Diplomacy, says the old adage, is fifty percent protocol — and fifty percent alcohol. For many Indians, it seems, protocol is all. It is understandable that diplomats get all shirty about protocol. I have never understood why foreign affairs analysts and commentators are often also so obsessed about it.
When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told United States President George Bush that “Indians loved him”, he was chastised both by Bush-hating Indians and the protocol-obsessed for lowering the bar on diplomatic conduct.
His successor, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been upbraided for his ‘hug-diplomacy’ and now for inviting President Donald Trump to be the chief guest at the annual Republic Day parade — without checking, “through diplomatic channels”, whether he would be able to accept the invitation or not.
Maybe the Trump invitation and the decline was a diplomatic blooper. But, look at it this way — for a politician under siege at home, there is a country out there that extends an invitation for its most important national day festivities. “You are hurting us with your trade tantrums, imposing unilateral sanctions on us, but we still invite you for our big R-Day”.
One for the host.
Trump says he cannot make it. Officially, it is because he cannot change the dates for his State of the Union address to the US Congress (we knew that before we invited him). Unofficially, this may be his way of saying, “I am angry with you guys for buying those S-400 things from Putin” (Remember that “India will soon hear from me” line?).
One for the guest.
We are quits.
For the protocol types, all this sounds bad and messy — politicians think differently.
Modi thinks his was a gesture of friendship. Having met Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin in cosy pow-wows, this was his way of publicly reaching out to Trump. Trump may have liked it, but thinks his was a statement of protest — “You buy from the Russians and the French. Katti.”
Both do their diplomacy in full public view. Protocol, for them, is what keeps the Department of State and Ministry of External Affairs people employed and busy.
Politics trumps protocol.
The brouhaha around the R-Day invitation to Trump reminds me of the diplomatic hair-tearing in South Block when, in 2005, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf said he would like to travel to India to watch a cricket match. “No, he cannot, should not” the diplomats said to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “He is seeking an invitation for a cricket match but will end up making it an official visit. He will embarrass Prime Minister Singh, just the way he did Prime Minister Vajpayee at Agra.”
While South Block was busy drafting a suitable reply in time-tested diplomatese, the Prime Minister went to Parliament and extended an oral invitation to President Musharraf. Members of Parliament thumped their tables in approval. The deed was done.
In resorting to such ‘un-protocolish’ behaviour, Prime Minister Singh enunciated a new theory of South Asian diplomacy that has still not become common in practice. Having informed the members gathered that he had decided to invite President Musharraf to watch a cricket match in India, Singh told Parliament, “It is my earnest desire that the people in our neighbouring country and their leaders should feel free to visit us whenever they wish to do so. Be it to watch a cricket match, be it to do some shopping, or be it to meet friends and family.”
That principle has not been followed in letter and spirit — but Prime Minister Modi has succeeded in reducing protocol-driven scheduling of his visits abroad and visits of foreign leaders to India. His now-famous ‘informal summits’, with a walk around a lake or a trip on a boat or a meal at a restaurant, are various ways in which Modi has tried to inject both a popular and a political element into diplomacy.
The Indian handling of President Trump has been no different from that of any other major power. The Canadians, the Germans, the Brits, the Japanese and of course, the Chinese have all been learning to adapt to his style. Many of them have been openly frustrated — like the Australians — and many have been nonplussed – like the North Koreans.
To imagine that India alone would get Trump right is silly.
What one can say though is that India has stayed away from trying to tame the Trump tornado in Washington DC and has, instead, chosen to stay put in a safe bunker waiting for the tornado to pass.
The US too has not invested enough in India these past few years for anyone to expect there would be no such glitches. More can be done to improve two-way communication between both capitals. Maybe less protocol and more alcohol can help!