Lalit Singh Mansingh,
India’s Ambassador to the US
By Kavita Chhibber
I have known Lalit Mansingh since I was a child. He and my father were posted together in Afghanistan. I remember him as a handsome, very artistic diplomat whose elocutionary skills were par excellence. This quality is one of his that stands out to this day. What I appreciated even more when we met for this interview on his visit to inaugurate the Film Festival of India 2002-Atlanta that concluded last month was his sharp mind and his ability to talk about the most controversial issues with elegance.
Tell me something about your background.
I grew up in Orissa, a very backward state. The most powerful influence was my father, a writer and an educationist. I studied in Orissa and did my college, and the question came as to what would I do next. My first choice was to be a doctor, but I was not good in math. Later, I wanted to become a musician. My father was very supportive and said, “Of course I’ll send you to Vienna to study the violin.” My mother, on the other hand, put her foot down and said, “I won’t let my son become a band master.” I was ranked first in my university and decided to follow in my father’s footsteps and become a teacher. My mother, however, thought I should take the Indian Administrative Service exams. I was reluctant to do so since I had no interest in the civil services. Nevertheless, at her suggestion I took the exams and placed first. Nobody from the state of Orissa had ever joined the Foreign Service, and perhaps for this reason, I took the bold decision of going where no Oriya guy had gone before!
The initiation was painful because the Foreign Service was the citadel of snobs, and people generally came to the Foreign Service after going to private schools and Ivy League caliber colleges in India and abroad. You always felt as if you were being looked down upon. My ranking first and coming from a backward state like Orissa evoked a lot of curiosity. Many people did not even know what an Oriya looked like. I still feel conscious of representing a segment of India that was not represented well, and I am always explaining Orissa to everyone. I should give credit to the Union Public Service Commission because in the beginning your English accent mattered. The personality interview was done to find out how smart you were, but over a period of time they realized that the services must represent true India. Now the civil servants are coming from a much more diverse background, and the reservation system has given opportunities to the underprivileged. During my time anyone who excelled in the sciences went to the IITs or became a doctor. Mostly people from the arts side joined the civil services, but now a majority of the people who are joining the civil services have a technical or science background. I think that since the time the upper age limit was relaxed, you are getting more mature people who have work experience, have seen the world, and are more down to earth than raw youngsters of 21 years of age.
What are some of the milestones in your career that you remember?
My first assignment was in Geneva, and I had gone there to learn French and to gain some experience. Geneva was an international city, and I handled my first delegation there. After another stint elsewhere, I was sent to serve in the Economics Department in the Ministry of Finance. Within the Foreign Service this assignment was considered a “sidey” job, while in the IAS, the posting was considered to be the most prestigious. My first entry into the Finance Ministry was again a painful process because they would not accept me. Because I was in the Foreign Service, I was considered an outsider, and they firmly believed that people in the foreign services did not have the capability to handle important domestic issues. They’d say “Hey, deal with diplomacy; go to your cocktail parties.” Finally, we made our entry and established ourselves, but I must say that when you are inside, it is like being in a second-class compartment. I had no knowledge of economics and finance, but because of that first experience, I went back twice to the Finance Ministry.
After that experience in Delhi, I was sent to Kabul, which was actually a punishment posting. However, when I look back at my entire career, I don’t think I had as much fun as I did while working in Kabul. The embassy worked as one. We had a strong image in Afghanistan. We had built the children’s’ hospital there, set up an industrial base, had agricultural experts to help, created educational activities, helped Afghanistan in nation building, and helped install the Buddha statues in Bamiyan. I went back to Kabul in 1985-86. It was not the Kabul I had known. The freedom that one enjoyed was no longer there. I was part of an official delegation. There were carloads of policemen all over, and Kabul was in shambles. The next point of contact was when I became Foreign Secretary. Within weeks of my taking over, we had the hijacking when the plane landed in Kandahar.
Where was your first ambassadorial posting?
