Ambassador Nirupama Rao

Retired Diplomat | Indian Foreign Service

  CV IN BRIEF:   Following her retirement from active diplomatic service, Ambassador Rao entered the world of academia with an appointment as the  Meera and Vikram Gandhi Fellow , at the India Initiative at  Brown University .  In 2017, she was a Practitioner-in-Residence of the  Bellagio Center  in Italy. Currently, Ambassador Rao is a  Global Fellow of The Wilson Center . During Fall 2018, Ambassador Rao will teach a course on India-China relations at  Columbia University .  Ambassador Rao holds an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from  Pondicherry University  in India.  Find Ambassador Rao online:  Twitter  |  www.nirupamamenonrao.net    Exclusive interview by Clara Martinez, September 2018

CV IN BRIEF:

Following her retirement from active diplomatic service, Ambassador Rao entered the world of academia with an appointment as the Meera and Vikram Gandhi Fellow, at the India Initiative at Brown University.

In 2017, she was a Practitioner-in-Residence of the Bellagio Center in Italy. Currently, Ambassador Rao is a Global Fellow of The Wilson Center. During Fall 2018, Ambassador Rao will teach a course on India-China relations at Columbia University.

Ambassador Rao holds an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Pondicherry University in India.

Find Ambassador Rao online: Twitter | www.nirupamamenonrao.net

Exclusive interview by Clara Martinez, September 2018

You retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2011. Tell us about your distinguished career as a diplomat.  

As a young girl, it was my dream to join the Foreign Service. Immediately after finishing my graduate degree in English Literature in 1972, I wrote the civil service examination and made the top list nationwide, and at age 22 I joined the Foreign Service. It has been my sole profession. In diplomacy, you are exposed to different situations, you visit different countries, you meet different personalities, and you witness history in the making. You contribute to policymaking. Your writing and public speaking skills are at the forefront of whatever you do. As a diplomat, I traveled around the world and served in South America, Asia, Europe, and the United States. When I look back on my career, I would not have exchanged it for anything else.  

Tell us about your assignment as the Ambassador of India to the US from 2011 to 2013.   

In 2011 I retired from my role as India’s Foreign Secretary, which is the highest ranking post in the Indian Foreign Service. During my two year tenure, I worked with India’s neighbors and major powers such as the US and China. I was able to influence key decisions and used my experience in media to advocate for the Government of India’s cause insofar as foreign policy is concerned – on the international, regional, and national levels.  

The day after I retired I began preparing to travel to Washington, DC. I had previously served in Washington as a mid-career diplomat in the 1990s, as Minister of Press Affairs in the Embassy of India. As Ambassador, I worked on US-India relations and engaged in discussions with the US administration under President Obama on numerous occasions. India and the US regard each other as natural allies and indispensable partners. We may not have an alliance relationship, but we have a productive and multifaceted relationship which extends into defense, security, maritime cooperation, trade and economic issues, people-to-people ties, and ties in the field of education, and political and strategic dialogue. I never had a dull day. We have a natural level of understanding because the US and India are the largest and most important democracies.

A large Indian diaspora resides in the US, which we call the Indian Americans. They are highly placed professionals and excel in their fields as medical doctors, academics, engineers or public policy professionals. Today, we have members of Congress who are Indian American, and there are others who work in the administration both at the state and federal levels. This diaspora element is crucial to the US-India relationship.

You served as India’s first woman spokesperson in the Ministry of External Affairs, the first woman high commissioner to Sri Lanka, and the first Indian woman ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. It’s evident you shattered multiple glass ceilings and made history on your own terms. Did you feel pressure as you advanced in your career? 

When I joined the Foreign Service, there were not many women. The service was established in 1948 (on the eve of Indian independence) and a few women were inducted but various constraints were placed. For instance, if a woman married then she had to leave the diplomatic service. It was assumed a married woman could not cope with the responsibilities of being a diplomat and a wife, which is unfair and biased; it was a discriminatory provision toward women. By the time I joined the Foreign Service, this requirement had been removed; however, when I filled out the form to write the examination I had to certify that I was unmarried. If I had been married at the time, then I would not have been eligible. Gradually, these discriminatory provisions watered down and were eliminated, and the marriage provision was removed too.

During my four decades in the Foreign Service, no barrier was placed in my way and the system did not prevent me from taking on challenges. I dealt with sensitive relationships with India’s neighboring countries, which are complex relationships to navigate. I was assigned these responsibilities without question and was judged on my capability, capacity, and merit. I advanced, and evolved, as a person and a diplomat.

