Public Diplomacy

Protocol and Diplomacy: Blending style with substance

April 04, 2014

By Manish Chand

When a French president visited India for the second time, he asked for a particular Sikh gentleman who was assigned as protocol officer to take care of him during his trip to Agra, the home of the immortal Taj Mahal. He remembered him with much affection and showered praises on him for showing him around with grace and aplomb. The anecdotal story shows how protocol imperceptibly becomes the face of a country’s diplomacy, culture and etiquette that stays with foreign visitors long after joint statements are signed and deals are struck.

Protocol: Frontline of Diplomacy

In fact, the host country’s Chief Protocol Officer is the first hand that greets a visiting leader and the last face that he sees before returning home. The protocol officer, as Dinkar Khullar, Secretary (West) in India’s external affairs ministry says aptly, walks in the footsteps of history and forms the frontline of diplomatic engagement.

President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Mr. Joachim Gauck inspecting the Guard of Honour at the Ceremonial Reception, at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi
Etymologically, protocol is derived from the Greek word "protokollan,” which means "first glue” and alluded to the act of gluing a sheet of paper to the front of a document to preserve it when it was sealed, which imparted additional authenticity to it. The term protocol originally related to the various forms of interaction observed in official correspondence between states, but later came to encompass a much wider range of international relations. According to Dr. P.M. Forni, the celebrated professor of civility at John Hopkins University, protocol refers to well-established and time-honoured rules that have made it easier for nations and people to live and work together. "Part of protocol has always been the acknowledgment of the hierarchical standing of all present. Protocol rules are based on the principles of civility,” he says.

Setting the stage

Protocol, like good wine, sets the mood and creates the right atmospherics for the diplomatic and political leadership to move ahead with serious diplomatic business at hand. Protocol, says Ruchira Kamboj, India’s chief protocol officer, showcases a country’s etiquette. Protocol is, therefore, key to effective and successful diplomacy. Unfortunately, protocol sometimes gets confused with just glory and grandeur, pomp and ceremony, and all that glitter and glamour. But as any veteran diplomat will tell you, that’s a deceptively seductive picture. Good protocol, and the way it is choreographed with an attention to minute details, requires relentless hard work to ensure everything goes without a hitch, with clockwork precision, as it were.

Ms. Ruchira Kamboj, Chief of Protocol receives Dr. Ali Mohamed Shein, President of Zanzibar at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi

For a rising economy like India which hosts over 100 heads of state/government, vice-premiers, vice-presidents, ministers and high-profile diplomatic and business delegations, the country’s growing diplomatic stature means more and more work for its small but dedicated team of protocol officers, who have done it all with elan. The protocol department in the MEA at the centre has barely 50-odd officers and staff who toil ceaselessly to keep the diplomatic machinery humming like a well-modulated song.

State Protocol Officers’ Meeting

India is clearly one of the busiest international diplomatic hubs as it hosts 170 foreign embassies, 200 honorary consulates, 100 consulate-general and 38 international organisations. Most visits by foreign leaders are focused on the talks and meetings in Delhi. However, over the last decade or so, the action has shifted to other states in India as well. Many a time, a visiting leader chooses to begin his state visit to India from Mumbai or Bangalore or Hyderabad. In fact, it’s become almost customary for a visiting leader to hold talks in Delhi, go for a trip to Agra to see the iconic Taj Mahal and head to Mumbai, Bangalore or Hyderabad as the case may be. There are some leaders like Myanmar’s President or Mauritius president who have spent a few days in Bihar before heading to Delhi for the talks.

State Protocol Officers at a Training Programme organized by the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi

The state capitals and cities in other states also host important international conferences. For example, Gurgaon, a bustling city in Haryana, hosted the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in November last year, which brought foreign ministers and senior officials of nearly 50 Asian and European countries to Indian shores. In 2012, Gurgaon played host to over 20 foreign ministers from the Indian Ocean Rim Association of Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) Bangalore, India’s IT city and the capital of Karnataka, played host to the Russia-India-China trilateral meeting of foreign ministers in 2012.

Against this backdrop of the growing importance of states in the country’s burgeoning diplomatic engagement, India’s Ministry of External Affairs held a two-day conference of state protocol officers in New Delhi March 10-12. The idea behind the conference was to ensure better coordination between the protocol department of the MEA in Delhi and state protocol officers. The conference saw the firming of strict guidelines for state protocol officers in the form of a booklet, which will enable them to deal with tricky situations like how to handle a demanding ambassador of a foreign country who is visiting his state to the kind of treatment to be meted out to a foreign visitor, according to his rank.

The guidelines, among other things, lay out ground rules for handling VVIP and VIP visits by foreign dignitaries at the level of heads of state, vice presidents and heads of government for state protocol authorities. The focus is on ensuring a uniform policy to deal with protocol aspects of visits by foreign dignitaries to the states/Union Territories of India. The visits have been classified as: 1) State Visits II) Official Visits III) Working visits. A state visit is a visit at the level of head of state or head of government where all ceremonial honours are given to the visiting dignitary. An official visit does not include any ceremonial aspect and may include other engagements incorporated in a state visit. A working visit may contain elements of an official visit, and is usually limited to Delhi only. The state protocol officers are also instructed to follow guidelines for the opening/functioning of foreign consulates and foreign trade offices in their respective states in India.

Diplomatic Immunity

Protocol is not just about ensuring flawless visits by foreign leaders; it also deals with issues of diplomatic immunity and conferences. The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, for example, defines a framework for diplomatic relations between sovereign countries. The international treaty envisages diplomatic immunity and stipulates the privileges of a diplomatic mission that enable diplomats to perform their function without fear of coercion or harassment by the host country. The treaty has been ratified by 189 states. It was this treaty India’s foreign office invoked to protest against the arrest and ill treatment of its diplomat Devyani Khobragade by the US authorities.

Saying it with flowers

The importance of protocol, therefore, can’t be exaggerated, and has steadily grown over the years. As India steps up its pitch for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council and its diplomatic footprints expand across the world, Asia’s rising economy looks set to welcome more and more world leaders into its welcoming embrace. India’s small but fanatically dedicated team of protocol officers have always risen to the challenge, and look set to ensure that the handshake remains as warm as ever, the guests are seated according to precedence at state banquets, the colour of tablecloth and the choice of flowers are just right to ensure that landmark deals and enduring friendships are forged between nations and their leaders.

(Manish Chand is Editor-in-Chief of India Writes,, an online magazine and journal focused on international affairs).

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