MEA culpa: a diplomatic talk-fest

MEA culpa: a diplomatic talk-fest

New Delhi: Like homing birds, all 130 ambassadors and high commissioners in Indian missions abroad have flown into Delhi to participate in a three-day conference starting Monday, which is expected to take stock of the changing power dynamics in international relations and how India should respond.

This is the first time the ministry of external affairs (MEA) is undertaking such a massive effort to bring all its overseas diplomats together to brief and brainstorm on issues of security, economic diplomacy and organizational matters, notes Vivek Katju, special secretary in the ministry. “We’ve done it all before regionally so we thought it might be a good idea to get everyone together to debate issues under one roof."

Coming weeks after the Mumbai attacks, terror will be on top of the so-called Heads of Missions Conference agenda. Speakers include Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, external affairs minister and host Pranab Mukherjee, defence minister A.K. Antony, home minister P. Chidambaram, commerce minister Kamal Nath and deputy chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia, all expected to initiate debates on other roles India must also play worldwide.

Also, on the menu are apparently unpretentious box lunches and a sparse fare of unlimited tea, coffee and biscuits at the Foreign Service Institute where the diplomats will huddle. Other agenda items include energy diplomacy, the Indian diaspora, role of both culture and agriculture—and India’s image abroad.

The third day has been reserved for “organizational" matters, a sort of navel-gazing day when sparks could fly if candour prevails. That’s when foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon will discuss some new ideas which have already caused some dissension within the ministry, including one about bringing in outside experts to replenish limited in-house talent.

Despite good intentions, however, no position papers have been prepared on the three main topics for discussion: security, economic diplomacy and organizational matters, and ministry officials admit little, if any, brainstorming has happened in the run-up to the confab.

The regional heads of mission meetings conducted by Mukherjee as he travelled to various parts of the globe over the last year or so were believed to be “enough of a headstart for this conference", says one diplomat who didn’t want to be identified, while several others that Mint spoke to said the ministry had not solicited any ideas in advance from them on the agenda issues.

In the UK, for example, British high commissioner to India Richard Stagg was told six months before the British Foreign Office holds its next summit in March that he would also have to conduct some “outreach" meetings during his time in London with several Indian-origin communities, the high commission’s press officer Dan Chugg said.

Every such summit, Chugg added, has a few themes that must be attended by every one of the 200 or so top diplomats, such as communications, counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics. “The view from London is sometimes so different from the view in several foreign capitals," Chugg said.

Considering the ministry looked at several templates for such a conference, including from Britain, Pakistan and Hungary, whose foreign offices hold similar annual summits, this first effort by India seems to be turning out to be “a bit of a jamboree" where batchmates and colleagues are getting together to “swap notes as well as gossip", claims the same diplomat.

In India, a thematic conference model was abandoned in favour of the big speech, to be delivered by the Prime Minister and his colleagues.

Indian President Pratibha Patil, in whose name every ambassador carries a letter of credence to the state he/she is accredited, as well as vice-president Mohammad Hamid Ansari, an ex-diplomat himself, are also expected to be visited by the envoys, according to Katju.

Coming amid a severe downturn and a much publicized talk of government austerity, ministry officials are at pains to paint the event as a low-cost affair, in part because each embassy’s existing travel budget will pick up the tab for the head of mission’s flight to India.

Ministry officials claim all 130 diplomats have been told to make their own arrangements for accommodation with cars being the only perk they will be allowed during the visit. For the visits to Rashtrapati Bhavan and the vice-president’s residence, buses have been hired.

“We are envisaging a maximum of Rs7,000 per day per diplomat, including his daily allowance," insists Katju.

That, for those of you doing the math, adds up to Rs27.30 lakh, for starters.