exit, Tharoor has left a wide gulf in the ministry.
Ironically, the longest speech Tharoor ever made in the Lok Sabha was after he resigned. But he had once an opportunity to handle a question on Afghanistan in the absence of the external affairs minister. Even senior cabinet ministers were greatly impressed with his performance. He was well briefed, inventive and articulate.
It was during his official visits abroad that he proved his mettle, whether in bilateral discussions or in conferences. He certainly had drafts and briefs prepared for him by the bright officers of the ministry of external affairs, but he made them his own because of his familiarity with the issues, his perception of Indian interests and his general geniality and oratorical skills. He breathed new life into the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation with his speech at the plenary meeting of the ninth council of ministers in Yemen in June 2009. The association was largely an Indian creation and it had become imperative for India to give more substantive support to it. He gave a shot in the arm to another body, the Community of Democracies, set up with much fanfare during the Clinton era, when he addressed its fifth ministerial conference in Lisbon in July 2009.
He also delivered several speeches in different parts of India on foreign policy in general and different regions in particular. In the course of his short stint as MoS in the ministry of external affairs, he has built up an impressive repertoire of valuable pronouncements on foreign policy. His speeches on foreign policy at his own alma mater, St Stephen's College, and at the Aligarh Muslim University were a clarion call for inclusive foreign policy making, with the cooperation of universities, think tanks and strategic thinkers. His point that foreign policy is too important to be left to the foreign office alone must have struck a sympathetic chord across the nation.
Tharoor followed up his idea of inclusive foreign policy making by reviving the policy planning division in the ministry with the participation of expertise from outside South Block. The policy planning division was just a parking place most of the time, but it was a powerful force at the time when G Parthasarathy and A K Damodaran turned it into a policy-making body. Heads of territorial divisions in the ministry never conceded space for the policy planning division except when the leadership in the ministry made use of it. Tharoor had made a good beginning by stressing the importance of policy planning. Planning for the future is as hazardous in foreign policy as in other areas, but planning with the best available data is the surest way to expect the unexpected.
Among his many purposeful visits abroad, the most important was his timely visit to Haiti soon after the devastating earthquake there. It must have been a sad moment for him to see many of his friends in the United Nations gone in the earthquake, but his visit, the first ministerial visit to the island, brought much solace and comfort to the victims, specially to the Indian community.
Back home, Tharoor also attended to the needs of passport offices and Haj pilgrims to the extent possible. Both these operations of the ministry have perennial problems and they will never be perfect, regardless of the efforts put in by successive teams. The outsourcing experiment in providing consular services has made them less personalised and less efficient. But a ministerial touch does energise matters and Tharoor has made an important contribution.
As MoS in the ministry of external affairs, Tharoor had more attributes than were considered necessary for the job in the past. Had it not been for Twitter, his OSD and IPL, he may well have done well and qualified for higher responsibilities.