NEW DELHI: Even as India faces increasing foreign policy challenges, including more intricate consular work like that of the ‘stateless’ Kairi Shepherd, appointment of suitable Indian ambassadors abroad is critical. But the latest case of a new Indian envoy has brought to fore the internal rumblings within the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).
On May 15, MEA announced that Ajay K Sharma, a counsellor in the High Commission in Fiji, has been appointed as the next Indian ambassador to North Korea. It didn’t create much impression outside MEA circles, but within there has been turmoil over the decision.
Within a week, three associations of the IFS (B) cadre officers submitted a written complaint to the Prime Minister’s Office and the external affairs minister expressing their sense of “utter disappointment” and asking for a review of the appointment of Sharma.
Their cause of unhappiness was that Sharma was from the stenographer’s cadre—the batch of employees who are mainly recruited to provide secretarial skills to the ministry’s basic cadre of Indian Foreign Service officers and the feeder cadre, the IFS (B).
“Selecting an officer with only stenographic background to head such a sensitive mission abroad adversely reflects upon us in the context of India’s pre-eminent role as an emerging global power,” said the letter signed by the office-bearers of three IFS (B) associations dated May 22.
Sharma had joined the cadre in 1981, and five years later was promoted to private secretary, then at suitable intervals to principal private secretary and then to senior principal private secretary. His current post is Personal Staff Officer, which is equivalent to drawing the salary and benefits of a director in the ministry.
A senior MEA official however strongly refuted the allegations, asserting that it was certainly not the first time that a non-IFS cadre official had been appointed as ambassador.
“There have been people from the interpreters and cyber cadre who have been made ambassadors. Even in North Korea, a previous ambassador, Zile Singh, had entered the ministry as a stenographer,” he said.
The officer pointed out that it was more of a “turf issue” between the IFS (B) executive cadre officers, and the Stenographers cadre—who have been traditionally at odds at each other.
A senior office-bearer of one of the IFS (B) groups admitted that they had fought against the dilution of their cadre by including the stenographers in their stream. But he asserted that it was not right to make an appointment of a person who had not worked in any territorial desks or diplomatic positions abroad. “An IFS (B) official can only become an ambassador after he has been absorbed into the IFS and worked at diplomatic positions for 15-20 years,” he said. According to him , this was not a convincing argument especially in a small ministry, where there was “no possibility of extreme specialisation”.
But, it’s not just IFS (B) officers who are unhappy, several of the IFS officers who The Sunday Standard spoke to were not particularly glad with this new development. “It basically shows that some senior officers would prefer to trust a senior steno, rather than their junior officers,” he said.