The art of diplomacy

The art of diplomacy

In the world of global diplomacy, embarrassments, gaffes, and ‘diplomatic incidents’ are par for the course

“I saw it. I fixed it. That’s the whole story”. It took me a few minutes to understand what the Minister was saying to me. I was in Islamabad to cover the SAARC Home Minister’s meeting in 2010, attended by the then Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, and I had received a summons from Indian Embassy officials who said the Minister wanted to speak to Indian journalists. Apparently “it” referred to the Indian tricolour that had been placed upside down, inadvertently or otherwise, on the table next to Mr. Chidambaram during the bilateral talks with the then Pakistani Interior Minister, Rehman Malik. The Minister had moved with some deftness once an official pointed out the error, and wanted to ensure that television channels back home would use the visuals of the Indian flag after it had been set right and not before. Although Malik swore it was an honest mistake, suspicions were high that the hosts had done this on purpose to upset the atmosphere, heightened by the memory that even as a guest in 2006, former Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf had flown into Jaipur with the tricolour flying upside down on his plane. At the SAARC Home Minister’s meeting in 2016 too, there was an incident: protesters in Pakistan were allowed close to the convoy of then Home Minister Rajnath Singh, and India officially protested this with the Pakistan government.

As host, India too has had to deal with some tense moments over protests during visits. In 2002, Tibetan youth leader Tenzin Tsundue scaled 14 floors of a Mumbai hotel during Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji’s visit, and unfurled a Tibetan flag. In 2005, Mr. Tsundue unfurled a ‘Free Tibet’ banner from atop a water tower in Bengaluru when Premier Wen Jiabao visited the IISc campus. And in 2016, protesters were allowed close to Hyderabad House in New Delhi where President Xi Jinping met Prime Minister Narendra Modi. All these incidents, the Chinese delegations suspected, were “deliberately planned” rather than security breaches.

When it comes to flags, not all incidents are as serious. The Chief of Protocol of a neighbouring country once told me about a near-incident, when he asked his foreign ministry supplier to decorate the city’s roundabouts with national flags in honour of the Czech Republic leader’s arrival. To his horror, he found the main street of the capital decked in black-and-white chequered flags (like the ones found at F1 car races) instead, and had to move swiftly to have new flags in place. At an official banquet in Delhi a few years ago, I realised that the menus that had been placed in front of us had been mixed up with those for a previous visitor. The officials, once alerted, moved quickly to correct the mistake and through sign language and whispers, ensured that the Indian guests removed all the menus from the plates of the foreign guests sitting next to them.

In the complex and often arcane world of global diplomacy, gaffes, embarrassments and “diplomatic incidents” are par for the course. Some, like the Qatari decision to cancel a banquet in honour of Vice President Venkaiah Naidu, ostensibly due to his counterpart the Deputy Emir’s possible exposure to COVID-19, left officials wondering if there was a larger message being conveyed regarding the Qatar government’s unhappiness over the controversial comments made in India about Prophet Mohammad. Some of those suspicions were confirmed when the Qatar Foreign Ministry also summoned the Ambassador to protest. Nevertheless, the Vice President continued through the trip as is normally the case in such matters, making the point that bilateral ties transcend such incidents, and trying to ensure, mostly unsuccessfully, that we in the media follow suit. However, in the age of social media, it is that much harder to stop a story from getting out, and to do the “damage control” once it is published.

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