Brains and Thapar

Who in India really cares what they say on TV anyway?

Karan Thapar is terribly impressed with Pervez Musharraf. “We may not agree with (General Musharraf’s) arguments and often we disapprove of his tough language”, he writes, “but it’s impossible not to admire his courage and be impressed by his performance.” And “you may walk away from a Musharraf encounter put off by his personality but, despite that, you also know you’ve just met a very special man. That’s why Musharraf has fans in India and not just foes.”

Well, at least one Musharraf fan has come out of the closet and declared himself.

Mr Thapar makes two arguments: that General Musharraf is better than Indian politicians because the latter “are not prepared to pit their arguments against challenges.” And second, that Pakistani leaders open themselves to the Indian media but their Indian counterparts do not reciprocate. Therefore, Mr Thapar implies, the Pakistani leaders are better.

(Those of you who want to wipe the coffee off your shirts or keyboards can do so now. Sorry.)

It the rarefied world of TV studios where Mr Thapar resides, a telegenic personality might suffice as a quality for being a good leader. But in the reality of India’s democratic politics and constitutional governance, it is insufficient. And perhaps even irrelevant, for there has hardly been a telegenic prime minister since Rajiv Gandhi, and lot of nice things seem to have happened in India since then. As General Musharraf proves, regardless of his actual record, anyone can defend himself on television—provided he has a nice suit, decent wit and good English. It’s quite another thing to convince, cajole, compromise, threaten and force through a political agenda democratically and constitutionally. Guess why General Musharraf retired?

This is not to say that Indian politicians shouldn’t be more media savvy. They should. But that being articulate on TV and delivering good governance are two very different things. And the comparison with Pakistani political leaders is absurd. For all his failings, the least of which is appearing as text-to-speech converter on television, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is infinitely a better leader than General Pervez Musharraf. At least Dr Singh didn’t silence a rape victim so that his TV interviews would go well.

As for Pakistani leaders being generous in giving interviews to Indian journalists, well, isn’t that what you would do if you and your country were in an international doghouse? Pakistani politicians crave international legitimacy: speaking to the Indian media or getting lobbyists to place op-eds in major US newspapers are attempts to attain it.

Mr Thapar forgets that it was an act of great loftiness—and according to this blog, poor judgement on the part of the organisers—to invite a devious and malicious ex-military dictator to India and give him a soapbox. Let’s not forget that Pakistan has been responsible for a proxy-war against India, a war that is ongoing, and General Musharraf was personally responsible for some of the worst bits of it. Instead of calling for his trial as a war criminal, the Indian media dignified him with a place on the podium. Unfortunately, some, like Mr Thapar, are even his fans.

43 thoughts on “Brains and Thapar”

  1. >>Let’s not forget that Pakistan has been responsible for a proxy-war against India, a war that is ongoing, and General Musharraf was personally responsible for some of the worst bits of it

    Not to forget a not so proxy war, like Kargil, with hundreds of Indian soldiers killed.

    When Brit soldiers returning from Iraq marched in Luton, some Islamist loons — Brits, yes — jeered at them. Appearance-wise there’s a lot of difference between them and the sophisticated, Oxbridge accented Thapar, but mindset-wise he wouldn’t feel out of place.

  2. I think he is directing this against Narendra Modi. Remember Modi walked out of his interview? Modi is like Banquo’s ghost in this article.

    Why is it that the Indian writers who write for the Pakistani press have to put down India? Or is it that they only publish such worthies as Thapar?

  3. Well said!

    Is it now politically correct for Indian media personalities to praise ex-dictators of countries who wage proxy wars with India?

  4. >Instead of calling for his trial as a war criminal, the Indian media dignified him with a place on the podium.

    Well said.
    Mush has the blood of hundreds of indian soldiers and civilians on his hand.
    Thapar needs to be tried and ‘suddenly removed from our midst’ for treason.

  5. You are writing as if Brains and Thapar are two different things unrelated to each other!

  6. Interesting post. I never understood the attraction some Indians have for Mush, myself, it strikes me as bizarre. Way things are going it looks like he has more fans in India than in Pakistan.

    You tend to emphasise a facility with the English language, smart dress (by which I assume you mean Western dress) and some wit with what impresses journalists (similar points with some differences were made wrt Imran Khan). I think too much weight is placed on these factors; I think more important is the fact that these individuals are better at manipulating the media, flatter the egos of journalists, come from similar class backgrounds in some cases so can share common cultural markers and make an effort to mount a charm offensive. The major difference with Indian politicians is that they rarely do any of these things and have a very instrumental and low opinion of the media and journalists in particular.

