The capacity to engage

Reviewing Shashi Tharoor’s first book, Reasons of State (1981) in Foreign Affairs, a critique of Indian foreign policy under Indira Gandhi in the period 1966-1977, Donald S Zagoria declared it as  “one of the most thorough studies yet done of how Indian foreign policy is made.” Dr Tharoor was in his twenties then. Nearly three decades later, he is India’s minister of state for external affairs, with specific responsibility for Africa, the Middle East and policy planning.

This is the first of a two-part interview:


Let us talk about Africa. How do you define India’s interests in Africa?

Well, there are all sorts of ways at looking at interests. First of all, there is something to be said for a group of nations that you have something in common with, if for no other reason that you have been right about them from the very start. And I know that’s not enough, and I am not implying it is all we have. But it gives us a very good platform.

We have been, as I said, right about Africa. We, before our own independence, were the first country to raise the question of South African apartheid in the United Nations. M C Chagla was the delegate who raised that issue in 1946. We fought for African decolonisation, led the decolonisation committee at the UN. The African countries knew that solidarity with them is something that India has always consistently stood for. So we have an advantage over  Johnny-come-Latelies on the African scene.

Secondly, there are very obvious issues of resources. Africa is a continent rich in all sorts of mineral resources—iron ore, phosphates, uranium in some places. There is agricultural potential, fisheries potential…all sorts of things. And at the same time, a lot of this potential is untapped, because Africa has been suffering from the legacies of colonialism, civil conflict, mis-governance and ethnic divides. India can use both aspects. That it can use a collection of friends who can stand by it as we have stood by them. And India can have some very tangible, hard economic benefits from its relationship with Africa, which at the same time, can be legitimately described as assisting Africa to fulfil its own potential. So it really is a kind of win-win that we have in the situation.

I have myself, as a minister, been to four different African countries and there were business delegations accompanying me. And I found that we do have an interesting advantage with the Africans.

First of all, there is that consciousness that we have been friends for a long time. Second, there is a sense that whereas the others who are vying for Africa’s hand, as it were—the West and China—have very impressive accomplishments in their development, and African countries look at them often with a lot of respect, even bordering on awe, they still see a certain distance between them and Africa. Whereas when African countries look at India, they see a country that is accessible, that is familiar, that seems to be grappling with many of the similar sorts of problems that they have—and yet a country that nonetheless has overcome them and managed to succeed. And they say to themselves, if India can do it, maybe we can do so too and learn from India. There is in many cases a sense of cultural affinity with India that enhances the content of our relationship. So all of these things have meant that we have an opportunity to enjoy a privileged position in many African countries that we would be foolish not to develop.

This brings us to point about the model of India’s engagement—not necessarily Indian government’s engagement. India’s engagement with Africa tends to be bottom up, we have the diaspora communities…we have the Gujaratis, the Sindhis and others who are playing invaluable economic roles in many African countries. Is the government able to harness this? That’s first part of the question. The second part is: how does this method of harnessing our relationship with African countries compete with China’s? For example, they just engage the autocrat, engage the dictator and there is a certain political economy to their relationship. Can we compete on our terms or do we have to play the same game as China is playing?

No, definitely not. We are a different country, different systems, different backgrounds, and different approaches.

Our diaspora, where we have it, has actually been very well received by most countries—with the exception of the expulsions from Uganda, now reversed. Indian communities, by and large, have been hugely welcome everywhere in west, southern, central and east Africa. Every African country I have gone to has had significantly positive experiences with the Indians. They have tended to be, by and large, at the upper end of the economic scale and have good relations with both the governing elites and the business sectors. They tend to be more effective, of course, when our government is in a position to offer them some assistance, and we are beginning to do that. And the harnessing is mutual. They have become an extremely useful source of access for us as a government to many governing elites. Equally they need us to lobby for them on occasions when they are up against competition, for example, from China for contracts.

But the thing about the Indian approach, going to the second part of your question, is that it is very different because it is not a heavy governmental footprint. I do not want to name the other countries, but I think you know what I am referring to. We come in, in a much more modest, unchallenging, unthreatening sort of way. Our government itself is not in a position to buy out presidencies and wholesale governments and nor would we want to—that is not our approach. What we often do is we extend modest levels of assistance by today’s standards—certainly in relation to the kind of assets that are available to China. Our grants are very modest. We make it 25 million dollars worth of something here, and 50 million worth of thing somewhere else and then we extend much larger amounts of lines of credit. Currently we have authorised US$5.4 billion worth of lines of credit to African countries. That is tied aid—lines of credit for the purchase of Indian goods and services and that too subject to mutual approvals. They propose while we dispose. That is if we don’t like what they want to spend our money on, we can say “no”. Since we are ourselves a developing country, it is an exercise in South-South co-operation and the recipients accept it as such.

