GUEST REVIEW by Sir Nicholas Bayne

(Manas Publications: New Delhi, 2015). 371 pp. incl. index. ISBN 978-81-7409-511-6 (paperback).[ buy this book ]

‘A diplomatist’s glory is the most ephemeral of all forms of that transient reward’, wrote Lord Salisbury. Kishan Rana has proved him wrong conclusively over the last twenty years, with eleven books, over 100 articles and courses in diplomatic practice that began in India and have spread to more than twenty countries. Thousands of students and others interested in diplomacy are in his debt, myself among them, as he has lectured for me at the LSE and contributed chapters for three editions of a book. His aim in these long-awaited memoirs is ‘to link [his] experiences with concepts and ideas that may interest professional diplomats and others’. The book therefore forms the prequel to the activity of the last two decades. It reveals the source of the energy and the wisdom that have driven his creativity. He starts with his final post as Ambassador to Germany, since this stimulated many ideas developed in his later work, but I prefer to analyse his career in sequence.

He began inauspiciously. For thirteen years he was a China specialist, including two postings in Beijing. The Indian mission was the best informed of any, but there was no India-China dialogue of any kind. Back in Delhi he advocated reconciliation, but this was blocked higher up. The lasting benefits of this time came from a side posting to Geneva. His newly-married wife Mimi accompanied him (his children were born there) and became a vital support thereafter. A Quaker seminar on improving foreign ministry performance planted the seeds that have since yielded so rich a harvest.

His luck turned when he was named ambassador to Algeria, the first of six head of mission posts. In each of them he showed a genius for seizing the opportunities offered. Algeria was barely known to India then, but it was growing rich from oil revenues. Kishan Rana saw how Indian state-owned firms could interact with their Algerian counterparts, in ways western firms could not, and brought many projects to fruition. He took full advantage of the chance to bring Indian doctors to the country, to everyone’s advantage. A short spell in Prague was less rewarding. Czech and Indian state firms were locked in a cosy embrace, where neither side wanted to innovate. Cultural links provided better openings.

The pattern was broken when, mysteriously, he was called back to serve in Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s office, only to be dismissed equally mysteriously a year later. His long chapter gives a vivid picture of Indira Gandhi at the height of her powers. But he had little chance to make his own mark and was cut off from his parent ministry. After a brief spell in charge of personnel (where he blamed himself for not doing enough) he returned to his field of real mastery, as head of post in Nairobi, San Francisco, Mauritius and finally Germany.

Kishan Rana perceived that getting close to President Moi was key to success in Kenya and secured regular meetings with him. He intercepted the head of India’s small industries corporation passing through Nairobi and got the Kenyans interested, including Moi himself. Moi was reluctant to let him depart for his next post in San Francisco. But he was reconciled after Rana explained it was for his children’s education and commended this publicly. Once arrived in the US, Rana at once overhauled the consular services offered. He mobilised the Indian-Americans working in IT to promote ‘Software India’, the first campaign of its kind, leading to valuable US investment. Going reluctantly to Mauritius, he found it an absorbing posting. He got close to Prime Minister Jugnauth, avoided political pitfalls and laid the foundations for India to become Mauritius’ largest trading partner.

On a visit to Mauritius, Prime Minister Naramsimha Rao appointed him to Bonn just as India’s economic reforms took effect. Rana was more than ready for them, having complained that Indian state firms behaved like ministries, notoriously ‘among the least efficient organizations known to man’. He was thus well-equipped to mobilise the synergy between newly reforming India and newly reunited Germany. He helped to arouse German industry’s interest in India, intervening at key moments in bilateral summits between Rao and Chancellor Kohl and following up with business leaders. Germany also became India’s strongest backer in the EU, while Indian cultural links made great advances there. Bonn was an outstanding conclusion to his diplomatic career.

Kishan Rana developed to the highest degree the skills required by a bilateral head of mission (though perhaps at the expense of those needed in his home ministry). He both created his own opportunities and seized any unplanned ones that appeared. He had the gift of developing close professional contacts, who often became close personal friends. He was constantly innovative, despite persistent lack of response from New Delhi, which would adopt his ideas years later. For example, he began formulating his own post objectives in the mid-1970s. This was a decade ahead of the British diplomatic service (where my career coincided exactly with his own), while India finally caught up in 2015. He knew the importance of attention to detail, for example in reorganizing the consular operation in San Francisco (I had to do the same ten years later with the passport service in Ottawa). He also knew that not every project worked and was prepared to accept responsibility for failure. Above all, inspired by an initial briefing from Indira Gandhi, he made economic diplomacy his first priority and built up political links on the back of it. All these qualities, as vividly revealed in these memoirs, have given his subsequent work on diplomacy their conviction and their authority.

Guest review, Nicholas Bayne, London School of Economics and Political Science