Legendary for its length, esoteric language and liberal sprinkling of Latin, the Indian diplomatic dispatch may finally have met its nemesis: the leaked US embassy cables.
According to the Indian Express newspaper, the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi has asked trainee diplomats to read the cables “and get a hang of the brevity with which thoughts and facts have been expressed.”
India’s bureaucracy has a well-deserved reputation for obtuse language and an ability to resist any reform. Both, it is often said, were inherited from the British Raj.
“Indian diplomats often digress from the issue at hand in the long-winding style of theirs,” the newspaper said.
Successive injunctions by top Indian diplomats to their missions have failed to stamp out the tendency to “use a hundred words where one will do,” said one senior official who did not want to be named.
“There are some very talented people but some think that you only sound as if you are fully the master of your brief if you use long words willy-nilly and bons mots borrowed from other languages dropped [in] like cherries on the cake,” he said.
According to the Indian Express, diplomats have been warned also not to descend into sycophantic portrayals of the success of their political masters’ overseas visits and to keep their analysis impartial.
Automatic encryption and almost cost-free communication have allowed diplomats around the world to escape from the logistical strictures of laboriously encoded dispatches sent by telegram. The result is a deluge of information arriving in New Delhi from embassies around the world.
“There was a time when the language used in cables was elegant but conveyed information. People enjoyed the text and learned what they needed to learn. But the art is disappearing,” TCA Rangachari, a former ambassador, told the Guardian.
Rangachari, who served as India’s envoy in Algeria, France and Germany, said that using the US cables as a reference would not necessarily be the solution.
“The art of writing needed to be cultivated. Everywhere in India” with SMSs, e-mails and so on “our conversation is descending to the lowest common denominator. The level of English language usage has declined significantly. That is bound to be reflected among diplomats too,” he said.
The US cables released over recent days have not yet seriously embarrassed India except for a disparaging reference to a controversial military strategy, which the US ambassador in New Delhi described as unworkable.
In 2003 a leak of a US study on military relations with India based on interviews with dozens of US policymakers caused a major diplomatic spat. It revealed that Indian bureaucrats and senior officers were seen by their US counterparts as “easily slighted or insulted,” “difficult to work with” and “obsessed” with history.