She is tipped to be India’s third woman foreign secretary, in a long line of 29. Known as a tough taskmaster who can burn the midnight oil, Sujatha Singh is also a hard nut to crack at the negotiating table. She is known to wear down opponents by giving them a patient hearing and then steamrolling them into accepting her final decision.
As joint secretary for Western Europe, she had even told smaller European countries, known for hectoring the world over human rights, to take a hike, rather than accept their sermonising over aid.
While a formal announcement is awaited, most conversations in Raisina Hill indicate that Singh’s seniority gives her an unbeatable lead over other contenders. The two-year term of current foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai ends on July 31.
She is, of course, well connected, as the daughter of a former Intelligence Bureau head and Gandhi loyalist T V Rajeshwar, who later served as governor of Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim and West Bengal. Her husband, Sanjay Singh, an IFS 1976 batchmate, retired as Secretary (East) in April this year.
The race to the top has been under intense public glare, with Singh’s immediate competitor being Indian ambassador to China S Jaishankar. Known as a brilliant officer, Jaishankar had all the makings of a foreign secretary, including long stints in the neighbourhood. But his Achilles’ heel was that he joined the IFS a year after Singh.
It is understood that the government has chosen Singh over Jaishankar, with the hand forced by the Congress high command, worried about optics in an election year.
While refraining from active lobbying, Jaishankar, the middle son of highly-regarded strategic affairs analyst K Subrahmanyam, had the backing of the Prime Minister’s office, having worked closely with the PM over the India-US nuclear deal. On the other side, National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon was said to have batted for another contender, Sudhir Vyas, a 1977 batch topper and the Secretary (West).
Sources said Singh had indicated that she would put in her papers if she was superseded, as have some other seniors. This would have attracted unwanted negative publicity, something the government wants to avoid at all cost.
It was external affairs minister Salman Khurshid who reportedly convinced the PM that Singh should get the post, on both seniority and merit.
With her at the helm, the external affairs ministry could possibly end the stranglehold of NSA and PMO over foreign policy. The government has to find a suitable post now for Jaishankar, who will soon complete five years in Beijing and still has time to go before his superannuation in January 2015—which rules him out as Singh’s successor.
After 37 years as a diplomat, Singh has earned the reputation of being “tough as nails”, who cracks the whip. “She has this no-nonsense attitude about her,” said an IFS officer, adding, “She does not suffer fools and has strong likes and dislikes”. When she came back to headquarters after a long stint abroad to become joint secretary (EW) in 2004, she put in long hours to get up to scratch in her field. “I remember she used to be in office till 9-10 in the night. She is tough on others, but equally tough on herself,” said another MEA official.
Her colleagues also speak admiringly about her ability to stand up to Europeans and Americans during negotiations. “She will hear hours of argument and in the end take her own decision. She is not easily swayed,” said another official.
As joint secretary (EW), she was said to have been instrumental in dropping the smaller Scandinavian countries from the finance ministry’s bracket of countries from whom foreign aid was acceptable.
“All these smaller countries used to give these long sermons on human rights and gender issues. She told them that they cannot have a prescriptive approach and that India does not need this kind of aid,” said a senior IFS officer.
Several of her junior colleagues also remember her period as joint secretary at Foreign Service Institute. “She would make it a point to attend all lectures and interact with probationers and instructors,” said a senior MEA official.
Singh’s face became more prominent in the media in 2010, when as Indian ambassador to Australia, she dealt with the diplomatic kerfuffle over attacks on Indian students.
Another landmark during her term was in December 2011, when the Australian Labour party ended their long-standing ban on uranium sales to non-signatories of NPT, by making a special provision for India.
If her rise is not impeded, as foreign secretary, she will have a full menu of diplomatic challenges–dealing with assertive China and its new leadership, a subcontinent in which most countries are in transition and clamours from international community that India must step up its role globally.
Further, in an election year, she will have to ensure that domestic sensitivities do not dictate Indian foreign policy.