It’s rare to see a biography written on a diplomat in his lifetime. But, then Harsh Shringla is no ordinary diplomat. His life has been an inspiring story of self-fashioning and mapping one’s journey of ambition, achievement and fulfilment, on his own terms. A veteran diplomat and a multi-faceted personality, Shringla has had an enviable career with prized postings, including distinguished stints as India’s Foreign Secretary, Ambassador to the United States, Thailand, and High Commissioner to Bangladesh. He is now helming India’s G20 presidency as Chief Coordinator, a tribute to his diplomatic and organizational skills. Such a fantastic career and his rise to stellar positions in India’s Foreign Service can’t be simply a quirk of fate; it is underpinned by relentless hard work, persistence, and integrity. These aspects of his life and career are chronicled in an aptly titled biography, “Not an Accidental Rise.”
Written by Dr Dipmala Roka, Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, Sikkim University, the biography vividly describes how his rise to the highest position in the Indian Foreign Service has been strongly anchored in his heritage, culture, and his values. Born in Mumbai, Shringla had a pan-India upbringing and education, including schooling in Mayo College, and graduation from St Stephen’s College. With his roots in his Sikkimese family background, the book shows how his exposure to diverse places and cultures in India, largely due to his father’s postings and education, have instilled him a multi-cultural ethos that served him well in his journeys around the world as a diplomat and a representative of India.
Many diplomats have written books, mostly post-retirement, but not many have biographies written about them while still alive and at the peak of their career. This biography has been conceived as an inspirational story for aspiring diplomats. “It’s a tale of how this son of Darjeeling and Sikkim was entrusted with great responsibilities and represented India on the world stage, and eventually rose to the highest position in the elite IFS,” writes the author in the preface to the book. The book offers an engaging portrait of Shringla as a young man and his love for sports—he played hockey for St Stephen’s and proudly sported the college tracksuit. “There is a consistency in the manner in which they speak of the young Harsh Shringla. The traits that come out most strongly are his integrity, his staunch loyalty, and his kindness,” writes the author. For those who have studied at St Stephen’s College like me, they can readily relate to his college days.
For students and practitioners of diplomacy, his achievements during his ambassadorial stints in the US, Bangladesh, and Thailand will be instructive. In Thailand, Shringla proactively promoted soft diplomacy and cultural outreach. His focus on bolstering people-to-people contacts was evident in his efforts to organize the World Sanskrit Conference 2015 and Regional Hindi Conference 2014. Another laudable initiative was his initiative to organize the Thai India Fun Fair, which was held to establish a connection between Indian and Thai communities where people could interact and generate awareness among the Thai people about India and Indian culture and ethics.
In 2019, Shringla became the youngest Indian ambassador to the US. In the US, he displayed his famed organizational skills by planning the “Howdy Modi” rally in Texas which was addressed jointly by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump. Another highlight of Shringla’s stint in Washington was how he expertly and tirelessly countered negative narratives peddled by vested interests in the wake of the Indian government’s decision to abrogate Article 370, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir.
The biography vividly brings out how Shringla managed the administrative and diplomatic response of India’s Ministry of External Affairs to the “black swan” once-in-a-century pandemic. Under Shringla’s leadership, the Vande Mataram Mission—possibly the largest evacuation exercise of its type in history—was launched to evacuate thousands of Indians from the Covid-stricken areas around the globe. Similarly, he played a key role in the success of Vaccine Maitri, under which India provided vaccines to more than 100 countries, earning the country enormous international goodwill.
Shringla’s achievements as a diplomat extraordinaire are myriad, and Dr Roka’s biography encapsulates some of them. But what makes the book stand out is its authentic portrait of the person behind the diplomat—a humble, grounded human being who has not allowed success to go to his head, and who is equally at home in the company of presidents/prime ministers, without losing the common touch, to wit a famous poem by Kipling. The book celebrates Shringla’s life and career, but is not a panegyric. Those like me who have interacted with him over the years will heartily affirm endearing qualities such as humility, integrity and accessibility that are captured in the pages of this book. Reading this book, one also gets an impression that it’s a starter—perhaps Mr Shringla himself will serve the main course by writing his autobiography soon.
Manish Chand is CEO, Centre for Global Insights India, a think tank focused on global affairs and India Writes Network. He is Editor-in-Chief, India and the World, a journal on international affairs.
Source: The Sunday Guardian
BDST: 0628 HRS, JULY 25, 2023