When I was selected to be India’s first woman spokesperson in the Ministry of External Affairs, the event made headlines in my country. It’s in my nature to take risks and I decided to engage in live television briefings, which had never been done in the Ministry. I would face the media and answer reporters’ questions in real time. It did not create a crisis or any sort of embarrassment. My successors also followed this method. As a spokesperson for the government, I worked toward transparency and accessibility. In fact, it established respect and recognition of the office across the country. 

Similarly, I went to China as India’s first woman ambassador. I attribute it to the system’s willingness to consider the appointment of women based on merit and experience to highly sensitive posts. China and India are neighbors and share a disputed border. Prior to this post, I worked on the China desk in the Foreign Ministry for many years and was knowledgeable with an in-depth awareness of the issues. I contributed to the progress of the relationship between the two countries.

At the time of the civil war in Sri Lanka, I served as High Commissioner. Years earlier, I worked in the country as a young fledgling diplomat. Sri Lanka is a heartbeat away from India, a very short stretch of water separates India from Sri Lanka. Therefore, the ties are enormously intricate. In December 2004, there was the Indian Ocean tsunami, which wreaked havoc. I was involved with the relief and rehabilitation work. In addition, I visited the war-torn areas and it had a deep impact on me. I witnessed the suffering in the aftermath of the tsunami and also the impact the war had on civil society.

I practiced “gumboot” diplomacy. You wear gumboots like when it rains. You walk in the slush. You walk in difficult terrain. Diplomatic work is people-centered. This is the era of people diplomacy. 

Why did you decide to become a diplomat?

I came into a world dominated by men and surrounded by patriarchal attitudes. That being said, I was raised by parents in a way that enabled me to believe I was not constrained by anything. They encouraged me to reach for the stars, which sustained me throughout my career. My interest in history and current affairs motivated me to become a diplomat.

My mother had a powerful influence on me, too. She was the first university graduate in her family and a perfectionist, she paid meticulous attention to detail. She had a great sense of duty and morality and set the highest standards for me. When I chose diplomacy as a career, my curiosity about the world, history, and current affairs were fulfilled. When I joined the Foreign Service, India was 26 years into its independence. It was a young country. My profession was a male reserve and women were in the minority, but we fought against it together. Our cohort, as women in the Foreign Service, was conscious about setting an example for young women across the country.

What advice would you give to young women interested in becoming foreign policy practitioners?

With confidence, I say that diplomacy is a wonderful career to choose and spend your life doing. You should enter this profession and embrace it with confidence and conviction. A woman is second to none. We are able to achieve the best. We bring something very special to the table in a profession like diplomacy because we have the ability to think in a 360-degree manner with inclusivity in mind. We are wired to work on any negotiation and defend the ideals and interests we stand for, as well as toward mutual understanding and consensus building. When we undertake diplomatic duties, we are always conscious of where we come from, our environment, and the conditions of mothers and children. We understand the impact of war and the benefits of peace. I believe men and women must strive to uphold universal and basic human rights.

We seem to be witnessing a lack of appreciation toward diplomacy. What is your hope for the ongoing practice of public diplomacy?

The basic human compass is set in the direction of common sense, pragmatism, and inclusion. We are not wired for conflict. Today, we have populism, hyper-nationalism, and voices that speak very differently from what we have heard in the last few decades. But, the equilibrium restores itself. There are self-correcting mechanisms in each society that work in the direction of stability and peace. I am optimistic.

In your four-decade diplomatic career, what is the most valuable lesson you learned?  

Learning never ends, I believe learning is a life lesson. Every step you take is a step of discovery. We should never lose our sense of wonder about the world. That has been my propelling principle.

Cynicism is something we should leave at the door when we enter any problem-solving situation. Too often I hear people reject the possibility of solving age-old problems and conflicts. I believe people are governed by grounded principles of common sense, realism, and pragmatism in whatever they do. When you lose sight of these governing ideals and principles, you stray from the path. I believe our duty is to bring people back on course, particularly as women in diplomacy. In retirement, I have transitioned to academia and teach which allows me to interact with many young people, and I speak to them about my experiences.

Are you currently working on any projects? 

My husband and I have established a foundation in India called the South Asian Symphony Foundation. It is an institution designed to build relationships between young musicians from 8 countries in South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives). Political tensions have led to disruptions in the region, but we want to use this foundation to begin to construct a platform that leads to creating an orchestra for South Asia. My Foundation website is: www.symphonyofsouthasia.org

Aside from teaching at Columbia University in the Fall, I am writing a book about India and China called “Telling it on the Mountain: India and China, 1949-1962,” which will be published in June 2019.