    I had the opportunity to interview two cabinet ministers and several ministers of state in the current govt as part of my research. Indian politicians do come across as poor in a media sense but that is because very few of them are elected/chosen because of their media skills and their ability to muster support doesn’t really depend on how the media presents them. Given the reality of our democracy, this is unsurprising with the prevalence of rural constituencies and ethnic/religious factors in voting. There are other problems, such as the in-built arrogance that comes with any ministerial executive position and the fact that few of our politicians really believe that they are in any way accountable to the wider public or the public interest. Media coverage that isn’t cloyingly sycophantic tends to be seen as either a waste of time or a challenge to their authority.

    There are some exceptions of course and not all of them fall into the English-speaking, smart dress wearing stereotype of media friendly politicians that you cite. It is interesting also that Thapar cites Advani as one Indian politician who differs from his peers in being able to deal effectively with the media and being successful in doing so.

    I am bemused that Mush got invited to India; I found what he had to say sensible about Indo-Pak relations and Kashmir; but it was difficult to accept this coming from someone who had done the exact opposite when in power. In this sense he was a poor advocate for any reasonable solution to the problem; particularly since he doesn’t seem to have understood the mistakes he made and nor does he shows any sign of a willingness to have done things differently if the opportunity presented itself. Trying him as a ‘war criminal’ would be difficult since the status of Kashmir would complicate matters; the international community, for good or ill, doesn’t subscribe to the Indian view on this conflict. In reality, as a Pakistani colleague commented to me a few years back, he should have been tried for treason and convicted in the wake of the Kargil fiasco by the Pakistani state.

  7. Add to that the almost reverential tone the media adopts when referring to random politician form Pakistan as “playboy”. As if sleeping around is a virtue. You and I do that, we are suffering from hurt Hindu masculinity.

  8. If there ever was a prize for a guy who loves to hear his own voice drowning out everyone else.. Thapar would get the first prize…
    And I am not surprised at all Thapar belongs to the Musharaf loving brigade in the media!!!

  9. > It the rarefied world of TV studios where Mr Thapar resides, a telegenic personality might suffice as a quality for being a good leader.

    He doesn’t actually say that he thinks of Mush as a good leader. Cognitive dissonance?

  10. Do you guys know about Karan Thapas’s connection? For that matter, connections of many of those “famous” journalists? Here

  11. Very well said Sir. These Karan thapars and Barkha Dutts have legitimised that stupid unemployed ex president.

  12. Am no fan of Musharraf but let’s face it, being articulate on TV is very important today and would be much more so when election debates would be held on Your Tube. TV Debates seal the fate of American President and they should be increasingly used in India too, at least to help separate Lalus from Sibbals, Gift of Gab is an important requisite for any leader.

  13. @Debashish,

    So you think the American system with its TV and YouTubes throws up the best possible candidate and results in the best possible policies?

    How can you say for sure? Like Gore 2000 and Kerry 2004 were worse candidates?

  14. Am fairly sure that I dont have to show up my anti-Mush credentials, but, having said that, I dont find much wrong with the article. Sure, I do not believe Musharraf should be allowed an audience in India, but we in India definitely have tonnes to learn from him – in the PR/media management department.

    Lets face it, Indian politicians just suck at media-management, and havent been great at it in Foreign Circles. The recent exception being Lalloo Prasad, during his visit to Pakistan. Frankly, we need a lot more such performances (instead of Mahesh Bhatt, Shilpa Shetty et al) – they are, inherently going to help India.
    Just because our country isnt an International Doghouse, doesnt mean we dont need spokesmen of the caliber of Musharraf (for speaking only!). Watch *any* channel, and compare the performance of Pakistani diplomats, ex-politicos etc., vis-a-vis their Indian counterparts. The difference is *marked*. Selling to the public at large via TV is a *Very* valuable skill in this age – and especially when being threatened willy-nilly by that same International Doghouse.

  15. Forget about the Indian v/s politicians. Karan Thapar should answer: Would a Pakistani journalist be allowed to trash Pakistan and praise India? He would be not only kicked out of the paper, he would be thrashed and lynched. Thapar is misusing his column to repeatedly promote Pakistan and its politicians. Why???? Why is every column about Pakistan and its politicians so exhuberant in his praise? Can we ever forget that his father General Thapar had to resign in disgrace after the India-China war? Musharraf came to India because he was paid to. With that kind of money even Indian politicians out of power would subject themselves to a hostile Pakistani audience.

