Obituary: Katyayani Shankar Bajpai (March 30, 1928 – August 30, 2020)
Former ambassador Katyayani Shankar Bajpai (KSB), who passed away on August 30 in Delhi at 92, will be remembered with admiration and affection, both for his professional trajectory as a diplomat of rare distinction and as a man who accomplished himself in other domains post retirement with aplomb.
Given that his father, Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, was the architect of the Indian Foreign Service in the transition from the British Raj to independent India, diplomacy was a natural choice and the young Shankar joined the 1952 batch of young IFS officers in the heady Nehruvian period.
Educated in the US and Europe (University of Oxford and later post-graduation from Ecole des Hautes Etudes Universitaire, Geneva), he would refer disarmingly of his pedigreed profile as one of “not undistinguished ancestry, quality education and a classy profession.”
The high points of KSB’s diplomatic career were his years in Sikkim (1970-74) when he enabled the merger of the kingdom to the Indian union and his stints as ambassador to three of India’s most challenging bilateral relationships — the US, China and Pakistan.
Being appointed ambassador to one of these countries would be a significant punctuation for an Indian diplomat, two would be an acknowledgement of high professional acumen by the powers that be (in recent years former NSA Shivshankar Menon, Vijay Nambaiar, Nirupama Rao and current EAM S Jaishankar would qualify) but serving in all three at plenipotentiary level is rare – and KSB had that distinction.
He served as high commissioner to Pakistan (1976-1980) during the crucial Bhutto-Zia coup years, when the civilian PM was sent to the gallows and the cold war came to South Asia by way of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Subsequently, KSB was appointed ambassador to China (1980-82). These were turbulent post-Mao years in China and Deng Xiaoping was yet to consolidate his position in the Beijing pecking order. On the Indian side, Indira Gandhi had just returned to office as the PM in January 1980 and, as KSB recalled, this was a complex and challenging appointment as ambassador.
Finally, in his last posting, KSB served as ambassador to Washington DC (1984-86) and, as the sociological history of the foreign service records, this was a position his father Sir Girija had once held pre-1947. For India, this was the traumatic period when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and in an act of blind faith, the Indian voter reposed trust in the unproven Rajiv Gandhi who assumed office as PM.
On the KSB watch as ambassador, PM Rajiv Gandhi paid a very successful visit to the US (June 1985) and this was deemed to be a turning point in the troubled India-US bilateral.
How does one assess the contribution or track record of a senior diplomat? In an elegant formulation, former NSA and Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon suggested this template: “Was the diplomat able to move the needle on the issue or relationship she/he was entrusted with?”
Sikkim was an undoubted feather in the KSB cap and the fact that he was hand-picked for the Pakistan assignment (his second posting there) by the PMO was significant too. But the needle-moving metric was most visible with a positive connotation during the period when KSB was ambassador to the US.
During those decades, the India-US relationship was troubled, uneasy and prickly and this strain of bitterness was introduced in the Nixon-Kissinger period and the use of intemperate language was illustrative. There was an inherent contradiction in this blow-hot-blow-cold pattern to the bilateral, for, while the two democracies were ‘estranged’ over security and strategic issues, the US was providing invaluable food aid to India (ship-to-mouth), the first wave of Indian doctors and engineers was moving West, though Delhi was deemed to be more aligned to Moscow despite its claim to non-aligned celibacy.
Shankar Bajpai was acknowledged to have a deep and holistic understanding of the complex American system — politics, state, society and corporate sector — and his appointment to Washington was fortuitous, yet beneficial in hindsight. The June 1985 US visit of Rajiv Gandhi is considered to be among the most successful by any Indian PM and, as the professionals are aware, this kind of a summit needs an ambassador who is deft, nimble and astute — and one who knows that the bouquets for a successful summit glide towards the PMO, while the brickbats pile up on the ambassador's table! The last aside is one gleaned from my occasional conversations with KSB.
KSB had a natural advantage in relation to the US due to his long years spent in that country when his father was the Indian representative and later postings, burnished by the deep water table he had acquired in his many dealings with American interlocutors.
I got to know Bajpai in his post-retirement phase when he was guiding the Delhi Policy Group (DPG) as its founding Chairman and later when he was appointed Chairman of the National Security Advisory Board. Security issues were high on his radar and he often shared his anguish at the cavalier manner in which this vital strand was being managed.
Till recently (pre-Covid lockdown), KSB kept himself informed about the status of India’s military preparedness, civil-military issues, R&D, defence production et al. His most perceptive observation was made on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the 1965 India-Pakistan war where he noted with dismay: “How could the One Rank, One Pension issue been allowed to get so out of hand? One of India’s most remarkable achievements — and blessings — has been that its military has remained wholly apolitical. Doubtless, it has its faults, but in a country that owes it so much, with a civil power so extensively dependent on it because of its own inadequacies, any novice must know the vital importance of civil-military relations. The neglect, insensitivity, gross mismanagement to which it has been subjected to are the most alarming aspects of that root ignorance of statecraft that made the country’s 1965 performance so unsatisfactory. But ’65 pales into insignificance compared to what might be if India does not reform itself fast.”
Alas, it is evident that KSB’s sage counsel has fallen on deaf ears, as the management of current developments in Ladakh indicate.
RIP, Shankar Sir.
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