My first posting as ambassador was to the United Arab Emirates in 1980. The total population was 1 million; 250,000 were citizens, and the rest were foreigners. With a population of 450,000, Indians comprised the largest group. It was unique in the sense that this is an area that has the closest proximity to us in a historical context. During the time of the British, the entire Gulf region was governed from Bombay. Even today the region recognizes the Indian currency. Since then people in the region have become rich beyond imagination. It was quite an experience dealing with a new nation that was trying to develop a sense of nationalism and experimenting with democracy by having a constitution. India had a very high position there. Mrs. Gandhi’s visit there as Prime Minister was a great event. It seemed as if the entire country was there to welcome her.
After doing a variety of jobs, my most exciting time was as the Director General of ICCR where we had cultural exchanges with the rest of the world. We are one of the few countries in the world who has an institution of this kind. It was the brainchild of Maulana Azad, and Pandit Nehru encouraged it. I liked the exposure it gave me to my own culture. During my time, we did several festivals - not only in western countries but also in countries that had not seen Indian culture. The biggest and the most extensive festival we did was in the Soviet Union. In over eighteen months, nearly 5,000 covered all areas of Indian culture and art. When we had finished our festival of India in Russia, the Russians in turn wanted to have their festival here. India was facing a severe drought, but Rajiv Gandhi stated that India must reciprocate the hospitality extended by the Russians. He invited them over and planned to supplement government resources by getting private sponsorship. This challenge was thrown at me. In my enthusiasm, I thought that all I had to do was to go the Tatas and the Birlas, but to my surprise, I found that they were not very enthusiastic. We got money but from very obscure companies. We also asked the sponsors in each state to sell tickets and transferred the revenue collected into the Prime Minster’s Relief Fund. I actually managed to raise three and a half crores after taking care of all the expenses. Culture should not always depend on government, though government can provide guidelines.
So is privatization the key to a new India?
Well though the privatization program is a step in the right direction, we have also discovered the nuisance of privatization. In some areas you hand things over to private companies, and they run it better. In some areas you expect the private sector to come and take over, and they don’t. Take the power sector for instance. It was our genuine belief that there was a shortage of power and a demand for it so we let the private sector come in. We have offered the power sector to the private sector for the last ten years, but there has been negligible investment. The reason is that the private sector will go in when it is absolutely safe and it is sure to make money. There was hardly any private capital when the British left India. The government created an institution that gave part of the taxpayer’s money as loan to help people such as the Birlas, the Nandas, and the Tatas set up their businesses. Indian capitalism is based on government capital. The private sector should take risks.
Let us talk about your US experience.
During my first trip to the US, Indo-US relations were in the doldrums. We had brief ups and very long downs, and at that time the world was also changing. The Cold War was over; the Berlin Wall had fallen; the Gulf War was taking place. So, that was a great period to be in Washington and to have a ringside seat from which I could see what was happening. India was not very much in the picture for the Americans. We were trying to make India’s presence felt by trying to get the Indian American community to come together on one common platform. A handful of Indian American leaders were pursuing this effort and have done a lot of solid work. AAPI was very powerful even though it was pursuing its own interests to end discrimination against foreign educated physicians. Then there were individuals who were emerging as fundraisers and getting known to politicians. At the embassy we tried to push these efforts. I remember my several visits to Atlanta and my travels throughout the country and meetings with members of the Indian American community. When I left in 1992, we were at the beginning of this process. I wasn’t sure how much we would achieve. However, I am happy to say that in the last ten years, we have gone beyond what I had imagined. The cold war came to an end, and our dialogue with the United States brought us closer. Then our economy opened up and provided an incentive for American businesses to invest in India, which was identified as one of the top ten emerging markets. Third, the Indian American community got their act together and gained recognition as a highly educated, high performing, high per capita income community. Clinton appreciated that and the parties realized that the community is a good source of political funding. So began the involvement in the political process.
