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Recalling Ambassador Asrani’s Lagos masterstroke

Like the words of the Japanese poet, Basho, he loved, Asrani is now on a ‘journey... my dream goes wandering’.

Recalling Ambassador Asrani’s Lagos masterstroke

ACCLAIM: Asrani ensured that his foray into multilateral diplomacy served his country and its interests. Facebook

Ramu Damodaran

Senior Fellow, Centre for Social and Economic Progress

THERE is much for which to remember Ambassador Arjun Asrani, who passed away recently. He was one of the surprisingly few Indian Foreign Service officers who served thrice in the same embassy — Tokyo, in his case, first as ‘language trainee’, then as second-in-command and finally as Ambassador. As Deepa Wadhwa, who headed the Japan mission 20 years later, remarked, “he was a mentor to many who followed him, maintaining a close association with the country where he was highly regarded and honoured with their highest civilian award.”

Much earlier, he was the only one to be transferred from Washington, where he had made a mark as the head of the Embassy’s economic wing, to New York, where those abilities were thought necessary for the post of Consul-General. Most of his designations through a distinguished pre-ambassadorial career sported the letter ‘e’ for ‘economic’, though, as he once said, it could well have stood for ‘ecumenical’, the aspiration to bring together all the ‘churches’ in foreign policy — political, economic, commercial, consular and cultural — in the unison that a rising power demanded.

But the ‘e’ could have stood for ‘exultation’ or ‘exaltation’ as well — two words, as he once smilingly told me, he always confused, secure in their seeming synonymity, each or either a fitting description of the service to which he belonged , the service that belonged to him, and the experiences it afforded.

Such as the exultation of punting down the Cherwell river during his probationary courses at Oxford and, a few months later, the exaltation of seeing a rice farmer’s yield outside Mysore, where he was on ‘district’ training, the crop burgeoned by the still new Japanese method of cultivation with high productivity seeds planted at regular distance, energised by fulsome fertilisers and careful irrigation.

It was these immediacies of experience that were to make him, in his phrase, a “born-and-bred bilateralist at heart”, although he ensured that a brief foray into multilateral diplomacy served his country and its interests well.

It was in March 1987 that the government of Nigeria convened an unusual meeting in capital Lagos, describing it as the “concert of medium powers”. The concert was a fairly arbitrary selection of nations, including Algeria, Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Senegal, Sweden, Switzerland, Venezuela, Yugoslavia and Zimbabwe, in addition to the host.

The idea of such a grouping had been put forward in the mid-1970s by a distinguished Nigerian academician, Bolaji Akinyemi, who was the Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs; 10 years later, he was given the opportunity to realise it on his appointment as Foreign Minister by then President Babangida in 1985.

As the professor-turned-practitioner phrased it, medium powers “can assist in consolidating international peace and security through the process of confidence-building among states (and) can operate as a voice of reason in a discordant world, where might is often mistakenly regarded as synonymous with right.”

When the invitation to participate reached New Delhi, a number of factors came into play while taking a call. While India did not want to offend the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa, it also did not want to appear to challenge the primacy of Zimbabwe, which had taken over as the Chair of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) just eight months earlier. That conundrum was resolved by Harare, which confirmed that it would attend the Lagos meeting. India was also against a proliferation of ‘groups’ without a defined purpose, having just helped create the “six-nation, five-continent” initiative on disarmament and being in discussion with other non-aligned countries on a ‘Group of 15’ within the movement to interact substantively with global financial and trade organisations, a group that was to be formalised two years later.

But there was much India admired in Nigeria (and its Foreign Minister), including its leading of a 30-nation boycott of the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games in protest against Britain’s apparently acquiescent attitude to apartheid South Africa and its call for a nonaligned solidarity fund for the frontline states and liberation movements in southern Africa, which was to take shape as the Africa Fund chaired by India. If India were to help rethink the idea of the ‘concert’, it would have to be done on the margins with grace and tact, attributes which were immediately identified in Ambassador Asrani, who was asked to lead the Indian delegation.

He arrived in Lagos a few days ahead of the meeting, and preliminary discussions with other delegations suggested a shared puzzlement about what exactly the outcome would be. His front-page interview with a Nigerian newspaper was both upbeat in spirit and non-committal in specifics. It also brought him recognition, manifest in the many heads that turned when we went out for dinner before the conference.

One of them came up to our table and introduced himself as Keswani, an Indian businessman and entrepreneur; he spoke in companionable Sindhi with Asrani briefly before wishing us good night. “He will go far,” Asrani said to us. “He wants to launch department stores which his associates want to name after this city; he feels — rightly, I think — that calling them ‘Lagos Mart’ or the like will be too limiting, and he must have a name that can expand comfortably.”

He paused and, suddenly, like the Grateful Dead, his eyes glowed with the gold of sunshine. “That is it!” he exclaimed. “That is what, Arjun?” asked Deb Mukharji, High Commissioner in Lagos.

“Don’t you see?” Asrani replied. “If adding ‘Lagos’ to the name limits Keswani’s possibilities, think of how much it would the convening of ‘medium powers.’ If we bring ‘Lagos’ into the name, there is no other country which would venture to host a second meeting. Let’s talk to our hosts first thing tomorrow morning. But what name should we suggest?”

“The Lagos Concert?”, I suggested hopefully, but it was brushed aside with the jhadoo it deserved. “Forum”, said Asrani suddenly. “A group committed to conversations, not conclusions. But we don’t need to spell that out.”

Early next morning, Asrani met a senior Nigerian officer. “We feel, Excellency,” he said, “the name ‘Concert of Medium Powers’ is too anonymous. This conference should be identified with its creator, just as the Congress of Vienna or the conference at Versailles were. Why not the ‘Lagos Forum’?”

And so the title came into being. What it implied was that no other nation would choose to host another conference, constrained by the specificity of its name. It was left to Nigeria to organise a second one some months later, but the growing lack of interest was palpable. Even Zimbabwe chose to opt out of the group with an explanation that could, at best, be considered disingenuous from the NAM Chairman, that it was “a small country just coming out of armed struggles that led to independence in 1980, (and which) could not be in the league of medium power states.”

And so the Forum, indeed the Concert, faded gently into memory — reminiscent, in a sense, of the words of Japanese poet Basho, whom Asrani studied and grew to love, “on a journey, ill, my dream goes wandering, over withered fields”. 

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