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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Localitis charge singes Indian envoy

WASHINGTON: A good diplomat is someone who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip, it is famously said. Ronen Sen, India's ambassador to the US, evidently won't make that cut, his misconstrued "headless chicken" remark provoking the political class into packing him off to a purgatory reserved for dispensable diplomats.

But more than for his immediate faux pas, Sen has been on the hit list of his detractors for two reasons.

One is for his alleged "localitis," a diplomatic affliction that is so well known it has been featured prominently even in US foreign service chronicles. The other is his perceived closeness to the Congress party and the Gandhi family.

Localitis, also known as clientitis, is when diplomats and are perceived as being more sympathetic to the host country than to the government they serve. Many diplomats, both Indian and American, have been accused of this in the past decades.

Chester Bowles, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Daniel P.Moynihan were among the US envoys who carried this stigma (of being overly sympathetic to New Delhi), while on the Indian side, Naresh Chandra and Nani Palkhivala faced criticism for being too close to the US. All they did was promote better ties between two sides afflicted with Cold War pathology.

Diplomatic chroniclers say there is nothing in Ronen Sen's career profile that suggests he is sympathetic to the United States. If anything, he is an Indian Sovietogolist. He has served three times in Moscow, totaling 14 years, including a six-year stint as the Ambassador from 1992 to 1998. He has also been India's envoy to London, Berlin and Mexico City.

On the flip side, he worked in Rajiv Gandhi's PMO during the mid-to late 1980s when New Delhi and Washington undertook some of the most dynamic initiatives, including import of Cray super computers and GE engines for the LCA project. It was this stint that marked him as being close to the 10, Janpath.

Is that enough to stigmatize him as "pro-American," a tag that can be fatal in a polity still steeped in deep suspicion of Washington?

Hardly. If anything, Sen's American experience in pretty thin, with just one posting in San Francisco, as a junior diplomat, back in 1972.

In fact, on the day the storm over his remarks broke, Sen had told this correspondent that he was driving to Niagara Falls, which he had never visited during his stints in the US.

He eventually scrubbed the trip, hoping that the far more precipitous event in New Delhi will not drown out his career. Ambassadors have to strike a delicate balance between being friendly to their host country and loyal to their governments. According to the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, a Washington DC area-based NGO, Foreign Service area specialists are highly valued for their expert (and sometimes esoteric) knowledge of foreign cultures, but sometimes these same specialists come under criticism for getting too close to their subjects

"When describing attitudes and conditions that run counter to official policies, they have on occasion been charged, both within and outside the State Department, with a bias known pejoratively as localitis or clientitis," the ADST says in a paper on the foreign service.

In the US itself, it says, two groups of foreign service specialists have often been accused of localitis - "China hands" who were hounded and abused during the McCarthy era for being sympathetic to communists, and more recently, "Arabists" who have faced strong criticism from the Jewish lobby who feel they lack sufficient empathy for the state of Israel.

While localitis is often attributed to over-exposure or ideological affinity, there are occasions when personal motives and ties are raised. Most recently, Pakistan's foreign secretary Riaz Mohammed Khan is under attack in Pakistan because he is married to a serving senior US state department official.

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