A Peek Into Ten Years in the Life and Career of a Successful Indian Diplomat

Chinmaya R. Gharekhan writes about time he was in the prime minister’s office (PMO) and ambassador to the UN at New York.

Ambassador Chinmaya Gharekhan joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1958 and was one of India’s most brilliant and successful diplomats. By an accident of fate – or misjudgment by then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao – he was never the foreign secretary, but is believed in the mid-2000s to have been offered the foreign ministership by Sonia Gandhi only to be turned down by Congress satraps under Manmohan Singh.

In Centres of Power: My Years in the PM’s Office and Security Council, which follows the author’s Horseshoe Table about his later period as under secretary-general at the UN Secretariat, he covers the 10 years from 1981 to 1991 during which time he was in the prime minister’s office (PMO) and ambassador to the UN at New York.

Given that the events described in the book are over 30 years old and can reasonably be assumed to be known to anyone sufficiently interested in such matters, what remains is the author’s view of the important people with whom he came in contact. Strangely, given that Gharekhan was a foreign policy expert, there is much in this book about domestic affairs, in which he was presumably not directly involved. He notes that concentration of power in the PMO has tended to depreciate the expertise of the civil service machinery. “In bureaucracy, access is everything” and having the PM’s ear inspired a feeling that he could influence decisions even more than the foreign secretary. As for politicians, he says “even puppet politicians are politicians first and puppets later”.

Chinmaya Gharekhan
Centres of Power: My Years in the PM’s Office and Security Council
Rupa, 2023

He believes Narasimha Rao was unconfident at dealing with his counterpart the Pakistani foreign minister, and that Indira Gandhi, when she had become used to someone, dealt through him/her irrespective of status. She never allowed any text to pass uncorrected, and took pains over trivia like gifts and menus. She did not share Nehru’s ideological affinity for Russia, was pro-British and was solicitous over British visitors, though she disliked the Commonwealth, perhaps because in that forum several heads of government indulged in very plain speaking. She cared about her coverage in the media, especially the Western press. She treated Indian ambassadors “with indifference and even contempt”, and was less than happy with Sri Lanka, Nepal and of course Pakistan. She “expected others to accept her as the world’s elder stateswoman and to give her due respect”. There is mention of how Indira’s officials tried to manoeuvre the Nobel Peace Prize for her, as bizarre as that sounds. Clearly some in high places at Delhi were, then as now, remote from reality.

The author speaks of how the Americans were “most excited” about Rajiv Gandhi’s assumption of office and took advantage of Rajiv’s inexperience to flood Delhi with a host of envoys of dubious quality. The prime minister for his part was anxious to “impress his interlocutors” with his sincerity. Soon, the PMO was aware that reference to, or praise for, Indira was not well received in the Rajiv circle. “Decisions were taken more or less off the cuff and by instinct.” He hardly had the time or inclination to read anything, and bureaucrats were insecure in the feeling they could be moved out at any time.

During his tenure in the PMO, Gharekhan was told he was considered a “progressive” in the PMO, though this is never explained. He displays sympathy for both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, a case of propinquity leading to affection and affecting critical judgment. He is inclined to a benign view even of arrogant upstarts like the PMO stenographer R.K. Dhawan. Nevertheless, he allows himself to critique Indira’s invocation of family heritage – “the emphasis on family did not sound decent in a democracy”, adding, in another context, there “was no half-way house between democracy and dictatorship”.

On the US, the author states “if one wanted to have good relations with them, it was only possible on their terms”. So it amply proved during his tenure in New York as ambassador to the UN Security Council during the first Gulf War (1991), where the US propensity for unilateral action was obvious and when the UN’s role was sidelined; “the US bullied, badgered and bribed to get the votes. They flouted rules of procedure and traditions.’ As Gharekhan notes, this was the first war authorized by the UN ‘by passing a series of resolutions’ in the name of the UN though ‘it had absolutely no control over it.” Already at this early date, the US promoted the canard that Iraq was close to acquiring a nuclear bomb, namely, the same lie that led to the Second Gulf War (2003-11), left Iraq in the dire straits it is in today and spawned the Islamic State.

India’s economic situation was such that “everyone under the PM was conscious not to upset the Americans” though most Indian opinion was pro-Saddam, the president of Iraq. Gharekhan reflects that “my non-offensive, non-combative style” enabled him to ride this contradiction at the Security Council with dignity and self-respect. These indeed are the qualities the author is known for, which brought him to the highest platforms of international diplomacy.

Krishnan Srinivasan is a former foreign secretary.