Facets of informal diplomacyIn the absence of a firm agenda, leaders tend to speak their minds amidst relaxed schedules.
Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, while delivering the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture in New Delhi in January 2012, mentioned that her father General Aung San was proceeding to the British capital for the first phase of negotiations for Burmese independence. He had left Burma in the thin cotton uniform of the People's Volunteer Organisation. Pandit Nehru took one look at the flimsy khaki outfit and decided it would not do for the icy weather of London. He gave instructions that two sets of a warm and smart version of the PVO uniform be made immediately. A British Army issue greatcoat was procured. 'The most widely known photograph of my father shows him wearing this garment in the garden of 10 Downing Street (British premier's office).' London had one of the coldest winters during his visit.
Tenzing Norgay’s biographers Judy and Tashi Tenzing narrate another touching incident. They have written, 'That evening there was a gala reception for the team given by… Nehru at… the Prime Minister’s residence. Tenzing was still attired in his simple Sherpa clothes, he had not thought to pack more formal garb… Nehru took Tenzing under his wing and into his own dressing room where he opened his closet and gave Tenzing a number of pieces of fine clothing for use at formal receptions and in Europe as well as personal gifts of a pocketbook and raincoat for Ang Lhamu.'
These are informal yet far-reaching gestures by heads of state and government. Being the founding vice-chancellor of Central University in Sikkim, I had to very often confabulate with the Father of the Green Revolution and our Chancellor MS Swaminathan. In one of our conversations, he narrated how Prime Minister Nehru’s office called him to urgently represent India in a meeting on scientific exchange with the Soviet Union in Moscow. Before departing for the meeting, Pandit Nehru called him to his residence for some consultations. When Swaminathan was seen in tropical attire, Pandit Nehru immediately offered him a warm overcoat and other woollens.
Two rounds of informal summits between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan (2018) and Mahabalipuram (2019) leading to the ‘Wuhan Spirit’ and ‘Chennai Connect’ were also full of informal gestures. It included room décor, serene and natural surroundings like the lake in Wuhan and sea views in Mahabalipuram, a sprinkling of indigenous food, sitting arrangements, talking points and also light attire and manners. These informal summits have six critical matrices.
First, the usual institutional variables take a different shape or new out-of-box variables are injected. Frequency and purpose are more vital wherein new actors are brought and the usual core line ministries could play only peripheral roles. Second, the issues and scope of discussion become much bigger as sensitive issues are brought under ‘less watchful eyes’. There is more emphasis on issue convergence than diversions in such a relaxed confabulation. At the Mahabalipuram Summit, besides the growing role of both countries on the global stage, rules-based international order, multilateral trading systems and global developmental challenges, including climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals, and concerns about terrorism as a common threat were deliberated. These closed-door meetings are largely secretive and no one really expects public minutes. More crucially, there is hardly any post-summit public scrutiny.
Third, there are no prearranged speeches and interaction intensity is much visible. A particular issue could be discussed threadbare and several times. A post-Wuhan meeting press release stated, 'The forward-looking dialogue raised the level of strategic communication about the perspective, priorities and vision that guide their respective policy choices domestically, regionally and globally.'
Fourth, informal norms are brought forward like dinner diplomacy, ‘tricky discussion’ and deliberations to ‘overcome ghastly impressions’ on certain issues. The Sixth SAARC Summit held in Colombo in 1991 decided to set up an Independent South Asian Commission on Poverty Alleviation which was later headed by former Nepali prime minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai. A noted Sri Lankan economist Ponna Wignaraja once narrated the story about how he passed on a note on the need to appoint a commission on poverty alleviation to President Ranasinghe Premadasa just before the retreat of the SAARC leaders in Colombo. And that did the trick.
Fifth, since these meetings are held in an insulated environment, there is no posturing and ‘pandering to domestic audiences’. Prime Minister Modi, while delivering his speech in Hindi in Wuhan, stated, 'Last time, when we met in July, the topic of informal conversation developed between us; and today, you invited us for this informal summit and created a spectacular atmosphere, created a very positive environment, and your personal contribution is very huge.'
The story of personal supervision at summit meetings is well depicted in the backdrop of the historic Shimla Agreement of July 1972. 'Prime Minister Indira Gandhi arrived two days before Mr Bhutto, who came with his daughter Benazir. Indira Gandhi personally saw to the decor of the rooms in polished teak wood panelling to be used by the Bhuttos during their stay in Shimla,' writes Mehru Jaffer. 'Benazir’s room was draped in pastel pink and green shades while father Bhutto’s bedroom was lined with a generous stock of his favourite cigars.' Benazir remarked how 'tiny' she found Ms Gandhi, 'much smaller than she seemed in the countless photographs' she had seen of her. She found her 'elegant, even in the raincoat she wore over her sari under the threatening skies'. This is so eloquently mentioned in both the Pakistani-based The Friday Times newspaper and Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire authored by Alex Von Tunzelmann (2008).
And finally, such a meeting is aimed at deepening mutual trust. In the absence of a firm agenda, leaders tend to speak their minds amidst relaxed schedules, and interpersonal and normative dynamics prevail. It is not unusual to express oneself in ‘unvarnished terms’ and deploy arguments that are not generally used. The then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was also a sophisticated diplomat. The way he negotiated to seal an agreement to reopen the sensitive Nathula trade route between Sikkim in India and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China during his meeting with the then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in June 2003 speaks volumes about his vision. Sikkim no longer figures outside India in the Chinese political map. The trade route was finally reopened after 44 years in July 2006.
What do you think?
Dear reader, we’d like to hear from you. We regularly publish letters to the editor on contemporary issues or direct responses to something the Post has recently published. Please send your letters to firstname.lastname@example.org with "Letter to the Editor" in the subject line. Please include your name, location, and a contact address so one of our editors can reach out to you.