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How German Ambassador Michael Steiner is redefining diplomacy

In the summer of 1989, Michael Steiner, then a young political officer posted in the West German embassy in Prague, the capital of what was then Czechoslovakia, saw a man trying to jump over the fence and get into the embassy compound. A policeman was trying to pull him back. The man was one of the many people from East Germany who had been landing at the embassy, seeking refuge and safe passage to West Germany. Inside the embassy too, the number of refugees was swelling. There would eventually be 8,000 of them cramped in the compound, 110 housed in Steiner’s office alone. Unable to stop himself, Steiner ran to the rescue of the man at the fence. “I was trembling because I knew what I was doing was totally undiplomatic and because it is not the role of a diplomat to get into conflict with the police,” says Steiner. Sweating and trembling, he nevertheless shouted at the startled policeman and pulled the man into the embassy, inviting cheers from his colleagues. The incident was a prelude to the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall.

Steiner, today the German ambassador to India, clearly finds it difficult to go against his instincts despite being a diplomat. Enthusiastic and energetic at 65, he would rather go all out and get the job done.

This facet of his personality was evident when the Indian human resource development (HRD) ministry recently decided to replace German with Sanskrit as the third language in Kendriya Vidyalayas mid-session. German has been the third language following a 2011 agreement between the Kendriya Vidyalayas and Goethe Institute-Max Mueller Bhawan. In Brisbane, Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the issue with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Back in Delhi, as expected the ambassador met the people who matter in the HRD ministry. But he also met the behind-the-scene actors: officials of the Sanskrit Shikshak Sangh and even Dinanath Batra, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue who is seeking a revamp of school curriculum. From them, Steiner sought greater cultural exchanges between German and Sanskrit scholars and later tweeted about the meeting. But with the matter now in court he would rather not speak on it, though he does say, “There are language ties between India and Germany. Sanskrit, for example, has a lot of similarities with German.”

Steiner’s style of diplomacy goes beyond the obvious and is visible even in the décor of his residence in Delhi. There is nothing that cries out ‘Germany’ here. “We all have clichés about each other. India and Germany both have clichés about each other,” he explains. “The ambassador’s role is also to overcome these clichés.” One of the things he, along with his wife, Eliese, did soon after assuming charge was to revamp the space at their residence. But for the lamps and some paintings, everything else is “made in India”.

Steiner did not always think he would become a diplomat. A lawyer qualified as a judge, he specialised in international law. “The idea was to have a career at the university, teaching,” he says. But a visit to the house of a famous professor on the outskirts of London changed that. There, Steiner saw a book on international law written in the middle ages. “This had a shocking effect on me. I saw this man who had achieved everything one can in this profession and I suddenly realised there was nothing left in it for me,” he says. “I could not be teaching at the university and writing books with footnotes. I wanted to see the world.” So he returned to Munich and applied to the foreign office.

Before he came to India, he was a special representative for Germany in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “It was in reality a posting in airplanes. I practically lived in planes for one-and-a-half years,” he says explaining, “If there is a conflict somewhere, the whole world is somehow affected. So you have to travel constantly to meet the players involved.”

India has been a far more settled posting. But Steiner and his wife, an art historian whom he met at the Colosseum in Italy, aren’t exactly taking it easy. The embassy has been abuzz with activity, so much so that Steiner says, “We need to slow down”. An exhibition of European modern sculptures from the National Gallery in Berlin has just ended. The artworks, now carefully packed, are waiting to be sent home. Before this, the embassy hosted its biggest event, to commemorate 25 years of the fall of the Berlin Wall. For this, Steiner got his residence transformed into the Cold War-divided Berlin. The Residence Garden was split into two halves by a huge wall — the replica of the Berlin Wall. 

At a satsang on his 65th birthday, Ambassador Steiner and his wife, Eliese, with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

More recently, on November 28, when he turned 65, Steiner hosted a satsang led by spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar with over 1,200 guests. The timing of the event, coming right after the Sanskrit-German controversy, however, raised a few eyebrows with people speculating that the ambassador was trying to appease the Hindutva lobby. Few knew that the idea had taken shape last March and the invites had gone out long before the controversy broke out. “My wife and I have met Sri Sri Ravi Shankar several times,” says Steiner. “We were in Bangalore at his ashram earlier this year where we did a week in silence.”

Steiner is good at communicating without words. By picking up activities and issues that have a larger connect, he is sending out the right signals. He came to India having learnt that this was a cricket country. But the football World Cup in July, when the embassy opened its gates for public projection of the matches in its compound, revealed the growing interest in the sport. “Even for matches held past midnight, the embassy was full,” says Steiner whose country won the World Cup.

Ambassador Steiner with participants of Stairs School Football League

So, when Siddhartha Upadhyay, the founder of NGO Stairs, approached the German embassy to be a partner in the country’s biggest football series, the School Football League, he was organising in Delhi, the ambassador immediately agreed. “Not only did he want to partner with us, he also wanted to attend the opening match,” says Upadhyay. “He’s a rock star. He was among the first people to reach the venue, Nehru Stadium, five minutes before time, and the last to leave.” The moment he came in, he wanted to meet the children, says Upadhyay. “He spoke to each one of them — and there were 128 teams.”

In the last two-and-a-half years, Steiner and his wife, who on the morning I met the ambassador had been rounding up stray dogs at the Nehru Park along with her adopted dog, Tika Lal (because he was found with a red tika), have travelled around the country — “from Ladakh to the south”. Later this year they are doing a tour of the southern temples.

The explorations have given the diplomat a sense of India beyond Delhi. In Bihar, where he travelled by road, he met Anand Kumar and his class at Super 30. For over a decade, Patna-based Kumar has been coaching economically backward students, often 30 at a time, to crack the entrance exam for the Indian Institutes of Technology with remarkable success. “We thought the ambassador would visit us briefly, but he sat there and spoke to the children at length even as it got dark,” says Kumar. “He told them about Germany, its history in technology, how India scores in software and how the two make a positive combination.” After Steiner returned to Delhi, Kumar was surprised to get a call from him. “He knew we don’t accept financial help, so he asked me how he could help get the children admitted to universities in Germany. It was overwhelming. He thinks beyond policies, governments and countries.”

A teetotaler and a vegetarian, even though he comes from the meat and beer state of Baravia, Steiner has a busy 2015 ahead. “Prime Minister Modi will go to Germany in April and, together with Chancellor Merkel, will open the Hannover Fair (among the largest industrial fairs of the world),” he says. India is the partner country at the fair. He says the perception of India as an investment destination has improved since he came here. His “discovery of India” tours have also opened him to the diversity of India from the investment point of view.

The diplomat with a difference is clearly redefining diplomacy. “Besides politics,” says Steiner, “the ambassador in modern diplomacy has more of a role of bringing people together and fostering cultural and economic relations.” The role of the government, he adds, is still there, but it is not the only factor.

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