Indian diplomats spin new web
By Devirupa Mitra - NEW DELHI
Published: 16th Dec 2012 11:21:49 AM
Away from prying eyes, Indian government’s former and current foreign policy wonks have been sharpening their debate and airing their views on crucial issues in the virtual world.
For scores of Indian Foreign Service officials posted in India and abroad, the worldwide web has been The Great Enabler, bringing them closer not just to talk about their service issues, but for an interactive dialogue on larger foreign policy issues confronting the country.
“Unlike other central services, IFS is a rather small community, but still it was difficult to foster a sense of community as everybody was posted to disparate places across the globe,” said a senior IFS officer.
Started about four years ago, the closely-held and loosely moderated Google group of Indian Foreign Service officers has become a much-used sounding board. The online message board has grown phenomenally, with over 500 members who have increased the average number of online messages to over five per day.
As a senior IFS officer put it, the posts have become a daily must-read for officials posted from Guangzhou to Chicago to catch up with the latest buzz in the small community of diplomats. “It has become an exceptional tool in building up institutional memory, especially for the junior officers, perhaps, who may not have a chance to interact or hear the candid views of senior officers,” he said.
In recent months, with the 50th anniversary of the 1962 war passing, relations with China have been a hot topic in this exclusive online club. In fact, as one observer wrote, perhaps nothing “stimulated” the fervour among the members than discussions on India’s relations with its northern giant.
Of course, there were differing takes on how to deal with China, which has become more aggressive in shaking the status quo in its disputes with other counties, as seen recently in the South China Sea and with Japan.
The most enthusiastic participation has been of retired IFS officers, especially foreign secretaries Shyam Saran and Kanwal Sibal. “With Taiwan and Japan we see China’s territorial hard posture with roots in geopolitics and China’s internal tensions. Our only answer is to build ourselves economically and militarily to make it difficult for China to continue to browbeat us periodically,” Sibal said on the forum.
National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon chips in too sometimes with one-line observations made via his Blackberry phone. Recently, when a retired officer said that first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had been proved wrong on his China policy, Menon replied that it was an “oversimplification of breathtaking proportions and unfair to Nehru”, but added that expansion on this would require a face-to-face meeting.
With so many retired officers being frequent columnists and television experts, the conversations often feel like extensions of their views expounded publicly —with more scope to nuance them in the unmonitored forum.
While all officials have handled sensitive files, the forum has rather strict ‘guidelines’ on no classified information being disclosed through posts. The group also asks its members to exercise “extreme care” while writing their messages on active foreign policy issues that are sensitive by nature.