1 April 2023

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'Wisdom is to live in tune with the mode of the changing world'


It was unsettling to discover after four decades as a professional diplomat that many of the assumptions on which we had operated were now being called into question. But it did not follow from there that our experiences were suddenly irrelevant. On the contrary, it seemed that those who could most objectively assess the last many decades were best placed to anticipate the coming times. Seeking truth from facts is, however, not easy. If the pressure of political correctness is one challenge, the weight of accumulated dogma is no less. An equally difficult reconciliation is that between an adequate awareness of the global context, and yet viewing it from a hard-headed national perspective. This has been a persistent dilemma since Independence and the era of nationalism has only sharpened it further. These are some issues of an endeavour that has occupied me for the last two years.

In many ways, it was natural to put pen to paper on the subjects around which my life has revolved. An unpublished PhD thesis and an in-house history of the Indo-US nuclear deal provided some confidence to do so. Thus, it came about that after my tenure as Foreign Secretary ended in 2018, this initiative began through a fellowship with the Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore. If the project kept changing form and content thereafter, much of that reflected the rapid pace of events in the world we live in. At some stage, I put aside the temptation of bringing in any aspects of a memoir, believing that they are better written by those who are no longer operational. Instead, my effort was to develop an argumentation on contemporary politics through interactions in different forums, keeping them as analytical and dispassionate as possible.

Looking at the world over these four decades from key vantage points was truly helpful in arriving at a detached view of its risks and possibilities. A professional initiation in Moscow taught me valuable lessons in great power politics, some perhaps unintended. Four stints dealing with the United States created a lasting interest in a polity whose confidence and resilience are quite unique. A long stay in Japan was an education in the nuances of East Asia, as indeed in the unrealized potential of our ties. And a shorter one in Singapore brought out the importance of adjusting to global happenings. Postings in Prague and Budapest heightened sensitivity to the currents of history. An absorbing but difficult tour in Sri Lanka was an invaluable politico-military experience. But, if there was one great learning, that was in a China that I caught at an inflection point in 2009. As Ambassador there, subsequently in the US, and then as Foreign Secretary, I have had a ringside view of recent global changes. Above all, interacting with our own leadership over many years at different levels of hierarchy had a value that is difficult to put in words. From that, the big takeaways were the importance of defining strategic goals, recognizing optimal outcomes and appreciating the interplay of politics and policy.

This book was developed in the course of the last two years through a series of events. Lectures given at think tanks, conferences or business forums form its core. They remain relevant in large measure but have been updated where required. 'The Lessons of Awadh' is a fusion of comments on various such occasions. 'The Art of the Disruption' draws on addresses to the Oslo Energy Forum, the Raisina Dialogue, the Sir Bani Yas Forum and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. 'Krishna's Choice' was articulated in its essence at the Sai Foundation, New Delhi. 'The Dogmas of Delhi' is an expanded version of the Fourth Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture. 'Of Mandarins and Masses' is a hybrid of talks at St Stephen's College, the Heritage Foundation, the University of Birmingham and the Atlantic Council. 'The Nimzo Indian Defence' is based on a lecture delivered in Singapore. 'A Delayed Destiny' combines discussions at the Delhi Policy Group,

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