Role of ‘advisers’

Published September 17, 2022
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

FROM time immemorial, rulers have had trusted advisers outside the formal set-up of their council of ministers. F.D. Roosevelt had his Harry Hopkins, who was authorised to meet Stalin, and Neville Chamberlain had his heartily detested Horace Wilson. Jawaharlal Nehru had two baleful and unworthy characters as advisers — V.K. Krishna Menon and G. Parthasarathy.

Now, advisers have their strong points. The official, for all his qualities, is a ‘file-wallah’. His horizon is limited by precedents, memories and the outlook he acquired in office — in sum, the files. The outsider has his flaws. He can be a seeker of office from his partner in high office.

In 1964, the Indian government set up a committee on the Indian foreign service. It had a word of caution regarding ‘advisers’ from outside. The last 60 years have seen an enormous increase in this tribe, with little ostensible gain to the public interest.

None of this suggests that the outsider is of no use. He is — provided that he is intellectually well equipped, is of sound judgement and, above all, has integrity and humility.

Politicians must heed professional advice.

Politicians in power are justified in receiving inputs from outsiders. But they must never underrate the professionals. As the committee rightly noted: “No policy can be formulated except on the basis of accurate information. It is a primary duty of the foreign service to maintain a continuous supply of information to the ministry of external affairs by means of accurate and perceptive reports on current events and discernible trends over the entire range of our interests. Such reports, to be of value, should be objective, with no disagreeable facts suppressed or slurred over.”

One sees men admirably equipped in other subjects, but their only qualification to speak on foreign affairs is that they are ‘interested’ in the subject.

The analogies of domestic politics are irrelevant in world politics. It is a whole world in itself; this world of sovereign states and the understanding of its working comes but by diligent application.

But, of course, the professional may be overborne. Courage may fail him. The ambassador may report just what he thinks the minister would like to know, and the civil servants in the ministry proffer just the advice that will please — or, better still, cease to advise altogether.

These lapses are not imaginary. They have occurred often enough. Thus, Mr Warren F. Ilchman of the University of California, Berkeley, has, on the basis of interviews with former members of the Indian foreign service, observed the “tendency for men in the field to write what the prime minister [Nehru] wished to hear, especially reports confirming non-alignment as a policy”.

When Sino-Indian relations deteriorated, a particularly fulminatory Chinese statement (May 1959) cited a former Indian ambassador to Peking, Mr R.K. Nehru, as witness to Chinese goodwill. Mr Nehru’s statements deploring the ‘rigid’ stand towards China show how accurate was the Chinese estimate.

One has only to read K.P.S. Menon’s memoirs to realise that in the halcyon days of Indo-Soviet relations, he deemed it his duty to depict Moscow, to which he was accredited, in the most glowing of terms. The late prime minister Nehru’s patronage had been enjoyed to an unusual degree. He appreciated the experience so much as to acquire a wholly erroneous conception of his duties as secretary general of India’s foreign ministry.

As remarked elsewhere: “How could the civilian head of a foreign office offer frank advice to the political head when he himself regards the organisation as no more than a research bureau? Nehru had scant use for expertise in a field he regarded exclusively his own.”

One singularly tragic instance of his indifference to professional advice may be cited. The late Sir Girja Shankar Bajpai advised him about the time of the Panchsheel Agreement with China to stipulate that in return for India’s recognition of China’s sovereignty over Tibet, China should recognise the McMahon Line and agree to the reopening of an Indian consulate in Xinjiang.

The advice was rejected. What was so remarkably prescient about it was the condition regarding the consulate. Recognition of the McMahon Line was an obvious condition, but it needed real understanding of the country’s geopolitical interests to ask for an Indian consulate in Xinjiang. Had it existed, the Chinese could not have built the Aksai Chin road as they did later without New Delhi coming to know of it.

No amount of skilful reorganisation of any external affairs ministry will prove useful unless there is a willingness on the part of the political chiefs to recognise the need for expertise in the formulation and implementation of foreign policy and a conscious encouragement of the growth of such expertise. Advisers from outside can help only to a limited extent.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2022

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