  16. What about all the Kargil widows? Musharraf was responsble for the Kargil war.

  17. These are just ridiculous arguments. Karan just pointed towards a fact that Pakistani leaders try n express their viewpoints on the Indian Media while the vice-versa is not true. All that Pakistanis here is voices from fundamentalists and ex-army or ISI personnel. Zaid Hamid is one such character. Anyone who hasn’t heard about him, please go on youtube and search for his name and you will understand what I am talking about. And most importantly, Karan never said that the arguments put forward by Musharraf are correct. He merely said that there shud b more Indian voices in Pakistani media.

    Karan is a well respected journalist and his show “Devils Advocate” is perhaps the best political show on any news channel. And on top of that he is never biased towards anyone.

  18. India needs leaders to project the brand of India to the world. We had such leaders in Nehru, Narasimha Rao and Vajpayee who were very successful in selling their distinct visions of India to the world.

    The current crop of politicians are not fit for the task. What we need are articulate and intelligent politicians. Manmohan surely fits the second requirement but fails the first. Advani fits neither completely, and moreover he is as old as Fidel Castro.

    There are a lot of bright young leaders (Rahul Gandhi is not one of them.. consider Kirien Rijiju) and statesmen (M J Akbar) but they are not yet ready for the PM office.

    As for now, we should leave it to people like Abdul Kalam and Amartya Sen to the job of building India’s brand in the world. Kalam was doing a great job during his tenure as the president of the nation.

  19. Watch *any* channel, and compare the performance of Pakistani diplomats, ex-politicos etc., vis-a-vis their Indian counterparts. The difference is *marked*.

    ^^Every time someone mentions how much better Pakistani politicians are at media management than their Indian counterparts, I’m reminded of that one Pakistani politician that was scratching his balls while speaking on television. So I dont necessarily agree with this blanket statement… 😛


  20. Actually, I read the Thapar article and agree with him mostly. Indian leaders should visit Pakistan and talk to Pakistanis. They should handle questions from even hostile crowds (the likes of Zaid Hamid).

    This is something that we should very much demand from Indian politicians. They have to be accessible to the crowds and engage them in meaningful debate.

    I disagree with Thapar about his conclusions on Manmohan, Sonia, Advani or Karat not being able to repeat such performance as Musharaf did, before Pakistani crowds. All of them could do as well, if not better than Musharaf. They just didn’t bother.

    However, these politicians are not the best that India has produced, or will produce in the future (refer to my earlier comment).

  21. Well … here is Mush on the daily show with Jon Stewart in 2006. I watched this show that day and couldn’t believe Mush was on it.

  22. @Udayan My opinion is, some check is better than no checks at all and yes I do think TV Debates are one of the many measures by which the Aam Aadmi gets to take a closer look at his Neta (however orchestrated the debates may be). Though I am sure if Lalu is on TV, through his ability to laugh at himself and unique oratory skills he might even overshadow a Jaitley or a Shushma Swaraj. But I am sure a candidate who spend better part of life wielding guns or at Tihar could be kept away through such means. TV Debates are not the only way, they shouldn’t be the only method, but the You Tube world demands a Telegenic leader.

    I would agree with @vakibs that during the India Today conclave session Musharraf emerged a strong, defiant man not afraid to tackle questions however unpalatable. The atmosphere and questions were totally hostile and he wasn’t shaking. I guess any Indian Leader would have wet his pants if a similar treatment were meted out to India (leave alone that India diplomats would have never dared to send someone at Islamabad). That at least proves the point that India is a meek (the Hindi word is ?????) nation and why a nation like Pakistan has been able to take it to its ride for so long.

  23. I think we need to remember that Mush is an army officer; senior army officers only reach their position by being trained for command and leadership and displaying these qualities. They will exhibit a lot of confidence and authority in their personal demeanour. Indian army chiefs are no different and I am sure would resemble their Pakistani counterparts here; the difference of course is that they don’t hold political power in India. The army remains one of the few professional and modernised institutions left; unlike in politics, you don’t get promoted for being the right caste/religion or for being from the right family. This is particularly true of combat divisions.

    Vakibs makes many interesting points; I don’t agree though about Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi/Karat being good public speakers or personalities; they suffer from some problems in this regard; none of them would be able to move the masses or a public crowd imo, if it wasn’t for their already established position. Manmohan Singh can’t even contest an election directly but has to be indirectly elected from the RS, from Assam no less!!!

