Nirupama’s China connection will come handy

In September 2006 when Shivshankar Menon was named foreign secretary, there was much heartburn.

Published: 08th July 2009 11:58 PM  |   Last Updated: 15th May 2012 10:35 PM   |  A+A-


In September 2006 when Shivshankar Menon was named foreign secretary, there was much heartburn. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh picked him for the top foreign service job when there were over a dozen officers senior to him. Protest notes, long leave, requests for assignments away from the headquarters and the odd resignation followed. Menon retires this month-end and Nirupama Rao, India’s ambassador in Beijing, will take over. There has been no fuss.

The prime minister played safe this time. Half-a-dozen other officers from Nirupama Rao’s year are around, including N Ravi, secretary (East) and Nalin Surie, secretary (West). But Kerala-born Rao is senior to them, as she had topped that 1973 batch.

Rao, 58, will be only the second woman foreign secretary. Chokila Iyer, who in 2001 was the first, is pleased at the elevation of a ‘brilliant’ officer who will be in charge till next year-end. “This was expected and well-deserved,” she tells Express.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Rao’s critics accuse her of being run-of-the-mill. They concede she would do a good job of presenting India’s case, but doubt if she has it in her to take the lead in fashioning foreign policy. During her watch, they say, the prime minister’s office would further consolidate its ‘dominance’ over the foreign office.

They draw comparisons with her sharp predecessors, Shyam Saran followed by Shivshankar Menon. The 1972-batch Menon has IFS in his DNA: his grandfather K P S Menon (Senior) was India’s first foreign secretary, uncle K P S Menon (Junior) also reached that level. And his eventful career was topped by the big Manmohan Singh achievement — the end of nuclear trade sanctions against India after Delhi signed the civil nuclear deal with America and negotiated a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Nirupama Rao will face her own challenges. India-Pakistan relations after Mumbai 26/11 are going through another bad patch as Delhi manoeuvres within a complex India-Pakistan-United States-Afghanistan matrix. As she takes charge, Pakistan appears to have weathered the worst of the post-Mumbai diplomatic pressure India piled on it through Washington, which also needs Islamabad to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Rao’s curriculum vitae made it easier for the UPA II government to simply pick the most senior officer of the lot — and not scroll further down the civil list as when the likes of Menon, Saran and J N Dixit were picked. “She has the right credentials”, an external affairs ministry officer says.

Rao has held meaty assignments at headquarters, including additional secretary in charge of administration and personnel, served as minister-in-charge of press affairs at the embassy in Washington, been deputy chief of mission in Moscow, and spent sabbaticals at two top American universities. Then there are the key, almost essential for the job, neighbourhood assignments. Like Menon, she was India’s envoy to Sri Lanka and China. Unlike Menon though, she missed an Islamabad posting.

But Rao has had her own brush with Pakistan. In 2001-2002, she was the external affairs ministry spokesperson — the first woman to hold that office — and part of the job was mouthing Delhi’s rejoinders to barbs from across the border. If anything, the bilateral rhetoric was more vicious then. The spokesperson’s job got noticed. When Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, the architect of Kargil, came to India for the Agra Summit, he greeted her by saying he had been seeing her on television. “I recognise you”, he said. And when the Agra summit ended in a spectacular disaster, she made the brief Indian announcement, conceding failure. Before that she had made some Agra headlines of her own. There was some heckling, some jostling when she faced a bunch of Pakistani journalists at the Agra venue. Islamabad expressed formal regrets.

In Colombo once, tourism minister Anura Bandaranaike accused the ‘pretty’ high commissioner in parliament of meddling in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. Delhi took offence. Last year the Chinese sent her summons, calling her to their foreign office at an unusual time to signal that they were not happy at all with the Tibetan protests in Delhi, when the Olympic Torch was passing through on its way to Beijing. It was late night, and she was on the Internet when the phone rang. India didn’t make too much of a public fuss.

Professionally, there is a lot of China in Rao. Apart from the nearly three-year stint in Beijing, she was with the external affairs ministry’s East Asia division from 1984 to 1992, including as joint secretary (East Asia).

Her China focus should come in handy at a time when Beijing is needling Delhi a bit more. Last year, it tried to delay the Nuclear Suppliers Group waiver for India. More recently, it protested against a three billion dollar Asian Development Bank (ADB) loan for India because the money would have gone to a project in ‘disputed’ Arunachal Pradesh. Low intensity India-China trade wars continue, as does the boundary dispute. India continues to fret over Chinese overtures to Nepal and Sri Lanka. It also worries about the build -up of infrastructure across the border in the northeast.

When Rao packs her bags for Delhi, there would be bits of China in them. “I love to show my collection,” she told China Daily in 2007. “Indian and Chinese art go very well together.”

Her artistic mind also shows in other pursuits. She likes theatre and classical music, and has given music performances of her own. She is in the league of India’s published diplomats. Rain Rising, a book of poetry, was published in India in 2004 and released again in Sri Lanka. She has two sons, Nikhilesh and Kartikeya. And like her boss, external affairs minister S M Krishna, Nirupama Rao has a Karnataka connection. Her IAS-husband Sudhakar Rao is chief secretary of the state Krishna ran as chief minister from 1999 to 2004.


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