Meet the author: Yogendra Kumar

–Putting diplomatic experience into words!

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Yogendra Kumar with his wife and Dr Pranab Mukherjee
Yogendra Kumar with his wife and Dr Pranab Mukherjee

Ambassador Yogendra Kumar retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2012 in the rank of Secretary to the government of India. At the time of his retirement, he was Indian Ambassador to the Philippines, with concurrent accreditation to the Pacific island countries of Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. He has, earlier, been High Commissioner to Namibia and Ambassador to Tajikistan(2000-03) during which period he also handled Afghanistan affairs. He has served on the faculty of the National Defence College and, in the Ministry of External Affairs, he has handled multilateral organisations/dialogues. Since retirement, he has been writing and speaking on foreign policy and security affairs. His book, Diplomatic Dimension of Maritime Challenges for India in the 21st Century, has been published in 2015 by the Pentagon Press. More recently, he has edited and contributed to the book, Whither Indian Ocean Maritime Order?

Here, he shares more about the book and his writing prowess in conversation with Varsha Verma.

AABP: Tell us something about the book you have edited – Whither Indian Ocean Maritime Order: Contributions To a Seminar On Narendra Modi’s Sagar Speech?

Yogendra: Prime Minister Modi’s SAGAR (‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’) speech, delivered at Port Louis, Mauritius, on March 12, 2015, is the first major articulation in recent times of Indian foreign policy towards the Indian Ocean region at the highest level of Indian leadership. The speech is important not only for its content but also its timing: the great power rivalry in the Indian Ocean is intensifying, complicating the existing threats to the region and there is also a certain expectation – and speculation – about the role that India needs to play here to protect its own interests as well as to help neutralise the vast array of these challenges. For this reason, I felt that a seminar, with the participation of some of our leading strategic thinkers and policymakers, could be organised to analyse all the elements in the speech. Fortunately, Ministry of External Affairs came forward to support this initiative, arranging for some critical requirements like live webcasting which was followed in several countries, including the Secretariat of the IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association). This book was presented by the Indian delegation, headed by the Hon’ble Vice President of India, to the participating delegations, led by their respective heads of state/government, at the first ever summit level meeting of IORA convened by the President of Indonesia in Jakarta on March 5-7, 2017; all earlier meetings of this organisation, dealing with Indian Ocean issues, had been at the level of foreign ministers. The convening of this organisation at the level of heads of state/government is highly significant as the stakes of world powers are rising in the developments in the Indian Ocean and, hence, passing on the copies of this book into the hands of the leaders of the delegations at Jakarta helps in conveying the Indian perspective on these challenges.

AABP: How was your experience with the book and what are your expectations?

Yogendra: My role was that of the editor in which capacity I was able to get the various distinguished contributors to put the ideas of their speeches to paper to make them readable for experts and lay readers alike. I have also contributed two chapters to it. In the ‘Introduction,’ I lay out the strategic setting for the topic, relating to this setting the key elements of the Prime Minister’s speech, and what the reader can expect in the succeeding sections from the practitioners’ and the analysts’ contributions. In the ‘Epilogue,’ I have not attempted any summary of the previous chapters but have rather reflected on the various subjects brought up during the deliberations of the seminar; bringing out the sheer complexity and the range of challenges compounded by the near-unfathomable geopolitical flux has to be set against the minutiae of precise capacity building to meet them. Trying to string together the different strands of institutional efforts, at the national and multilateral levels, has been an intellectually stimulating experience for me as the editor as well as a contributor.

My expectation, in putting together all these articles by some of our very distinguished analysts of the contemporary Indian Ocean scene is to contribute meaningfully to an intensifying strategic discourse and – if I may put it thus – to suggest that challenges of creating a resilient and sustainable maritime system for the Indian Ocean in the current situation do not lend themselves to simplistic or off-the-cuff remedies. What is even more critical is to realise, at the policy as well as the public consciousness levels, that Indian Ocean is not only a new unfolding frontier for our security but also for a new direction of our economic and technological progress.

AABP: How has been the experience with your publisher?