But that apart, the biggest thing I think we offer is our private sector. And I just don’t mean our diaspora. I also mean Indian businessmen based in India who can come in and make a contribution with the experience, the sophistication and the managerial excellence that the Indian private sector has. They do represent something that African countries are very happy to learn from and benefit from. And certainly in countries recovering from the ravages of war, like Liberia, there is a huge amount of interest in the Indian private sector coming in. In a place like Benin, which has been a tranquil democracy for 20 years, I found an equal amount of interest.

Now, one additional factor is that even our public sector can be an advantage to the private sector because, for example, a lot of African countries are interested in developing small and medium enterprises. And we have things like the National Small Industries Corporation, which is a public sector enterprise. We are actually very good at teaching others how to set up small businesses. We can setup incubation centres, we can set up demonstration centres—and we do.

One more area that African countries are keen on turning to us for rather than anyone else is IT. So we have found hugely popular, the kinds of thing we can offer through NIIT (but not only NIIT)—training in computers. We have also offered a couple of those, you know Holes in the Wall, the famous Holes in the Wall project, where you offer a computer and no instructor. So basically the kids figure it out for themselves. Call it more fancifully a kiosk or whatever. In practice, that was the whole experiment that is now taking the rest of the world by storm. So we are offering that as part of our aid package.

The benefits in terms of goodwill and popular image are enormous. There are still African countries where a truck or a bus is called “Tata” because they have come in and their brand has left an impact. And I kept hearing wherever I went anecdotes like, you know India gave a certain number of buses for example, and China gave four times as many, at a larger cost at least on paper, and often of a newer make; but the Indian buses are still running, the Chinese buses have long since broken down. No one knows how to fix them, the Chinese are not there to help, whereas we are more attuned to their needs, we’ve brought in the spare parts and trained the maintenance guys, and this has been a huge advantage to us.

I want to stress that I’m referring to China only because you asked and I don’t see our engagement with Africa in terms of a race with China. And it will be a huge mistake to do that—one our media has fallen prey to and I hope our strategic analysts don’t fall prey to. Because, and as I have said in Africa, Africa’s needs are big enough for India, China and the West to all have a role to play, to make a contribution and of course, to gain their own benefits.

At the same time, the world is large enough for all of us. We are not in a zero sum game. If China gets something, it doesn’t mean we can’t get what we need somewhere else.

A question of capacity

There is this sense of reliance on India’s private sector in implementing this. But does our government machinery have the capacity to deliver? We have heard of stories where we have fewer diplomats than Singapore, for instance.

That would surprise me, but we certainly have much fewer than countries of comparable size and population. The Chinese have got 7-8 times as many as we do. They don’t make the distinction we do between the the IFS, the IFS–B and the support staff. They have just one category of officials whereas we have the top echelon which is just over 600. They have over 5000 overall. Even if we added every driver and messenger, I don’t think, we would get to 5000. Similarly, Brazil, which of course has a population much smaller than us but regionally is often seen as a comparator, has a larger diplomatic service than we do.

But there is no question that given, just not the size of the country or its resources, but also quite frankly its footprint, we are understaffed. We have a very large number of embassies. We have over 120 embassies and consulates around the world. And many of them are far too thinly staffed. In Africa, I am constantly coming across ambassadors who tell me we have got one IFS–B promotee as a deputy and one attaché. And we are supposed to cope with the rest with local staff. And how on earth can we cope?

So there are issues. Mind you, we have been good at force multipliers. Very often it has been from the diaspora that we have drawn some of our ablest and most effective consul generals and honorary consul generals. For example, in Liberia, we haven’t had a physical presence at all, as a government: no, neither a consul, nor an ambassador or an outposted officer. We have a consul general, who is honorary, who is a Sardar, who has managed to stay through two or three changes of government and civil wars. He has helped just not the Indian community to stay and survive, but also helped prominent Liberians to escape from various people’s clutches. The Chinese ambassador to Liberia—and China has a resident ambassador in Liberia, we don’t, ours is based in Cote d’Ivoire—came to the foreign minister’s reception in my honour and said to me, “you know, when I first came here, the most helpful person in Monrovia was this guy, your consul general.” So I teased our consul general in front of the Chinese and said, “you see this is why the Chinese are doing so much better because you helped them and they don’t help us.” But then I turned to Chinese and said this is exactly what it is. We are there to help and there is no competition.

But do you see the thinness of our foreign service as a constraint on what we can do in Africa?

The thinness of our service is a constraint on what we can do anywhere and everywhere, including in Delhi. In my first book, Reasons of State, written as a doctoral dissertation in 1977-78 and published in 1981, I had actually argued about some of the practices and deficiencies of our external affairs ministry of that day. It is startling to read, three decades later, Daniel Markey’s critique and find so many of the same criticisms being echoed there.

The issue of size is also different today than it was three decades ago because we were still a poorer, developing country in those days. Today, we are a country that can afford to have a larger foreign service. Our GDP is four or five times larger than what it was at that time.

We have got through—the previous foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon fought hard and won the cabinet approval for—a doubling of our intake for five years. But we haven’t yet seen an implementation plan. A lot depends on how effectively it is done. It is for the civil services work out.

