There is absolutely nothing “accidental” about the steady and impressive rise and rise of a self-effacing powerhouse, who has steered India’s policy in all the right directions from the time he joined the Indian Foreign Service (preferring the rigours of diplomacy to the cushioning of a corporate job) aged 22 and became the youngest Indian consul general to Vietnam at 26. Packed off to a boarding school in distant Ajmer at age nine, his far-seeing father figured that an education away from his beloved Darjeeling would do the boy a lot of good. Clearly, it was the best decision for Harsh Vardhan Shringla who, as India’s distinguished foreign secretary and earlier ambassador to the US, impressed Prime Minister Narendra Modi enough to name him chief coordinator of India’s G20 presidency.
With so many awe-inspiring credentials, I was stumped how to address the great man when I was invited by Gateway House to be in conversation with him, for a roomful of Mumbai’s diplomatic community and a few friends of the foreign policy think tank that is ably headed by Manjeet Kripalani. So, I asked him directly what he was comfortable with, and he answered simply, “Call me Harsh…” There is a bit of a backstory here: I have known Harsh from his earlier postings, notably the one in Thailand where he was a highly popular consul general, loved by locals for his accessibility and helpful attitude. He had graciously hosted a few rowdy writers (me included) as a part of a festival of India. There he was, with his artistic wife Hemal (a Mumbai gal) taking us on a beautiful night cruise in Bangkok, as we enjoyed the sites along the… river, and behaved boisterously as writers tend to, once their official readings are over. Harsh was a calming presence. Someone described him as the “Shahenshah of friendship”, another explained, “He is the most grounded diplomat, and hence, most loved.’’
The gush is understandable. But make no mistake. Behind the Buddha-like outer façade, lurks one of the sharpest, shrewdest brains—competitive and competent, direct and articulate—clearly a diplomat ready to play hardball when required. Our interaction was highly engaging and informed, thanks largely to Harsh’s extended responses to questions on India’s policy vis-à-vis our neighbours and the world beyond.
Harsh had clearly impressed Donald Trump enough for the then president to invite him to the White House for a warm farewell at the end of his term as ambassador. Getting him to open up about his myriad experiences as a diplomat, including fascinating encounters with amazing people, was the easy part for me. Harsh made it easier still by taking his time to respond to questions… thereby ensuring we had a ‘meaningful’ dialogue—but no controversies! Given that we were there to discuss his recently launched biography titled—Not An Accidental Rise—authored by Dipmala Roka, there was much ground still waiting to be covered. We would overshoot the time, and there was room for one final question from me. I decided to make it a frothy one, just to change the tempo of the earlier intensity. “Has the era of champagne soirees and formal bandhgalas come to an end in the contemporary, more hard-nosed universe of urbane diplomats?” Harsh burst out laughing. I had hoped that he would assure us the glamour has not gone out entirely from the rarefied world of international diplomacy. But he confirmed my worst doubts—it is all work and no play these days. Where are you, 007, when we need you the most. I definitely dream of sipping a martini with Harsh at a bar in Casablanca. Shaken and not stirred, of course!