Yogendra: My experience with the Knowledge World Publishers Private Limited, especially Kalpana Shukla and Jose Mathew, has been very satisfying. Not only have they brought forth an impressive product, I found them to be most forthcoming to my requests to keep to rather stiff timelines. I had to impress upon them about adhering to these timelines so that this book would be brought out just in time for the IORA’s Jakarta Summit to create the maximum thought impact. Because of this timeliness of the publication, the sheer complexity and the holistic nature, including in its theoretical aspects, could be conveyed to people who were concentrating on the challenge of creating a resilient and effective maritime system for the Indian Ocean for coming decades. Any glance at the list of the contributors to this volume would convince any reader that this volume requires to be read as a whole and not in bits and pieces.

AABP: How do you find time for writing, despite your busy schedules?

Yogendra: As a retired Indian diplomat, time pressure is not an issue although, with my varied professional experience, my interests are also quite wide-ranging. I enjoy writing my thoughts out and interact with the observers, both retired and serving, of our country’s strategic challenges of varied descriptions. Still, you are right in that there is so much to follow especially as the rapidly changing international situation, including in our close proximity, is generating so much of ‘newsworthy’ developments and discourse – some times, I’m afraid, more noisy, deja vu type than coldly analytical in a sui generis sort of way.

AABP: What do you aim while writing?

Yogendra: The effort in my writings is focused more on the wider – even, widest – context to a particular issue or development rather than to get into elaborate, tedious details of the kind which would be of interest only to a policy maker. That is the kind of thing I had done in my diplomatic career. Now, I aim to make these writings evoke broader public interest in the developments taking place all around us. Either people remain complacent about such developments as not concerning them at all or the ones concerning them could be easily typified. Rather, the nature of globalisation is such that things happening far away affect us more directly than we realise. The sheer unpredictability of global affairs, their magnitude and the complexity of putting together an institutionally cohesive response to them – at the grass roots’ community level, at the national level and at the international level with conflicting geopolitical interests of the participants – concern us in a very direct and profound way. How are we fashioning a response is something which makes me pay attention, as minutely as possible, to what we are doing about it. Just by way of random examples, I can point at the expanding geographical swathe of unstable states and at climate change.

AABP: Since such books entail a lot of research, share your experience of research. How easy/difficult it was to get to the facts?

Yogendra: For me as an editor, this book did not entail a great deal of research. However, as you would notice from the list of subjects covered by a very impressive array of experts, contributions have packed in a lot of research data bearing the weight of their own practical experience in their respective area of expertise. That is why, the coverage of all the relevant aspects of the challenge of creating an effective Indian Ocean maritime system is comprehensive and impressive.

AABP: Your experience as an author?

Yogendra: Post retirement, I have been enjoying my experience as an author and contributor to various international affairs journals and newspapers in addition to lecturing to university students and participating in TV and radio discussions. As a retired professional diplomat, I feel that my varied assignments have provided me with a unique opportunity to observe international developments from a certain vantage point which helps me in bringing in my own perspectives to analyse current global developments. By, putting some distance to them, due to my lack of involvement in the nitty-gritty of office work, affords me the opportunity to be more reflective to detect long-term trends and to pursue different strands of thinking in developing this perspective; unburdened by official responsibilities, I can also be freer in articulating them without the constraints of official policy guidelines. In that sense, as I told the former President, Pranab Mukherji, my learning process continues albeit at a different plane of the cerebration.

AABP: What next can the readers expect from you?

Yogendra: I guess, more of the same! The nature of globalisation and its impact on geopolitics of the day acts as a stimulus for me to understand the ongoing trends and to guess the potential trends. As a young diplomat, I joined the Indian mission in Moscow in 1979 when, a few weeks after my arrival, the Soviet army moved in to our neighbourhood, namely, Afghanistan. The Cold War was at its height, with the world teetering at the edge of a nuclear apocalypse, and nobody could imagine – and, I can still recall the writings of the established and well recognised strategic analysts! – that it will end in a decade thereafter. Nor, could the Americans have imagined, when they moved into the same neighbourhood in 2001 across the Oxus river from Tajikistan – where I was Ambassador at that time – to fight their asymmetric war, that they would still be there fighting the longest war in their history. The rise and fall of states is a complex process having lessons for all of us. Absorbing these lessons and reflecting over them is both stimulating and sobering. Each turn of history – or, History – creates an intellectual churn where our basic, operating presuppositions begin to get questioned for a new quest to begin. And, it is good to follow how this quest is shaping for us.

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