But very clearly, you’d need an implementation plan that would bring that serious level of professional expertise into our diplomacy through lateral entry as well. Conceivably not at the highest levels but say below the level of joint secretary, we could strengthen ourselves with people everywhere who could have done comparable but obviously not diplomatic kinds of work. You could have someone whose experience with a multinational corporation in a foreign country could be as much an asset in an embassy. All you need is to train that person how to write a report or a cable, or a record of discussions with the foreign minister. But then see that she or he has the personal qualities to augment our diplomatic strength.

And similarly with headquarters. We can strengthen everything from our public diplomacy division to our economic relations division by bringing in people from the outside. But the implementation plan is awaited from the foreign secretary and I hope that we can move forward by recruiting some people from the real world and not just waiting for increasing the intake in competitive exams, which we have always done so far.

Investing in a brain trust

There was this news about the policy planning division which you wanted to kick-start or re-kickstart in MEA. What do you see as a role of that division? Do you think the way the MEA is kitted up, will it shape up, will it be able to deliver whatever you want it to do?

Well, you see the policy planning division has been treated as a backwater for some time. Part of the problem is endemic in all organisations: the people dealing with substantive desks or divisions rather feel that they are the ones who ought to make policies in their areas of expertise and they don’t like to see a separate unit that is given such a responsibility. And that is true in the UN, and that’s true in the US State Department and that’s true in the Indian foreign ministry.

My argument was that we need a capacity for both dealing with those issues that cut across more than one territorial division so that no one can say that we were horning in on their patch, and equally a capacity for overcoming the tyranny of the immediate, which is the besetting sin of all governmental organisations. Our foreign ministry, as we just discussed, is deeply understaffed. Joint secretaries with very limited support staff come and tell me that they are looking after 11-12 countries. They can barely keep up with the ongoing flow of cables, telegrams, urgent messages, visits, immediate meetings and so on, let alone have the capacity to sit back and think in the larger sort of perspective about the trends and currents that should go into policy-making. That in my view is what a policy planning mechanism can and should do.

Now because of the recent experience of policy planning, I did not think it realistic to simply take the existing unit and say you do things that you have not been really encouraged to do before. So, instead—and I was careful to first discuss it with the foreign secretary and with the external affairs minister before launching this—I tried to use it as a sort of nucleus of a larger process of policy of reflection which will not be sort of all-consuming daily. My friend who runs policy planning in the US State Department, Dr Anne-Marie Slaughter, sees every piece of paper that the Secretary of State gets before it gets to the Secretary of State. We don’t have that kind of a system. We are not getting there. And we are not actually looking to put the policy planning division between the territorial divisions and the executive authorities.

So instead I decided to take an issue a month or every six weeks or so, so that it doesn’t become too much of burden on the system. I took the Indian Ocean as the first one because we have a widely perceived feeling that we don’t have a coherent Indian Ocean strategy. There is an Indian Ocean Rim Countries’ organisation, IOR-ARC, which is essentially in danger of becoming moribund. It was founded only 11 years ago with great hopes and it has essentially been allowed to drift since then.

So around the table, I had not only the policy planning division, I had the foreign secretary herself, I had the joint secretaries of various territorial desks, and then I had think-tanks—the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, the National Maritime Foundation, a couple of the private-sector think-tanks like the Observer Research Foundation, and I had also invited the Centre for Policy Reseach, but they weren’t able to come. I had a couple of economic think-tanks — a retired foreign secretary, a retired Chief of the Naval Staff and a representative of the Association of Retired Indian Diplomats. Why lose the institutional memory of all these who have worked in these areas before and are now more freer to speak their minds? We had a group of about 30 people in the round table conference and we had an absolutely first class hour-and-a-half of discussing both principles and practices, back-and-forth on the basis of a rather short discussion paper that we had prepared in the MEA.

At the end of that discussion, I’ve asked the policy planning and the respective desks to distill a strategic approach which I have since vetted and will now be finalised into a policy paper for the attention of the external affairs minister and I hope the prime minister, which if then blessed gives us a strategic vision for how we approach the Indian Ocean.

That sort of exercise is what I am trying to do through the policy planning division…and through the policy planning mechanism, not just the division. I will take other topics in the future. It can be Africa, or it can be a theme like public diplomacy. Get all the people engaged around, inside and outside, cross-fertilise, come up with ideas, have a vision moving forward, that’s the sort of thinking. We have a lot to do and I’m looking forward to playing a role in doing it.

5 Replies to “The capacity to engage”

  1. peterspectrum

    Dear Nitin,
    I found the transcript of your interview with Dr. Tharoor very informative and look forward to your publication of the second in this series.
    I am a NRI and an Australian citizen since 1967, living in the Sydney region of Australia and would be interested in similar “gems” with a focus on ASEAN or Asia Pacific nations. I am interested in transcripts of interviews where Australia may has been included in deliberations of “Round Table Conferences” such as described by Dr. Tharoor. Themes covering Indian public diplomacy and relationship building with Australia across the sectors of education, cultural exchange and Information Technology collaboration would be appreciated.
    Kind regards,
    Peter Brown.

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