    It has been some time since politicians have risen to power off the back off their ability to appeal to the mass public; most that are successful these days tend to be sectarian in their appeal one way or another.

    The one thing that should trouble us all, is why our foreign service and IAS officers cut such a poor figure compared to some of their Chinese and Pakistani counterparts. On TV, most Pakistani diplomats and civil servants are very impressive, while their Indian counterparts with some honourable exceptions, aren’t in the same league. This is alarming considering the arduous selection procedured the central services are meant to enforce.

  24. I thought someone would have brought this up by now, but only Conrad touches on it tangentially (Comment 20).

    Pakistani Army and Civil Service Corps are drawn almost entirely from the elite sections of society. These are people who usually don’t even get their schooling in Pakistan, but in UK or USA. Some of them, of course, might attend the American or British diplomatic school in Islamabad for a while, but that’s not really the Pakistani education system. The whole bunch gets their college education abroad for sure. Little surprise then, that they have a “better” (by western standards) dressing sense (guess where Karan Thapar was educated) and have considerable charm (again, by western standards). Also, it helps that they have 70% reservation for Punjabis in these jobs.. so the same families keep sending people to these positions of power.

    Contrast that with their Indian counterparts. The reservation is basically anti-elite. Most civil servants and army officers do not come from schools like Doon or colleges like St. Stephens. Almost none of those selected are products of British or American education system. Recent trends indicate that, in fact, most of the successful civil service candidates are from rural areas and small towns, and ditto for most army officers (plus there is that other trend of children of army officers opting to not join the army).

    Post-selection training can only do so much, when pre-selection differences are huge.

    The performance metric for civil servants and army officers is not how good they can be on TV, but how well they perform in their core functions. While far from satisfactory in absolute terms, Indian civil servants and army officers have outdone the Pakistanis counterparts on that metric, IMO.

    If a charming man on TV says that property prices will always rise, that’s not necessarily true. Forget the charm, analyse the content and then measure it for quality. See how well Pakistani army and civilian officers measure up then. (e.g. Nitin has pointed out the absurdities of the content of Pakistani Foreign Office spokesperson on some occasions).

  25. “content of Pakistani Foreign Office spokesperson”
    Uh.. I meant “spokesperson’s press briefings”. The content of the spokesperson is just fine, I think.

  26. @vakibs,

    On the contrary, I don’t think there is any need for an Indian leader to go and take questions from Zaid Hamids. Not until we see the Pakistani public actually showing that they are against the jihadi agenda against India.

  27. Maybe OT,

    Nitin, wrt your point “And perhaps even irrelevant, for there has hardly been a telegenic prime minister since Rajiv Gandhi,

    Pratap Bhanu Mehta in the Indian Express ( argues that we should not hold our breath for a truly charismatic national leader, as the current state of Indian politics will not allow such an ascendancy.

    After Rajiv Gandhi, and leaving out the exception of Atal Behari, all our PMs have been compromise candidates.

    One thing is increasingly becoming clear. It is unlikely that a mature parliamentary democracy will have room for leaders with commanding authority like Nehru or even Indira Gandhi. In our zeal to elevate Vajpayee to charismatic status in 2004, we forgot the elementary fact that we are a parliamentary democracy, not a presidential system. In our system, it is highly unlikely that single individuals can have a decisive impact on the outcome of elections. The circumstances under which extraordinary leaders are produced are rare indeed. Nehru and his colleagues were the products of a mass movement spanning decades, and this sort of social mobilization is unlikely to be replicated in the course of normal politics. Indira Gandhi was as much an artifact of a single party dominance that is also unlikely to be replicated in the near future. And even Atal Bihari Vajpayee acquired the status that he had after nearly five decades in politics.

  28. The problem is with the desi dork media itself. Thapar is just one small aspect of it.

    The ddm’s fascination with pakistan and its fraud, spurious politics is ummatched in the world. Since the past one month, pakistan and many of its worthies are have been given endless hours of footage to continously babble out their lies and nonsense.

    The great efforts made by the Indian leadership since 1998 to delink western perceptions of thinking in the India-Pakistan framework has been reduced to mud by ddms obsessiveness.

    Even this lame UPA govt. has outsourced all foreign policy negotiations to ddm. I think one bespectlacled gent at times now channel, who hogs the limelight from 7 to 11 in the night and conducts his “babble debate” will OD on his own hubris one day and die right their in the studio.

