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What was the problem with the letter the Embassy sent the Irish Times?

You’ve probably been reading about the Indian Ambassador to Ireland who also functions as a part-time Twitter cheer-leader.

In case you missed it, here is the story:


A newspaper called The Irish Times ran an article on India’s forthcoming election. While the article upheld the assumption that the BJP would win, it repeated some of the criticisms that have often been levelled against our government, about its high-handedness, its arrests of opposition leaders, the focus on the majority community, etc.


   There was nothing terribly surprising about the article — similar pieces have appeared in nearly every major publication in the West as well as in India. Nevertheless, the Indian Embassy took exception to the article and decided to respond. This was fair enough. They were within their rights to ‘uphold the image of India abroad’.


   The problem was with the letter the Embassy sent the Irish Times. It was the sort of missive that a North Korean diplomat would send out in defence of the Supreme Leader, not the sort of thing we expect members of the Indian Foreign Service to do.


   The Ambassador, who signed the letter personally, all but prostrated himself before a portrait of our Prime Minister, telling The Irish Times that Mr. Modi has an “impeccable personal character” and that his “personal life inspires millions in India and other developing countries” and on and on in a similar vein.


   Once this paean to the Prime Minister was over, the Ambassador stopped prostrating himself on the floor and stood up to deliver a sharp kick to India’s opposition. Mr. Modi, the Ambassador said, was fighting against “a deeply-entrenched ecosystem of corruption created by the 55-years rule, including the first 30 years, by a single dynastic party in India… “


   This, he added, “is a major factor behind Mr. Modi’s ever growing popularity.” The letter went on to offer us more of the view from Dublin including a rebuttal of the paper’s references to the arrests of opposition leaders. In fact, the Ambassador added, there was relief “at the grass-root level to witness action being taken and recoveries made from the rich and powerful elites who operated with a sense of entitlement…”


   In case anyone missed the Ambassador’s letter, the Embassy put out the entire text on Twitter (or X as we now call it). While the Embassy’s Twitter account has only 11000 followers who I am sure are deeply engaged and hang on the Ambassador’s every word, this is not a terribly significant number in social media terms. So it is hard to supress the unworthy thought that the real target of the tweet was not the Embassy’s little Twitter following but the Ambassador’s bosses back in India. They may not have read the correspondence with The Irish Times. But once they saw the letter on Twitter they would realise what a good boy the Ambassador had been.


   Should we be surprised by all this? It is, sadly enough, in the nature of India’s politicians to expect their babus and civil servants to suck up to them. No doubt the Ambassador’s hit-job on the Congress and his admiration of the Prime Minister will both be noted by his political masters. This may stand him in good stead for the remainder of his service career; it may also help him join the BJP should he want to. (And we have seen other examples of former top diplomats rushing back to accept BJP tickets.)


    All this leads us to the same sort of doubts I raised here when a judge of the Calcutta High Court who had acted and spoken against the TMC regime in Bengal took premature retirement and got himself a BJP ticket.


"Would a post-retirement cooling off period of two years during which no government servant can join politics help? It may well be worth discussing."

   We have regulations in place to guard against civil servants who favour private companies and then try and then join them after retirement. But we have no regulations that prevent judges from accepting government posts right after they step down. It is often alleged that those judges who rule in favour of the governments in power get to keep their huge bungalows and their salaries by being appointed to head Commissions and Constitutional bodies. And some even accept Rajya Sabha nominations. There is nothing illegal about this but it’s not difficult to see why there may be some public disquiet.


   The same applies to civil servants who, if they have served their political masters well, continue to do so after retirement (premature or otherwise) by joining politics.


   It has spread to the army too. Generals are rarely political but when they are perceived as fighting with a government while in office and then go on to become politicians, questions are bound to be raised as they were about Gen. VK Singh, him of the two birthdays.


   If a judge, civil servant, diplomat or even military officer intends to join politics then he or she may treat their imminent political careers as a higher priority than the jobs they are supposed to be doing and function as political tools rather than in the interests of the public.


   Would a post-retirement cooling off period of two years during which no government servant can join politics help? It may well be worth discussing.


   But let’s not kid ourselves. Not everyone becomes a toady in the hope of getting some post-retirement job. Many people do it for advancement while still in government.


   The Supreme Court is a good example. During Indira Gandhi’s time, the government passed over such upright but ‘inconvenient’ judges as Justice HR Khanna, ignored the principle of seniority and appointed favourite judges to key posts. At the time, Delhi was filled with rumours: was it true that one of the favoured justices would throw a party every year to mark Indira Gandhi’s birthday? This may or may not have been accurate but it cast doubts on the Bench and later, when the Supreme Court failed to protect liberty during the Emergency, this was seen as an inevitable consequence. That’s why the Collegium system, with all its faults, is still better than one where the government calls the shots.


   Oddly enough, Indira Gandhi was the one Prime Minister who would have had no difficulty with what our prostrating Ambassador in Ireland has done. During the Emergency, embassies were asked to praise Mrs Gandhi and to defend the emergency even after it became clear that what was going on was indefensible. So, a little chamchagari from Dublin or anywhere else would have been entirely fine with her.


   Indira Gandhi talked about a ‘committed’ judiciary and a ‘committed’ civil service. Her view was that she could not change India for the better unless the courts and the bureaucracy shared her view of India. (At that stage, this vision was of a new India transformed by socialism). It was a terrible idea and fortunately Mrs. Gandhi lost power in 1977 before she took it much further. (When she returned to power in the 1980s, she had lost interest in socialism.)


   I often wonder, given the innumerable similarities in style between Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi: is this what the BJP government wants? A committed governmental and judicial machinery dedicated only to transforming India according to a singular political vision.


   I don’t know. But it sure as hell is beginning to look that way.



Posted On: 18 Apr 2024 01:00 AM
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