One face for the world

Foreign policy should factor in opposing views before it is formulated

One face for the world

Slip-up: Modi did err by taking sides in a friendly country’s election contest. PTI

Julio Ribeiro

Agroup of retired ambassadors, formerly of the Indian Foreign Service, published a letter recently deprecating the criticism levelled against the PM by some of their former colleagues, thereby clouding his image abroad. In the 200-strong Constitutional Conduct Group (CCG), formed by retired IAS officers some three years ago, there are quite a few former IFS officers, including two Foreign Secretaries.

At times, individual IFS colleagues do write on subjects of their interest but the CCG has not delved on the country’s foreign policy initiatives because of lack of domain knowledge. I, for one, have no quarrel with the Forum of Former Indian Ambassadors. Its views will be of equal worth to me as that of my IFS colleagues in the CCG. I had revelled in the accounts of our PM’s journeys in foreign lands and his uninhibited embrace of foreign leaders. It helped to improve our standing in those lands. Indian tourists were treated a little more kindly abroad.

The only occasion I felt that he erred was in Houston, where he met the Indian diaspora. The then US President Trump was seeking another term in office and our PM thought it was a good opportunity to humour him. He raised the slogan ‘Agli baar Trump sarkar’. It was not appropriate for an Indian leader to take sides in a friendly country’s election contest. The gambit failed as we know.

In matters of foreign policy, I am of the view that the entire country should be united. In relation to our mighty neighbour to the East, the views of the forum should be accepted in the spirit in which they were enunciated. Even if other former IFS officers in the CCG feel that diplomacy could have been handled differently, such views should be confined to our shores. If they help in broadening options, they will have made a contribution to our decision-making processes.

The birth of the forum to counterbalance the views of the former IFS officers, now part of the CCG, is another matter. It is an unfortunate manifestation of a schism that has riven the country apart in the past decade. Foreign policy should involve opposition views before it is formulated. If not earlier, the opposition should be taken into confidence immediately before the policy is declared.

I am certain that no patriotic Indian will want our relations with other countries to be anything but advantageous to our country’s interests. Hence, the division in the ranks of our compatriots, who served together at a point of time in the country’s foreign service is not a happy happening. Disunity is a development that has gripped our polity to an extent never before experienced but defence and external affairs are two spheres where unity should be non-negotiable.

And that brings me to the real purport of my article. The government is upset with retired IAS, IFS, IPS officers criticising it for its various policies and actions that offend constitutional morality. To silence them, the government has amended the Central Pension Rules to threaten retired officials with stoppage of their pensions. Manmohan Singh’s Congress government had also attempted something similar with IB and RAW’s former operatives but wisely decided to rest their oars.

Modi’s government wants intelligence and security officials, formerly of the IB, RAW, ED and 13 other organisations, 18 in all, to take clearances from the heads of these organisations before publishing books or articles in magazines and newspapers on any aspect touching the domain of that organisation or its personnel.

It is obvious that the move is meant to frighten former officers to keep their mouths shut. The only outfit I served and that has found its place on the list is the CRPF. I spent six years as a DIGP and five or six weeks of 1985 as its Director General before I was plucked out to solve the communal imbroglio in Gujarat.

I know of no secrets worth sharing about the force, and the only time I referred to it in my writings was to criticise the use of its men, trained to disperse home-grown mobs, for security of individuals, a job for which they were not trained. If I was still occupying the chair of the DG, CRPF, how would I have reacted if an old hand had asked for my permission to bemoan the wrong use?

I would have concurred with the opinion. The DGP, after all, is a professional. Misplaced political considerations had propelled the detailing of men for an alien role. What is the DG, CRPF, to reply when he himself is happy that a retired man has taken up cudgels which he himself could not because the political boss brooks no objection to his orders? So, he takes the line of least resistance and refers the request to the Home Ministry where the normal journey of a file from the Under Secretary to the Deputy Secretary, thence to the Joint Secretary and the Additional Secretary to the Home Secretary and finally to the Home Minister, will ensure that the story itself is automatically ‘killed’ by the passage of time.

Is that the finale that Modi’s government has conceived? If that is the dream, I am afraid it will remain just that — a dream!

The political objective is achieved when silence is ensured — in this case by sheer delay in dealing with the request for clearance. If, however, the writer decides to write anyway ignoring the consequences, the process of stopping his pension, including the natural justice requirement of giving him the opportunity to state his case, will take months, if not a year, to resolve. Finally, the case is argued in courts of law and that takes even longer, years if not decades, till the pensioner kicks the bucket.