    All this rabble should be thrown back to school and forced to read at least one book in their lives before they conduct their “debates”.

    As for me, I dont know a word of french but since the last one month I am watching DW France. It is highly recommended.

  29. @sandy,

    I fell off my chair when you defend Thapar’s crap because he is a well-respected journalist. What do you think this is about? A character reference for a bank loan or passport?

    Judge a man by his words and actions, not by his reputation.

    But perhaps that’s the only defence Thapar has left.

  30. @Sandy
    How does ‘respectable journalist’ concur with ‘Musharraf praise’?

    And I believe you’ve not seen through Thapar to understand that he is biased and cunningly disguises his biases when he brings an argument into discussion. Thapar *is* biased. More than many other ‘well-respected’ journalists out there.

    And Devil’s Advocate is HIS baby. Observe the way he twists and turns arguments, picks up words from the air and forces the interviewees to speak exactly what he wants to hear them speak. He enforces his opinion on the show. Nothing else.

  31. @ BOK

    Well, Mush according to his Wikipedia entry was schooled entirely in Pakistan and only went to Sandhurst to attend officer training after he joined the army. Kayani seems to have followed the same path. I am not sure all of Pakistan’s military leaders can be characterised in the way you say either – nobody is accusing Ayub Khan or Yahya Khan of beind educated sophisticates. I suppose though the rest of the army officer corps might be different; though I read the same complaints about the lack of quality of new entrants.

    The description you make of Indian civil servants is only true now (there is no such reservation in the army); it certainly wasn’t true 30-40 years ago. I am talking about secretary rank officers who would have joined the service in that time period; many of hwom did enjoy an ‘Oxbridge’ education etc. foreign secretaries like Kirs Sinivasan, Muchkund Debey etc. In the international arena and on the foreign media, whenever there is an indo-Pak discussion the Indian diplomats don’t do as well as their Pakistani counterparts despite the fact that their case if frequently stronger. I remember when the Pokhran II tests happened, a lot of the time the Indian side wheeled out an academic like Gautam Sen, who was close to the government of the day, rather than anybody from the High Commission while the Pak side had their High Commissioner come on TV and defend Pak policies. The performance of our officials leaves something to be desired. This may have something to do with the fact that appointments have become very politicised and the elite bureacrats are too cocooned in their shells, which makes them unsused to critical media exposure.

    I think people a re being a bit naive by saying all that matters is content etc. presentation and more importantly using appearance to deceive or manipulate/persuade potential friends/opponents at ease is an essential part of diplomacy. Also much of the world really doesn’t care that much about South Asia and its internal conflicts, they are unlikely to know much about it, this is why Pakistan succeeded in internationalising Kashmir with such ease, despite the weakness of its original case. How forceful and persuasive on is in putting forward one’s arguements is very important in the international arena imo.

    But my main point related to the different political systems in the respective countries and how leaders are chosen; I don’t think a leader like Mush would have emerged if he had to be democratically elected in Pakistan. Unless you have some other connections; being English speaking and middle-class isn’t going to get you very far with most of the electorate.

  32. @Conrad: I might be mistaken about my extrapolations about the Pakistani and Indian military/civilian officers (unless you are extrapolating too). My samples size for Pakistan is only about 30 or so. I also accept that the Indian trend that I spoke about is a recent one (the 22.5% reservation has been since forever though), but then, I also happen to think that people like Shyam Saran (recruited in 60s), SS Menon (70s) and Navtej Sarna (80s) have done a pretty good job of projecting Indian views. So, that probably goes contrary to your perception of other senior officials from the previous era. I haven’t had much exposure to them, so I’ll take your word for it.

    Now, coming to the important bit: content vs presentation. Of course, presentation matters. But how much? My understanding and experience is that it has a very limited importance outside of areas like Sales and Marketing. Diplomatic negotiations are rather technical and often involve non-Foreign Office specialists. The diplomatic parallel to Sales/Marketing would perhaps be the Soft Power projection bit (which has limited utility IMO, but that’s another issue). To cite a slightly different kind of example, having Tom Cruise as your spokesman is fantastic, but if your cause is Scientology, even he can only take you so far. That’s the kind of angle I am coming from on content vs presentation.

