Putting India on the radar screen: Nick Bridge recalls becoming a diplomat and later serving at the New Zealand high commission in New Delhi.

AuthorBridge, Nick

After university, I managed, by some good luck, to get accepted into the External Affairs Department, as it was then known. Ahead of my main interview, I learnt that the head of the outfit had some pet dislikes, including chaps with beards and those who wore what in those days were known as walk shorts. I had a couple of pairs. They were quite the thing, with long socks, for summer drinks. But I would not have considered them in any way appropriate for my interview. I put on my best suit and waited apprehensively to be called in.

The door opened and the previous candidate walked out--in walk shorts and with a handsome beard. The interview flowed smoothly, for I knew I was surely in. And one of the key questions played right into my hands. 'So, Mr Bridge, what do you make of the situation in Rhodesia?' The night before I had listened, as I often did, to Commentary, a ten-minute BBC current affairs programme just ahead of the 11 o'clock news. As it happened, it was a disquisition by a leading international affairs commentator on the Rhodesian situation: Ian Smith and UDI (unilateral declaration of independence). I gave an impressive reply. 'Hmm ... it's clear you know bugger all about the issue. What do you know about New Zealand and Western Samoa?' It was my first lesson in Talleyrand's timeless advice to young diplomats: 'Surtout, pas trop de zele. I knew bugger all about Western Samoa--and had the wit to say so. I got in.

At a time when New Zealand troops were fighting in the Vietnam War under SEATO auspices, starting out as SEATO desk officer promised to be a demanding, perhaps even important, assignment. I was, therefore, somewhat surprised to find that my first task was to write a speech with the tide 'SEATO, The Shield Behind Which the Arts Can Flourish'. Clearly, I had joined a rather strange and enjoyable outfit. And so it proved for some 35 stimulating years.

During my career I enjoyed our postings to London, Singapore, China, Australia, Hong Kong, India and Taiwan. I say 'our' because my memoir is, in part, a story of a departmental marriage and, also, of the successful career of an unusually talented and determined New Zealand woman who turned the vicissitudes of diplomacy to good account both for herself and for New Zealand. My wife Diana is a leading poet and a China scholar of some distinction.

Stimulating assignment

We returned to Wellington for some two years in the early 1990s when, out of the blue, I was offered a posting to India as high commissioner. The department knew nothing--why should they--of my family's Indian background. And to be honest I knew little about India, apart from its cricket. In fact, the first major innings I remember watching had been Polly Umrigar's exuberant 165 at Bournemouth in 1952, when the Indian tourists were playing Hampshire in warm sunshine at the end of a cold and wet tour.

As it transpired, cricket was to be an invaluable asset to me throughout the posting. It is notoriously difficult for diplomats to get to see Indian ministers in New Delhi, where they seem to spend most of their office time fending off criminal charges. I soon found that the best place to meet them and do business was at test matches.

The India assignment was a hugely stimulating and enjoyable five years. We went there knowing not what to expect even though my mother was an Armenian brought up in Rangoon and Calcutta; and my father had been a British boxwallah in Burma and India in the pre-war years.

It was, at the same time, a frustrating assignment. India was not much on Wellington's radar screen. I had two priorities: to open up opportunities for New Zealand companies; and to develop New Zealand's encouraging engagement in India's tentative overtures to become more involved in developments in the Asia-Pacific region, not as a counterweight to China but as a constructive regional partner. I made scant progress on both fronts. India's economy was still highly protected, inefficient and deeply mired in corruption. And New Delhi did not regard New Zealand as of much useful consequence for its diplomacy. But the initial steps it took in its 'Look East' policy in the 1990s have started to bear some fruit in recent years as it enthusiastically embraces the new 'Indo-Pacific' concept and seeks to play a role in it that will enhance its influence and standing on the world stage. Frustrating albeit, it was fun trying to understand the dynamic kaleidoscope of contradictions that confronts you in India every day.

Home leave

In 1994, after a year in India, we...

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