In mid-1999, a little-known Russian national security advisor named Vladimir Putin made a brief technical halt at Delhi airport in the early hours of the morning, while en route to another Asian country. As per normal protocol, a middle-level official was to meet and see off the visitor at the airport. The Indian Ambassador in Moscow had other ideas. He told national security advisor Brajesh Mishra that Putin was a rising star in the Russian hierarchy and urged him to go to the airport himself, setting protocol (and personal convenience) aside.
Mishra may not have relished the inconvenience, but he respected the ambassador’s political judgement and followed his advice. The gesture had an impact: about a year later, on his first visit to India as President, Putin told Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of his personal rapport with Mishra. A direct line of communication was set up between Putin’s chief of staff and the Indian NSA that worked well during many crises in the 2000s.
During his varied and eventful life, Satinder Kumar (‘Sati’) Lambah, who passed away on June 30 at the age of 81 years, enjoyed the faith of his senior colleagues, as well as the respect and affection of his peers and junior colleagues. A finely developed political sense and natural ability to connect with people across levels and cultures earned him a wide network of friends and contacts – perhaps the most important asset in a diplomatic toolkit. A mastery of the intricacies of issues, an encyclopaedic memory and the ability to marshal and objectively evaluate policy options enhanced his worth for policy makers.
Another of Lambah’s many contributions in Russia was facilitating Oil and Natural Gas Corporation’s (ONGC) investment in a hydrocarbons project in Sakhalin. This involved working the Russian system to get the best possible deal for India. But equally difficult was convincing sceptical elements in the Indian decision-making apparatus of the economic viability and strategic importance of the project. Russia was then emerging from the chaos of the Yeltsin years; many in India questioned the wisdom of such a significant investment in this uncertain climate. Again, Lambah’s judgement was vindicated: Sakhalin turned out to be ONGC’s most profitable investment abroad.
Diplomats around the world know well that their success in major initiatives abroad hinges on their ability to influence decision-making processes in their own countries. Lambah demonstrated this ability on numerous occasions.
Lambah displayed energy and creativity in every diplomatic and official position he held. But two of his most memorable achievements came after he retired from active service. In 2001, he was appointed India’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan, in which capacity he attended the UN-organized, US-led international conference in Bonn, which was to usher in a new post-Taliban democratic dispensation in that country. He brought to it an understanding of regional geopolitics, experience of dealing with Afghan opposition groups and a network of contacts from earlier diplomatic assignments. In his memoirs, the US envoy to the Conference showered praise on Lambah’s attributes. India built on his contribution to expanding its political and economic presence in post-Taliban Afghanistan.
The other activity for which he will be remembered is the back-channel dialogue with Pakistan. The channel, established by Prime Minister Vajpayee and President Pervez Musharraf, achieved some success in reducing cross-border tensions and extracting a formal commitment that Pakistan’s territory would not be used to promote terrorism in India. When Lambah took over the mantle from Brajesh Mishra in 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave him a wider brief. Over the next two years, Lambah and his Pakistani counterpart worked to evolve a framework in which the two countries could amicably resolve their differences over Kashmir. By 2006, it was reported that they had arrived at a formula, with buy-in from the leadership of the two countries.
The exercise had its critics in both countries – given the issues involved, it could not have been otherwise. It was perhaps equally inevitable that the initiative stalled and was then buried under the weight of disruptive events. Such is the overhang of decades-long hostility, intense emotions and conflicting political interests that, whenever India-Pakistan relations progress even tentatively towards a thaw, events occur – by accident, design or coincidence – to derail the progress. But it should be recognized as the first coherent bilateral effort to conceptualise an “endgame" to the depressing sequence of war and “not-peace” in India-Pakistan relations since independence.
His younger colleagues appreciated Lambah’s patience in mentoring them and his willingness to stand by them when they made bona fide errors of action or judgment – traits that are increasingly rare in officialdom. All of us marvelled at the unusual combination in him of an epitome of discretion, who was also an entertaining raconteur.
Sati Lambah was an over-achiever cloaked in an understated demeanour.
P S Raghavan
Distinguished Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation, and a former diplomat