Academic journal article Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

Reminiscences of a 'Fly on the Wall'

Academic journal article Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

Reminiscences of a 'Fly on the Wall'

Article excerpt

Ambassador Prabhakar Menon served as advisor on foreign affairs to Prime Minister Shri P. V. Narasimha Rao, while he was posted as Joint Secretary (Prime Minister's Office) from 1992 to 1996. He was privy, on numerous occasions, to high-level interaction between the Prime Minister and his counterparts around the world.

Earlier, from 1980 to 1982, he served as Director (Foreign Secretary's Office) where again he was an eyewitness to some significant developments.

In this conversation with the Journal, he recounts some of the events that shaped India's Foreign Policy postures -- as he saw from close quarters (as the proverbial 'fly on the wall') during those two tenures.

Indian Foreign Affairs Journal (IFAJ): Twice in your over thirty five years career in the Foreign Service, you occupied two important chairs in South Block: once as Director of the Foreign Secretary's Office (FSO), and later, as the advisor on foreign Affairs to the Prime Minister, as Joint Secretary in the Prime Minster's Office (PMO).

During both these assignments, you were privy to some high level, hitherto less catalogued events in the foreign affairs fields. You were, in one way, the proverbial 'fly on the wall', quietly observing events at the highest levels. Of course, you were also an active participant in many of these developments.

Before we talk about specific events, can you tell us about how you came to be chosen for these posts?

Prabhakar Menon (PM): Let me begin by thanking you and the IFAJ for inviting me to tell my story. Postings like these presumably happen when a combination of circumstances picks one out. Ambassador Ram Sathe succeeded Ambassador Jagat Mehta as Foreign Secretary towards the end of 1979, and he, Mr. Sathe, was looking for a person to supervise his personal office. Mr. T.P. Sreenivasan had been looking after Mr. Mehta's office. Our Ministry, I'm told, had a roster of names for Mr. Sreenivasan's successor, and my name happened to be in that roster. I joined FSO in the beginning of 1980.

As for the JS(PMO) job, my predecessor, Mr. Shyam Saran, had been appointed our High Commissioner to Mauritius. I happened to return to Delhi around that time, after a stint as Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative in our Permanent Mission to the U.N. in New York, and was working in MEA as Joint Secretary (UN). Foreign Secretary Mr. J.N. Dixit felt, perhaps, that he could take the risk of proposing my name as Joint Secretary in Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's Office, which was then headed by his Principal Secretary Mr. Amar Nath Verma. Mr. Ramu Damodaran was then Private Secretary to the Prime Minister. All of them were familiar with my name, and I guess they took the plunge in agreeing to my appointment, which materialized in 1992.

Prime Minister Rao was himself familiar with my name -- but that is another curious story that we can come to later, if you agree.

Recollections as Director of the Foreign Secretary's Office: 1980--82

Soviet Union / Afghanistan

IFAJ: Ambassador Sathe took over as Foreign Secretary at a crucial juncture -- in the sense that we were confronted then with the problem of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Do you recollect how he dealt with this?

PM: His natural instinct was to be squarely critical of it. Afghanistan was, in those days, going through a bad patch, with a kind of carousel-like round of governments, none of which seemed stable. The former Soviet Union couldn't, I suppose, tolerate its soft underbelly becoming vulnerable ... you might recall the buzkashi game that the Afghans used to play, where a goat's head was furiously chased by teams on horseback. It is a rough-and-tumble game, with much yelling and dust being raised. This was what it might have looked like to the Soviets. They saw Afghanistan being confiscated by forces inimical to their strategic interests. Hence their drastic decision to invade -- which most of the world, including ourselves, considered a forcible violation of the national sovereignty of another independent nation, and hence not just inexcusable but in contravention of international law. …

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