  33. I think KT shows indication of subdued ‘Electra Complex’.

    At more than one occasion KT has shown proclivity in favor of clipped-English Speaking paki General’s. This at some subterranean level is indicative of his tendency to visualize a hoary image of his father (Gen P.N Thapar 1962 fame) on basis of KT senior’s perceived level of sophistication.

    This tendency has made KT go to absurd levels at times! Like ganging up with Gohar ‘Monika’ Ayub to cast aspersions on Field Marshall Sam. And then, in the same show, circumbulating to conclude with Gohar Ayub that, “I guess, they don’t such men any longer” (meaning the fine men like Gen Ayub Khan & Gen P.N T).

    This trend suggests that the social reference group to which KT subscribes is: whiskey-swiveling anglicized Generals who are bordering-megalomaniacs, and with a supercilious outlook for the sweating masses (& sepoys) – An attitude that is an essential necessity for incompetence in officers.

    No doubt that KT cant’ see the obvious as to why defence academies no longer desire to produce misfires like PNT, Ayub Khan, Mushy et al.

  34. No, I don’t have any direct sample of Pak military officers; some of the children of such officers were my colleagues at college and later students but none of them were going for a military career. All my knowledge is based on secondary reading here. Data is hard to comeby but Stephen Cohen has some rough statistics on it in his book about the Pak military.

    the 22.5% reservation has been since forever though

    This was in force since independence but it was only during the mid-60s that the quote for Class I officers was fully filled. In the early decades there was a dearth of qualified candidates so vacancies were rolled over; only over the last 20 years or so have top level positions/services been filling their quotas fully. Even within the service SC/ST candidates were rountinely passed over for promotion and did not tend to get high level postings, since after the politicisation of such posts especially after Indira Gandhi, they had few connections or political godfathers. Obviously that isn’t the case today.

    Shyam Saran was good, SS Menon is overrate imo and in anycase had to be made Foreign Secretary over more than 10 officers more senior than him – several of whom resigned in protest as a result. I don’t know Sarna so can’t comment. I am really mentioning our amabassadors and international representatives who don’t impress too much and even the ones who can carry themselves I think are below standard to name a few: Satish Chandra (ambassador Geneva, Arundhati Ghosh Permanent Representative to the UN, Kamlesh Sharma, Permanent Representative to the UN, Naresh Chandra Ambassador to the US); Foreign Secretaries have been better but they have been mostly style at the cost of content imo and we have had some disaesters like SK Singh, JN Dixit, Muchkund Dubey all of whom were meant to luminaries and ‘experts’ but who in my personal experience are really below par.

    Now, coming to the important bit: content vs presentation. Of course, presentation matters. But how much? My understanding and experience is that it has a very limited importance outside of areas like Sales and Marketing. Diplomatic negotiations are rather technical and often involve non-Foreign Office specialists

    I would say for pure diplomacy and lobbying it is huge. Personal contacts in places like Africa, play a key role in getting access to natural resources and defence contratcs, building individual relationships with legislators and lobbyists is invaluable in exerting pressure on national govts and influencing debates on topics like Kashmir, CBT, Punjab, nuclearisation etc. Also while the technical details may be left to specialists; most subjects are not and specialists are almost always from subordinate services who have to defer to the generalists in the IFS/IAS who rule the roost. Our negotiations over GATT and WTO were bascially handled by non-specialist IAS and IFS officers for example; unlike say Thailand or Taiwan who had scores of specialised technocrats to a handful of our generalists. When you see things like these you can understand why we get short-sold so much at international meets.

  35. >>Our negotiations over GATT and WTO were bascially handled by non-specialist IAS and IFS officers for example; unlike say Thailand or Taiwan who had scores of specialised technocrats to a handful of our generalists. When you see things like these you can understand why we get short-sold so much at international meets.

    You make a good point, Conrad, but probably that’s one reason why these chaps can’t talk well. They are out of depth in areas they are forced to represent.

  36. vakibs wrote:
    “Actually, I read the Thapar article and agree with him mostly. Indian leaders should visit Pakistan and talk to Pakistanis. They should handle questions from even hostile crowds (the likes of Zaid Hamid).”

    Before they head to Pakistan, I’d prefer them to face Indian citizens first and answer questions regarding corruption, policy issues and allowing convicted criminals to contest elections. If there’s some time left, then they can head to Pakistan and talk to Pakistanis. But their primary responsibility is to be answerable to Indian citizens – let them take that first step first.

