No one would like to have been in the shoes of India’s ambassador to Vietnam on the evening when president K.R. Narayanan hosted Vietnam president Tran Duc Luong. At the banquet in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, they played the anthem of “the hated defunct regime of South Vietnam”, which had ceased to exist in 1975.
The sweating feet in the ambassador’s shoes were of Aftab Seth. No one around understood the faux pas, except Seth who had to think on his feet literally as the Vietnamese protested to him violently. He begged the visiting delegation to give him a little time. Overnight he drafted an official apology, got it approved by the entire hierarchy―the president’s secretary, the foreign secretary, the prime minister and the president himself―and presented it early morning to the Vietnamese who had nearly decided to call off the rest of the visit and go home. Indeed, the coup de grace was a surprise apology conveyed by president Narayanan himself to the guest next morning.
Seth’s A Diplomat’s Garden is not all about flowers, but also about such thorns that prick a diplomat’s feet in his career. In his four-decade-long career, Seth treaded on many such thorns, but came out with few wounds thanks to his personal charm, diplomatic skill and pleasant manners which deflated egos.
Born in an illustrious multi-faith family, Seth went to the right schools and college, including one in Japan, a country for which he seems to have a soft corner. Well, that soft corner did help in repairing India-Japan ties. Japan had been one of the nastiest sanctioners on India after the 1998 nuclear test, but within just a couple of years turned friendly, and even sent their prime minister on a visit. No need to say, Seth, then ambassador in Tokyo, played a key role in facilitating the visit and improving relations.
Seth might have liked his stint in Japan the most, but what interests the readers would be his tenure as consul-general in Karachi in the crucial years when Benazir Bhutto was allowed to return to military-ruled Pakistan, jailed and released. Those were also the early days of Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister when he was seeking to build good ties with Pakistan. The book gives a good idea of how non-official channels and events helped build ties―for instance, the Doon School reunion where Seth got old boys from Pakistan and Rajiv hosted a tea for them, and the St. Stephen’s old boys’ network about which Zia himself seemed to have been proud of.
The Pak chapter is not just about old boys’ networks and tea parties. Seth tells us riveting stories of how he met Pakistani leaders, including Benazir and even the hard-drinking Baluch leaders, often fooling his ISI tails.
One of the interesting anecdotes involves THE WEEK and Malayala Manorama whose managing editor Mammen Mathew interviewed Zia in 1985 in Islamabad. After it was published, the Pakistan mission in Delhi claimed that THE WEEK had added the word “only” to a statement by Zia. “Mammen, unfazed, published the interview any way. He also published the letter of the mission written to him in full. Mammen wrote to me saying he had the whole interview on tape and Zia had indeed used the word “only”, which the Pakistanis claimed, changed the context of the sentence.”
Then the author adds good-humouredly: “The episode was a clear example of the precarious nature of our relations with Pakistan, where the slightest incident, in this case the interpretation of semantics, could and did create problems for those involved.”
A DIPLOMAT’S GARDEN
By Aftab Seth
Publisher: Birch Books
Pages: 568; price: Rs1,300