Today the relationship between the two nations is closer than ever. We have a strong bilateral dialogue at the highest level, close military cooperation the likes of which we had not seen in the past, strategic and economic dialogues, and exchanges of ideas pertaining to science and technology. In almost every field, there is an intensification of relationship. I feel that all this is good, but I don’t think it is good enough. We have established our presence at the grassroots levels and are seeing a few faces in the state legislature. However, we still don’t have a presence that is solid.
I tell community members to talk to congressmen and senators and tell them what we want. We are trying to start a Friends of India in the Senate. The efforts are geared towards correcting any misconceptions about India and Indian policies and any biases that the mainstream media may project. Our focus must now also shift from socio-cultural activities to bread-and-butter issues, and we must focus on business and political agendas.
Let’s switch to Indo-Pak relations. What future do you see for Pakistan, where military dictatorship has been the norm for decades?
There is something in the internal processes of Pakistan that somehow discourages democracy and encourages military rule. I think the Pakistani people deserve democracy, but democracy is not something India can impose on Pakistan. The people of Pakistan have to bring democracy onto themselves. Our stand is, “We will be happy to deal with a democratic Pakistan, as it’s our conviction that democracies go to war less often than do countries with military rule.” So we prefer to have democracy in Pakistan, but we will accept the reality and deal with anyone who runs Pakistan.
General Musharraf has repeatedly said that if the need arises he will not hesitate to use nuclear weapons against India.
On nuclear weapons we have a very clear-cut doctrine. Unlike other nuclear states we don’t have masses of nuclear weapons that can destroy the world several times over. We have a clear doctrine of non-use against countries that do not possess nuclear weapons and no-first-use against countries that do possess nuclear weapons. We will never be the first to use nuclear weapons. I can only hope and pray that Pakistan has responsible leaders and that nobody is insane enough to think of using nuclear weapons as it would mean the certain destruction of Pakistan.
What are you thoughts on what has happened in Gujarat?
You have to look at India’s track record: long years of civilization and more than 2,000 years of religious coexistence and harmony. After all, how many countries can boast having eight major religions coexisting together? The point is that when you have a billion people subscribing to eight religions, some amount of religious tension is to be expected from time to time, and of late, there has been this concerted effort to create divisions between the communities and to provoke hatred and animosity. That is what we have been seeing in Kashmir and elsewhere. Where there was peace, there is division, violence, terrorism, and hatred. These have been created deliberately; they are not due to a natural animosity between two religions.
In India we have a strong history of respecting religion and tradition, and violence, despite great provocation, was not allowed to spread. There could have been a holocaust in all of India. Fortunately, the violence remained confined to Gujarat and was brought under control because the government of India took a firm stand on upholding the law and constitution.
A lot of people put the blame on the BJP government, but it is not the BJP government. The BJP is an important component of the government, but the government is a national democratic alliance that has an agenda that does not coincide with the agenda of any party – including the BJP. There is no doubt that the government upheld the law, and the Prime Minister was determined to bring the violence under control and to show no mercy to miscreants. Actually, more than a hundred people who were shot dead by the police came from the Hindu community. This figure should reinforce our faith in the unbiased characteristic of the government, the media, and the courts. The National Human Rights Commission has issued a report, and there is a judicial commission looking into this matter. So, our structures are strong; our institutions are strong. It is because we are India that we are able to control it and get over it. The wounds will heal. Despite doubts about the BJP, the Prime Minister and the Home Minister have been exemplary in ensuring us that this incident was controlled. State governments vary in degrees of efficiency. I am not saying that this incident is a reflection, but the situation that faced the Gujarat government was beyond its capability to handle. Like a forest fire, it was hard to contain. For this reason the center’s assistance was summoned. That’s how things got under control.
When you look back of what accomplishment are you proudest as a diplomat and as an Indian?
I would say that it’s the emergence of India as a strong power on the global stage that gives me the greatest pleasure.
All Material © Copyright Kavita Chhibber
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