  37. @Conrad: Thanks for the reply. Some final thoughts, since we’ve wandered rather far from the topic.. so long as Nehru was alive, he personally interviewed and okayed every IFS entrant. Some were even appointed directly without any exam (I think Pres. KRN was one such). Since there was no training system in those days, and most people into these higher services must have come from the elite sections of the society (and the ICS folks continued to hold positions, lets not forget), it is hard to accept that in those days there could have been a discernible qualitative difference between Indian and Pakistani officers either on content or on presentation. They were products of the same system essentially.

    I am not sure when these differences cropped up. And now, after commenting on this for a while and looking around, I am beginning to wonder if there really is a difference. Of course, my personal experience suggests that the Pakistani officers I have seen are way “smarter” than the Indian ones. But the same evidence also fell short on their educational backgrounds, so I am not sure if I should conclude anything from it. May be the Pakistanis pay some extra attention to their PR faces and make a conscious effort to put up a good show. I am reasonably sure that the Indian JS(XP) is not picked like that, thought perhaps he should be.

    BTW.. the IFS officers I’d named, were named only because of their performance on TV, not anything else. I don’t know how Menon superseding some seniors is relevant here, but I generally dislike the idea of appointments by seniority and prefer top officials to have a reasonable tenure left at the time of appointment so that there are no extensions later. Supreme Court has had CJIs who had tenures of weeks, and I find that ridiculous.

    The scale of Chinese “success” in Africa indicates to me that non-personal factors play a much larger role, which is large enough of offset personal equations. I don’t see any amount of personal equations and fabulous diplomatic history getting us any concessions from the Russians these days either. On WTO too, I don’t see how personal equations can clear the roadblocks that have clearly come out of issues considered to be of vital national interest by various countries. I believe that diplomatic success is driven by a clear understanding of national interests of the negotiating parties.

    Thanks for the engaging discussion. Do you have a blog that one could subscribe to?

    PS1: Not sure why Arundhati Ghose would be mentioned as below par. It leads me to believe that we have a very different understanding of what the par score is and are approaching this from very different angles.

    PS2: Our WTO negotiations are driven by the Commerce Ministry, which employs quite a few specialists as consultants. Just because they are not the ones sitting on the table and reading out the briefs, doesn’t mean that there is no specialist input. I agree with you on the stupidity of having very small teams though, it causes delays in our responses because lots of things have to be sent back to Delhi for specialist input before a position can be taken.

  38. Conrad,

    Err…what are you guys talking about? The Pakistani foreign office spokesperson and ISPR chiefs are treasured members of this blogs levity hall of fame. Where would we be without the Jilani, the Tasneem and the Rashid Qureishi’s of the world?

    “Your allegations are baseless!”

  39. @ Bok, no problems, just to reply to a few of your points to wrap this discussion up.

    1) Yes, Nehru did interview IFS candidates directly, since he had a special fondness for the MEA given his predeliction for foreign policy. I think this wasn’t so much the case in the later years and in anycase is not a feasible thing for PMs to do these days. Yes, Narayan was recruited without sitting for exams, on a personal recommendation because of the war and the dislocation of independence and partition the intake from the early decades were not recruited through the all-India exams in some cases, as happens now. Many ICS and early recruits were outstanding, I agree, but the ICS is on a different level to the IAS, there was no co-option from the state civil services and the army and you could only sit for the exam once and the age bar was very low. Probably only 20%-30% of modern IAS/IFS officers would qualify under these restrictions. I don’t think there was any difference till about the late 60s. Even now many of the books written by some of these officers like KB Lall and Tarlok Singh are set texts at university level in IR and Development Economics. It is hard to imagine many IAS/IFS officers being able to do this today. But I am talking about the last 10-15 years really; since I don’t have direct experience of officers before then.

    2) The thing I noted from watching Pakistani diplomats in the media in Europe and at the UN; is that they do tend to perform better and impress. Which is important, our officers as a whole aren’t up to that standard. There seems to be a lot of fuzziness on our thinking regarding foreign policy; there is an assumption that just because we are in the right or have a strong case, the world will gravitate towards us, hence there is a lot of complacency and not much attention put on arguing our case and effectively projecting a positive PR image. Of course internationally most countries have a favourable view of India, compared to Pakistan but this doesn’t mean that we can bank on this when international support is needed. Pakistanis, maybe because they come from a weaker position both strategically and in some cases morally put a lot more effort into projecting their arguements and image. This may not make any difference to outcomes, but it is painful to see us outmanoeuvred like this on the international stage.

