My time with the unforgettable D.P. Dhar

A combination of pure chance, sheer luck and fate gave me the opportunity to learn, admire and benefit from a short but close association with a most remarkable person. Pure chance in the sense that the possibility of a young diplomat, posted in an Embassy abroad, working with a very successful and highly experienced politician would be considered remote under any circumstances. Sheer luck that a more competent colleague, who would have been the obvious choice to be assigned to the Ambassador’s Office, was expecting a transfer out of the Embassy shortly. And that is how I began my association with DP Saheb in the Indian Embassy in Moscow.

DP Saheb, Ambassador designate, handsome, tall, with his unmistakable Kashmiri cap placed at an angle on his head, arrived at Moscow airport on a cold January morning in 1969, in the aircraft that was taking Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to a CHOGM conference in London. All the Embassy officers were present at the airport. Some had expected the ‘new’ Ambassador to meet them at the airport after the PM’s flight departed, but that did not happen for DP Saheb wanted to meet everyone together in the more friendly environ of our own Embassy. When this meeting took place later, everyone noticed the warmth with which the new Ambassador spoke; they could sense the sincerity behind his offer to be always available and his desire to be considered a part of the Embassy family. Although he was assuming the position of an Ambassador for the first time, he fitted into the role of an effective representative of India at the head of a large Embassy, quite effortlessly.

It was not long before DP Saheb came good on all the expectations he had raised amongst the Embassy personnel. His office, and the Residence, became an open house. Officers only had to check when the Ambassador was free to literally walk in for a discussion. This was clearly a departure from the recent past. (My own request for a call on his predecessor, soon after I arrived in Moscow two years earlier, was deferred twice after I had been waiting with his secretary for a good half an hour!) In fact, the ease with which people were gaining access to the Ambassador was ground for some consternation for the old time Security Guard, Minter Singh, a big moustachioed, sturdy Haryana policeman, who felt that keeping everyone in awe of the occupant, whose premises he was duty bound to guard, was the only way to maintain discipline! And the moment it became apparent that the Ambassador was ready to accept hospitality from anyone, the floodgates opened.

The officers of the Embassy were so pleased by the charismatic, unconventional and energetic Ambassador and his soft spoken, demure and motherly wife, Rani Bhabi to all, that invitations to dinner streamed in from everyone. DP Saheb enjoyed the company of his team members and never disappointed anyone unless there was an official event he had to attend. On the cold winter evenings, DP Saheb’s only concern was for his Russian driver Sasha. Often, on reaching his destination, he would dismiss the driver and request one of the other guests to drop him home after dinner. For some time this had alarmed Sasha, who wondered if he had given the Ambassador any reason to think he was unhappy about his late night duties. But soon enough he realized how humane, thoughtful and considerate his boss was towards everyone.

DP Saheb charmed every hostess by not just showering praise on the food on offer, but often asking for a bit of one dish to be packed to take home with the promise that the container would be returned the next day. These dinner evenings were always full of good cheer and included a session of music and Urdu poetry. He encouraged the amateur but delightful renderings of Hindi film songs and ghazals by the Embassy members for whom such open warmth and affection from the Head of Mission was a new experience. DP Saheb himself had mastery over the Urdu language and loved its subtleties of expression. He knew much of Ghalib by heart and could recite his ‘shers’ at will. So he was genuinely pleased to learn that Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a renowned Urdu poet, had been appointed Pakistan’s Ambassador to Moscow. And DP Saheb did not hesitate for a moment when he was invited to attend a function, hosted by a Soviet cultural organization, to introduce the new Ambassador to local poets and scholars.

DP Saheb’s caring and courteous nature was evident on many occasions. One evening, as guests were readying to leave, he startled someone by helping him put on his heavy overcoat. In my own case, I was taken aback when on his first day in office, DP Saheb said I was to eat lunch with him every day.  I thanked him, protested gently, and said I bring food from home. To that he simply asked me to bring my food to the table so everyone could share it. Imagine taking a plastic box with a cold omelet sandwich to the Ambassador’s table. I meekly fell in line. It was truly a break from the past.

DP Saheb worked late into the evenings. His mind was not just alert but very active. Relations with (the then) Soviet Union were good and developing across a wide range of sectors, including defence. And yet, he was thinking of ways to give the strategic relationship a push. With both the ear and the support of the policy deciding leadership in India, he embarked on a series of meetings in Moscow to develop and finalise what eventually led to the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. He took me along as a note taker to the first meeting. It was a lesson in diplomacy, as was the entire discourse as it developed over some months. Once in a while I would ask him, what later I would realize was a somewhat naïve question about the discussion, but DP Saheb never declined to answer showing both patience and compassion. It was his way of treating me like a trainee, the same reason he asked me to sit in on several of his other meetings. And all of these were really rewarding learning experiences.

