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From the fall of the Wall to Kosovo and AfPak, he’s been there, done many unusual things but retains a buoyant enthusiasm for his current job
Michael Steiner, Germany’s newest ambassador to India, gives off that curious air of being both an unstoppable force of nature as well as vulnerable at heart, a thinking man who doesn’t easily suffer fools but is open to zany ideas like bringing Bayern Munich footballers to play in India, says Jyoti Malhotra.
I wonder if this personality construct is a recipe for disaster in a high-pressure diplomatic job and I’m hoping the lunch will show me the light. We are eating at the ambassador’s residence because Steiner is new to the city and doesn’t know its restaurants. I arrive to find he’s personally supervised the overhaul of its interiors – the light fittings are from Germany, the sofa fabric is Indian and there are hexagonal mirror installations on the wall – to reflect a bilateral relationship that he tells me should be much more contemporary, even edgy.
The guided tour is interrupted by Steiner espying his young and beautiful wife, Eliese, playing in the garden with their adopted stray dog, Teeka Lal. Eliese tells me that when the dog came to them, he had a ‘tilak’ or vermilion spot on his forehead, and so the name really lent itself. The ambassador kisses his wife goodbye and I ask, who’s decided the menu for lunch? They are smiling at each other. She admits she did because “there is paneer and isn’t that what you like?”
Yes, there is grilled paneer with salad as a starter and a glass of white wine for me, whose provenance I don’t know because it’s not on the menu card. In fact, the menu has been changed from Bavarian to North Indian (although my menu card continues to display the earlier choice, ‘semmelknoedel mit pilzsauce’, or bread dumplings in mushroom sauce and Quark cheese soufflé). We are now going to start with the ‘paneer’, presumably because Steiner likes it, go on to vegetable korma, dal tadka and masala rice, washed down with pista kulfi, coffee and biscuits, presumably imported.
The ambassador drinks only water. “About eight years ago when I was ambassador in Geneva, a small town somewhere in Switzerland, I would usually drink a glass of wine at receptions, which, you know, can be boring, you always meet the same people. Then I would come home and drink another two or three glasses. I began to ask myself, am I getting dependent on this, let me stop for a month. I did, without too much difficulty, then thought, why don’t I stop eating meat too? I soon realised I was feeling much better. The doctor agreed my health indicators had become far superior. For a Bavarian like me who loved beer, my personal record is 18 mugs of beer in one night, this is a huge change! But I haven’t regretted it, ever. And oh yes, I love ‘paneer’!” he adds.
Ok, so the food is vegetarian. Nobody has called ahead to ask whether I eat anything else. It’s also cooked to the taste of a foreigner – wholesome but straightforward, a no-nonsense boiling of dal and vegetable, much more suitable for children and ill people – which, I guess, is par for the course.
Right now, though, I want to know if the rumours are right, which is, that after his last job as Germany’s special envoy to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, he hadn’t wanted to come to India? Steiner admits the rumour’s veracity. “I was offered a nice, cushy job somewhere in Europe, it was my wife who pushed me to think if that would be challenging, so I accepted India,” he says.
“There is something happening in India,” Steiner goes on, “it is in the process of becoming a global player. But both countries hardly know each other. Indians will tell you about cars like Porsche, Audi, Mercedes, and Germans will point to India’s large size and ancient traditions. Neither picture reflects the reality on the ground. Of course we are far apart geographically, but we are much closer than we think we are. And I believe that a mental neighbourhood is far more important than geographical proximity.”
Steiner says he is shocked by the Indian indifference towards Europe, implying that Delhi’s overwhelming interest in the US is plain short-sighted. References to the strategic irrelevance of Europe in Shashi Tharoor’s recent book, ‘Pax Indica’, he argues, is “completely wrong”. He rattles off a set of socio-economic comparisons between Europe and the US, then says if India is seeking inclusive growth then Europe, not the US, is the model.
Mid-way through the meal, Steiner gets up and leads the way to a narrow corridor just behind this private dining room. Hung on the walls are black-and-white photographs of Prague in 1989, of the Charles bridge drenched in the rain, of a gate on the side of the West German embassy over which 8,000 East Germans jumped seeking refuge. “I will never forget that day,” Steiner is saying,” it was September 6, and [then foreign minister] Genscher was there. He stood on the balcony on the first floor of our embassy, and said, ‘I have come to tell you...’ but even before he could complete his sentence, a huge roar went up in the crowd of East Germans who had jumped the gate and they completed the sentence for him: ‘We can leave!’ ”
It was Steiner, a young political officer, who was in charge of the massive refugee operation, and he earned huge credit for his presence of mind and political courage. A decade later, as Germany’s ambassador in Prague, he was handpicked by then German chancellor Schroeder to become his foreign and security policy adviser. Four years on, in 2002-03, he was heading the UN mission in Kosovo.
Back home, Steiner is well-known for his derring-do. According to press reports from November 2001, he was forced to resign from Schroeder’s inner circle because of an altercation with a German embassy official in Moscow during a short visit by the Chancellor to Russia. Steiner, reportedly, ordered the officer to feed the chancellor’s entourage caviar, while Schroeder supped with Putin. The German media called it the “caviar affair” and had a field day detailing Steiner’s tactlessness.
I discover this information only much later. Calling back to check, Steiner admits the incident took place but insists it was blown way out of proportion. “We had had a long, long flight from China and India and our stomachs were out and I made a joke about the caviar because that is what Russia is famous for. Anybody who knows me knows that I am not the luxury type,” he says.
Steiner moved on quickly from Kosovo to Geneva, where he quit drinking, then to Italy where he met Eliese and married her, after which he was named Germany’s special envoy to the AfPak region. I ask him if Europe in general, and Germany in particular, are abandoning Afghanistan by withdrawing in 2014.
“2014 is unavoidable. If we had stayed on for another 10 years, things would not have changed. When the international community went into Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 incidents, we thought we could create that country in our own image, like gods, we were so arrogant. The truth is, the Afghans don’t want us there. Meanwhile, people back home are asking, is it better to put money into social security for Germans than spend it on fighting the war in Afghanistan?” asks Steiner.
Of the Pakistan Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, whom he got to know well, Steiner describes him as “very bright, with a mathematical military brain and certainly not narrow-minded.” The German ambassador pleads for a greater Indian understanding of the Pakistani establishment, pointing out that they are significantly driven by the fear of what India will do after western forces withdraw from Afghanistan and whether this will be detrimental to Pakistan’s interest.
“I’m not saying that this thinking by the Pakistani establishment is right or wrong, I’m just saying that you have to factor this into your own strategy,” he adds.
By the time the pista ice-cream is brought in, Steiner has parsed his favourite sentence – at least over lunch -- in several ways, about how crises in themselves are hardly the problem, it is how you deal with them that is interesting. The bitterly divisive free trade agreement (FTA) currently being negotiated between India and Europe is an occasion for variations of this homily.
He admits that both sides are missing the woods for the trees as they minutely inspect clauses from today’s perspective of today, instead of allowing space for the mutual profit of decades. The Indian auto industry is resisting German auto-makers, while German wine-makers insist that Indian duties cannot exceed a certain amount. Meanwhile, Germany continues to erect huge work and education barriers for students and workers.
Steiner’s creative impulse has been on display all through lunch, and by the time coffee is served I ask whether the range of books in his library implies that he is a thinker. “I’m a doer,” he adds simply, “and India is a good place for a doer.”
Clearly, Michael Steiner has his work cut out for him.