    3) Yeah, I guess I named the officers because I saw them in person and they didn’t impress. Arundhati Ghosh did alright in the public stage but I know her directly and I am not impressed with her as an officer but that is a separate matter. I mention the promotion of Menon simply because, if you think him to be a ‘good performer’ he was promoted ‘out of turn’ as it were as it was highly unusual for someone so low in rank and seniority to be promoted above his seniors and batchmates and it was done because of his connections to the Congress. This doesn’t matter too much, and I raise simply because his wasn’t a typical appointment of a FS, normally someone else would have been appointed and had the UPA not won and formed the govt I highly doubt he would have become FS. I, too, think that seniority should not be a way to decide appointments at the Secretary-level but the point is this is how our system was set up in informal terms – though the govt can of course appoint whomsoever it chooses; to overrule seniority in specific cases without outstanding reasons, is imo damaging to morale and the ethos of the service as it creates uncertainty regarding promotions and career progression. We should either opt for a system of formal seniority or selective appointments based on merit or compatability of the officer – mixing and matching the two systems is extremely harmful imo.

    4) I don’t think we can compare China’s Africa policy to ours. We had an excellent opportunity to re-orient our foreign policy towards the region in the 1990s after liberalisation but we didn’t exploit it. China takes Africa much more seriously and put substantial diplomatic effort into wooing African leaders; it has well staffed missions and desks that handle Africa policy in Beijing. We still have embassies that cover up to 3-4 African countries at a time, have a single JS heading the Africa desk (for an entire continent!!!) and most African countries are regarded as ‘C’ positings by IFS officers which means that they are the most undesirable and no one wants to go to them and those that have to try to leave asap. Given our historic connections with NAM links, the strong relationship many of the African independence leaders had with India and old economic links – I still remember going round the gold and diamond mines in Ghana and seeing Tata trucks and machinery everywhere in the early 90s we have not exploited these openings in the way China has. We have excellent exchange programmes, whereby I think at least 500-1500 Africans receive scholarships and grants from their respective ministries, armed forces and institutes to come and study in India for several years, yet the demand for this scheme is much more and many vacancies lie unallocated because of lack of effort to match demand with supply. The Team-9 intiative was good but could have come a decade earlier and is still way behind China in terms of coverage and scale. The lateness to which we have woken up, gives the impression to many Africans that we have only started taking them seriously after the Chinese did so. Which is obviously not a good impression for them to have from our point of view (whether it is correct or not is besides the point.)

    5) I remember many years ago the academic and management consultant Bhanoji Rao put forward a new set of guidelines for Indian foreign policy, which was too much focused on NAM and Cold War era type of politics and not enough on economic diplomacy. The number of economic posts in many embassies is very low, trade promotion is not taken very seriously and neither are most facets of economic relations. Rao’s proposals were very ambitious in matching export targets and investment flows for countries and regions; settting 5-10 plans for achieving them and getting ambassadors in regions to co-ordinate their efforts and also synchronising the approach of the Commerce, Industry, Finance and Foreign ministries on this. We are far from this integrated approach. Even the GATT/WTO arguement you cite, there was endless arguing between the MEA and the Commerce ministry over the number of officers, in the end while the Indian Representative to GATT came from the Commerce ministry and was an IAS officer, the other 2 officers in the GATT wing were IFS officers, with not direct background in this subject. As you say specialists were employed but they were only externally consulted and negotiating authority was with the IAS/IFS burecrats, it was also these officers who had direct access to the ministers involved. The specialists and technical consultants who actually knew the subject matter were very much further down the hierarchy – this is actually the same in many ministries. Some officers did know their topic very well, Ganesan the Commerce Secretary towards the end of the GATT negotiations was an authority on the Dunkel draft and if you read the Rajya Sabha debates and reports on the GATT, his testimony and evidence submiited when being questioned by the RS committee dealing with the GATT are an excellent source of information of India’s position on a number of topics covered in the Dunkel draft and the intricacies involved. Unfortuntately for political reasons he was never appointed as PR to the WTO.

    The problem with small teams is that while other countries can have a team of experts on site and have their replies ready within days if not hours; we have to wait longer. Obviously this isn’t always feasible so as a result many things slip by us as you can’t hold up international treaty negotiations while you fax your home capital; this undercuts our negotiating position and was a complaint of the GATT mission at the time. For African countries who frequently only have one person dealing with everything, the situation is even worse and you can see why these agreements tend not to include the interests of small countries.

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