India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru took a great interest in foreign policy and the officers chosen for a career in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) were given an audience with him. And this is the moment with which Pascal Alan Nazareth, a former ambassador who entered the service in 1959, chooses to start his memoir, A Ringside Seat to History. "A diplomat should not lie but there is no obligation on his part to tell the truth either," was what Nehru told him. While he may have followed that advice during his career, his memoir doesn’t shy away from the awkward situations he found himself in during his 35-year career.
Nazareth quickly dispels the commonly held belief that a diplomat’s life abroad is a charmed one, all about wining and dining. He explains how the role of a diplomat is a multitasked one shaped by hard work, devotion, experience, observation and reflection.
He provides a ringside view of global developments, showing how Indian diplomacy, conditioned largely by non-aligned foreign policy, navigated the Cold War rivalry and defended interests of the newly independent countries that looked to India for leadership and support. His postings were often challenging, tricky and delicate, but he managed to resolve issues with presence of mind, tact and foresight.
He gives insightful accounts of his meetings with several world leaders and the geopolitical implications for India. Nazareth has been front and centre of many crucial moments in contemporary history—the crossing of the 14th Dalai Lama into India, the revival of a devastated Japan post World War II and the liberation of Bangladesh. He’s worked through military coups in Burma, Ghana and Chile and has worked first-hand on building India’s relations with US, Russia and UK. In Peru, he raised aid for the victims of the 1970 earthquake and subsequently came in close contact with Mother Teresa, an encounter that shaped his ideas of empathy and giving. It’s not only global events that he’s been witness to: there are stories of his encounters with various Indian prime ministers during their visits abroad, and he brings a global perspective to the continuity and change in the domestic political landscape over three decades.
Soft power is a strong weapon in the diplomat’s arsenal, and Nazareth deployed his when he was director-general of Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), organising several cultural events, including the Festival of India in Paris in 1970 and opening several Indian Cultural Centres abroad.
Post-retirement, in 1994, Nazareth set up the Sarvodaya International Trust in 2000 to promote Gandhian values and principles of satyagraha for world peace.
The silent sacrifices the family of a diplomat makes—frequent travel, disruption of regular routines, having to make friends and start anew every few years—are not ignored. The loss of his daughter and the strength with which he got through it is a chapter in not just in grieving and learning to live again but also in the centrality of family to a diplomat.
The IFS today is much larger and richer than it was when Nazareth joined its ranks, with officers drawn from diverse backgrounds, including a significant number of women officers who are placed in vital roles abroad and in headquarters. For IFS officers, the book provides useful insights into what makes a successful diplomat while for others, it is a front-row seat to events that have shaped the world we now inhabit.
The writer is an IFS officer based in Delhi who worked with Nazareth at the Indian Embassy, Mexico City from 1992-93