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There will never be another Indian soldier-diplomat like you Ms Ghose
Blog Wednesday, July 27, 2016 - 17:42

Journalist: “Ambassador, Madam Ambassador, is India walking out of the talks?”

Ambassador: “India is going to the loo.”

The journalist was a correspondent for a Japanese news agency. The Ambassador was Arundhati Ghose who passed away this week (1940-2016). She was the Indian Ambassador to United Nations (UN) in Geneva. The year was 1996 – she was negotiating the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) on behalf of 900 million Indians. The diminutive lady with a cigarette in one hand, papers in the other and India in her heart single-handedly wreaked havoc on the Conference on Disarmament (CD). She did this for India.

Leading from the front and all guns blazing, she defended India’s decision to oppose the treaty. The talks hinged on India’s decision and pressure on New Delhi to sign the skewed and dishonest CTBT was multi-pronged and fierce.  She didn’t blink – diplomats will tell you what blinking in such negotiations can mean. No she didn’t blink and ensured no one in India did either. That is an even more difficult task for an Indian diplomat to achieve.

I covered the talks. Staking out with hundreds of journalists at the UN became normal life if not at GATT-WTO, then at the UN. Has Ms. Ghose spoken to India, has Washington spoken to India, will India sign, do you know anything, what is she going to do next went the drift. I felt good – this was a great story.

More importantly, in all my years of reporting from abroad including from the UN, I had never seen an Indian diplomat defending India’s interests with such force, grit, grace and determination. At the GATT-WTO, down the road from the UN, India was conceding paragraph by clause on trade and market access to the demands of the very same P5 who were being dismantled by Ms. Ghose for their double-speak and hypocrisy at the CD.

Didn’t national interest include protecting trade interests? For a journalist, the contrast was stark and which each passing day,  I admired Ms. Ghose.  If she could do it, why not the other guys down the road? The answer was and continues to be simple – she was a committed Indian, India’s defence interests were not just a treaty, it was her soul and her substance. She walked and talked national security, especially South Asian security.

Picture this. Press conferences during the negotiations were held throughout the day with all of us chasing the P5 (United States, United Kingdom, France, China and Russia), sharing notes, placing each others’ tape recorders in strategic places – laptops and mobile telephones had just debuted. The more important CTBT press conferences were held in a large room, always jam-packed.  What will India do or what do you think India will do was almost always the first question. 

One such presser was called as the endgame neared.  Sitting on the stage with the P5 manel, Ms. Ghose was unperturbed, taking notes, as Ambassador after Ambassador said New Delhi would be held responsible for the CTBT’s collapse. At one point a western P5 Ambassador said “…the people of the world want this treaty.” Ms. Ghose jumped in. Hello, she said. “Which people…I represent 900 million people and you will not ignore the wishes of my people. We are not signing the CTBT text on the table.” In a spontaneous gesture journalists were on their feet applauding Ms. Ghose. The logic was on India’s side – the world had failed its CTBT mandate. The air was electric.

In 1993 the UN gave the then 38-nation Geneva-based CD its first comprehensive mandate to negotiate a test ban treaty at the earliest. The scope of the proposed treaty quickly emerged as the most important and contentious aspect of the negotiations. Linked to the scope were verification and compliance protocols which obviously meant on-site inspections. An international monitoring system would check cheaters but fears grew that this was a fishing expedition in disguise.

Just ahead of the CTBT, India said that the indefinite extension of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) – a gift the then nuclear weapons states had given to each other to blow the world apart – was an act of bad faith. Given that reality, New Delhi said any meaningful CTBT could not be a standalone piece and must be part of a time-bound global disarmament process. That set the cat among the pigeons, then.

How did Ms. Ghose handle it? How many phone calls did the Indian Prime Minister take? It was a long way from Arkansas to Haradhanahalli – maybe the Indian Prime Minister was resting when the phone rang, maybe the two men just didn’t understand each other. All we knew was that Ms. Ghose had a mandate and she was going to work it for her people. Ambassadors are supposed to do just that. Serve their countries.

Ms. Ghose did all the heavy lifting and then there were moments that tugged at your heartstrings. She told me about a visit to a bank during one of her trips to New Delhi. The clerk looked at her name, jumped up, told her the entire nation was behind her as she negotiated the ‘NTPC’ in Geneva – such was the groundswell of support for her. There were other anecdotes, of people stopping her on the streets of India, Ms. Ghose and the journalists hanging out in Geneva over peels of laughter even as she scolded us for following her to the loo or not allowing her a peaceful moment for a puff at 3 a.m.

As I write this, I wonder if Ms. Ghose is not telling god what she thinks of the man with the yellow hair trying to make his way to the White House. There will never be another like you Ms. Ghose. This is but a goodbye.

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