The ex-envoy to China knows the Sino-India relationship is no video game according to India's top diplomat, patience will do the trick.
When Nirupama Rao became India's foreign secretary in August, only the second woman to get the top job, the grapevine around the Ministry of External Affairs had it that she would struggle to put her stamp on South Block, writes Jyoti Malhotra.
First, the prime minister, the national security adviser and the external affairs minister were all deeply interested in the pursuit of foreign policy, so what could a mere foreign secretary hope to do? Meanwhile, her predecessor, Shivshanker Menon, had been a blue-blooded Indian Foreign Service (IFS)--his father, uncle, grandfather and father-in-law had all been top diplomats--whereas Rao, having topped her batch in 1973, had made use of every opportunity she got, whether as spokesperson (she cut her teeth in the job at the India-Pakistan Agra summit in July 2001) or as ambassador to China from 2006 to 2009, to climb right to the top.
This appointment with the new foreign secretary has been many weeks in the making. There is now the world to attend to, to watch--and intervene--in this play of shadows and substance as China flirts with the US, Barack Obama turns down a meeting with the Dalai Lama and the Indian embassy in Kabul is bombed for the second time in two years. She has already, in these last few weeks, slept both in the Kremlin and at Windsor Castle, having accompanied the president to both Russia and England. As the head of the IFS, everything is now her business--the success and failure of India's foreign policy over the next couple of years also depends on whether Nirupama Rao places the right people in the right job.
But I am getting ahead of myself. When I first suggested the idea of Lunch, I had playfully added, "How about Chinese food?!" After all, she'd only just returned from Beijing, so who better to contrast Delhi's Punjabi-Chinese from the real grub? And, although she chose German as a foreign language when she joined the IFS, it is widely acknowledged today that there's no one better than her in India who understands the finer points of the Sino-Indian boundary dispute. That is why Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra made her part of his team when he began the border talks with the Chinese in 2003 and also why Manmohan Singh, who passed on the baton to National Security Adviser MK Narayanan, has stayed with the choice.
But Rao didn't rise to the bait. The lines between Delhi and Beijing had been strained for some time--and she had been part of the tension. In 2008, when Tibetan protesters threatened to disrupt the Olympic torch relay in the capital, Rao was summoned to the Chinese foreign office at an unearthly 2 am and handed over a protest demarche, diplomatese for criticism. Back in India, Rao came under a lot of criticism for allowing herself, a senior Indian representative, to be rebuked by the Chinese. It later transpired that she had not been given a choice in the matter. Delhi had told her to take the call in the middle of the night.
Meanwhile, Rao has indicated that she would be happy to "do" Oriental food, but with two conditions attached. No ajinomoto and no five-star hotel please! That leaves us with Side Wok, a small enough eatery in the Malcha Marg market in the heart of Delhi's diplomatic enclave and a seven-minute ride from her office in South Block.
She wants to keep it largely vegetarian too, so we order Pakchoy Rice Flour Dumpling, Lotus Stem Honey Chilly, Mopu Tofu, a Crispy Fish fillet tossed with a spicy sauce and Steamed Rice. Her throat is raw, she says, and asks for some green tea. Surprise, surprise, the restaurant only has jasmine tea, no green tea, so Rao settles for hot water and a regular tea bag. I nurse a fresh lime soda, both sweet and sour.
I ask her about China. "The relationship has acquired many more dimensions than in the past," she says. I ask if she's worried the situation might deteriorate, just like it did in 1962. Not at all, she answers hastily, but adds that she's concerned with the manner in which the media, especially TV, has been dealing with the subject."There is a need to lower temperatures, to deal with the situation in a patient and professional manner negotiations with China are a game of patience. The relationship with China is not a video game. It's not about dungeons and dragons," she adds, with some asperity.
By now she's asked for a second helping of the Mopu Tofu, a Beijing favourite. I ask if the warm water she's drinking--she's abandoned the tea bag some time ago--is to keep her throat clear for the jazz and western classical she used to sing when she was last in Delhi? "I am in office till nearly 10 pm every night," she laments, "there's no time for jazz or poetry right now!"
She tells me how the self-image of the Chinese has been changing over the decades, how from a poor, Third World country, Beijing today "wants to be heard" by the rest of the world. "The Chinese are beginning to feel they have arrived on the world scene, earlier they kept their head down because they wanted to bide their time. But now there is a sense that they have bidden their time, and if necessary, they will flash their sword to defend their positions."
But we are coming to the end of our meal--she wants no dessert--and how can I let her go without asking about Pakistan? "I met my Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir at the Roosevelt hotel in New York in September for three hours," says Rao, "I told him that India can talk to Pakistan, but what is the point of talking until there's real dialogue? Pakistan must realise that public mood in India has shifted after the Mumbai attacks, we need answers to the terror that emanates from Pakistan Mr Bashir told me that India and Pakistan are victims of the same terror, but he was also quiet a lot of the time," she adds.
So will Nirupama Rao be a far more cautious foreign secretary than Shivshanker Menon? If Sharm-el Sheikh is the yardstick--where nobody briefed the Indian press for a full three hours between the time the joint statement was released and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke--then it seems that as a former spokesperson, Rao realises the Foreign Office needs to be more actively involved with the media.
As for the US, Rao points that the Obama administration has major stakes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but acknowledges they are consumed by China. At the banquet for the visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in July, Hillary came up to Nirupama Rao and asked her about her views on China. "She had heard that I had served there. We had a very interesting conversation we agreed that China was seeking to fulfil its ambitions as a world power," adds Rao.