DP Saheb involved me in out- of- the- office ventures too. He wanted to see a Russian movie, Anna Karenina, in the theater. I suggested we take along an interpreter. He declined, suggesting to my horror that I could help out. I was left with no option but to make my own sense of what was being shown on the screen and then whisper to him my own translation of the dialogue. He was kind enough not to let on that he had seen through my ruse. Once we went to a big department store, just to see the range, price and quality of the wares. On an impulse he decided to buy a trinket, only to find that neither he nor I were carrying any cash. I soon learnt that ‘no cash on person’ was almost his trade mark!

Tired of staying inside a heated house in the long winter months, DP Saheb decided we had to get out of Moscow as soon as the first days of spring arrived. That’s when we spent two nights in Zagorsk, a small town with pretty churches. Our daytime walks in bright sunshine made it easier to bear the still bitterly cold nights. Accompanying the Ambassador on tours to places like Baku, and a short dive in a submarine that India was acquiring, were exciting. I doubt I could have ever enjoyed these experiences as a young diplomat, but for this Ambassador’s thoughtful nature.

In mid-December 1969, I moved from the Embassy in Moscow to our High Commission in London, another large Mission. In the year we had spent together in Moscow, DP Saheb had made my wife and me an integral part of the large Dhar family with astonishing ease. So much so that whenever DP Saheb came to London from Moscow he stayed in our comfortable but simple apartment. He politely declined offers of accommodation from senior officers, and refused the use of a High Commission vehicle. Instead, he was quite prepared to suffer my erratic driving with the occasional wrong turns. Once we even went on a double decker bus, just for the ride.

DP Saheb made several visits to London after he returned to India from Moscow and was appointed Chairman, Policy Planning in the Cabinet. The situation in the then East Pakistan was grave and placed a very burden on India on account of the refugees streaming into the country. DP Saheb was in the group advising and managing Indian policy on this tricky issue. On occasion, during a visit to London at this time, he would merely tell my wife that there would be four for breakfast the next morning. The issue would not be discussed thereafter. I think DP Saheb appreciated that I was neither intrusive about these happenings nor did I talk to anyone about them.

Some months after the conclusion of the Bangladesh war, while on a visit to London, DP Saheb asked if I would join him in the Planning Commission in New Delhi. It would have been easy for him to request MEA to transfer me to Yojna Bhawan, but before doing so, he wanted to be sure I would not be unhappy there. I told him I was touched but wanted time so my newborn son would be a little older. He readily agreed, expressing the hope I would come as soon as possible. In passing I asked him why he had accepted a Ministry that had no teeth as it did not have the power to authorize financial expenditures. He said, somewhat cryptically, that he had plans to do new things.

My two years in the Planning Commission from October 1972 had its highs and lows. There was much excitement about the preparation of the 5 Five Year Plan. DP Saheb was indefatigable. He worked late into the night, had long meetings, threw up new ideas and drank many cups of tea. He also made the “Plancom” an important cog in the developing economic relations with the Socialist countries. I was given the task of looking after visitors from these countries, attending their meetings in other Ministries and accompanying them on their tours outside Delhi. At the end of these visits, I would convey my overall impressions to the Minister and if there was anything of special interest while the visit was on, I would bring it to the Minister’s attention earlier. All this was in line with my professional career, and I believe, constituted the new things the Minister had hinted at. But the severe oil crisis derailed the direction of the planning process. As the crisis deepened, demands for cuts in the proposed plan allocations followed. At one stage, DP Saheb recounted how he had responded to further calls to reduce the proposed plan allocations by stating that after all the cuts already made in all the sectors of the economy, the only thing remaining to cut now was his own neck!

By the end of December 1974, DP Saheb was asked to return to Moscow in order to give fresh impetus to the bilateral relationship. He asked me if I would join him. I explained that for a variety of reasons I wished to be excused. He never expressed disappointment, simply asking me to suggest someone suitable and willing. He approved of my recommendation. We last met when on a visit to India from Moscow, in June 1975, he was hospitalized in New Delhi. He was waiting for a pacemaker implant. In what could have been a premonition, DP Saheb said ‘Goodbye’ to my wife as we were leaving his side in the hospital one evening. He had never spoken this word to her before, usually parting with a jovial remark and plans to meet the next day. This time there was no tomorrow.

Siddharth Singh is a former ambassador of India to Italy, Japan, Iran and Zimbabwe. He also served in the Indian missions in Washington DC (USA), Thimphu (Bhutan), Bangkok (Thailand), London (UK), Moscow (Russia) and in the Planning Commission of the Ministry of External Affairs.