Monday, April 15, 2013

SOUTH BLOCK Watch / The Sunday Standard/April 14, 2013

Four is a crowd

A list has finally been cleared. Among those who figure in it are Yash Sinha to Sri Lanka, Ranjit Rae to Nepal, Preeti Saran to Vietnam, Radhika Lokesh to Ireland, Rajesh Prasad to the Netherlands, and Heads of Missions Gauri Shankar Gupta and Malay Mishra currently posted in Budapest and Port of Spain respectively who will be swapping places.
After Ashok K Kantha takes over as secretary in South Block, three officers of the 1977 batch will be occupying secretary-level jobs in the MEA. The other two are Sudhir Vyas and Pinak Chakravarty. With yet another officer S Jaishanker, India’s ambassador to China, being considered for appointment as fourth secretary, situation is likely to get messy. A piquant situation bordering on the messy. It has rarely happened that four officers of same seniority have been posted at the headquarters. With big egos, most of them don’t even share their views with each other on sensitive issues. Is bringing in so many people at the Centre, part of some strategy or conspiracy to influence future appointments of senior diplomats?
The corner room
The dirty diplomatic war for capturing the corner room has already begun. The Prime Minister has just completed a visit to Germany and will be visiting China in June. Insiders are now speculating whether the Prime Minister will announce the new foreign secretary only after his visit to China, or has he already chosen a person? MEA watchers believe the ultimate appointing authority will insist on due diligence on all the candidates being pushed by various lobbies within the government. The saner elements are convinced that the Prime Minister will strictly follow the principle of seniority and appoint Sujatha Singh as the new foreign secretary. If she is ignored, the Congress leadership and the Prime Minister would have to bear in mind the political fallout of not following seniority and ignoring a legitimate claim of a woman as well.
Heartbreak hotel
Diplomats are known to suffer from many professional ailments, localitis, egomania, clientitis and so on. The present lot, unless they watch out, may succeed in adding to this unique lexicon. It is a well-established procedure that accommodation and logistics for a VVIP visit are worked out in minute detail by what is known as an Advanced Security Liaison (ASL) team comprising representatives from the SPG, PMO, foreign office, IB and other agencies. Was this also not the case for the Prime Minister’s visit to Durban for the BRICS summit?
Because Durban has very few five-star hotels, the 300-strong Chinese delegation chose to stay in a three-star establishment. With the two remaining small five-star hotels Beverly Hills and Oyster Box Hilton 20 minutes away from the conference venue, the ASL team reportedly settled for the Fairmont Zimbali. A story fed by a senior diplomat accompanying the PM delegation, known to be close to the highest in the land, placed the blame for this squarely on the hosts. The alleged discourtesy even agitated Members of Parliament. Can someone stand up and set the record straight? The new ailment is called absurdities.
Communication gap
MEA has a well-structured Foreign Service Institute (FSI) headed by a senior officer, somewhat pompously designated as Dean. Current incumbent is Nengcha Lhouvum Mukhopadhayay. Young entrants to the world of diplomacy are prepared for what lies ahead through a broad-based programme. There would appear to be a need for officers at policy-making levels being given basic training by the FSI in the art of communication and outreach, especially when the handling of policy in relation to Maldives, Sri Lanka, and the flip-flops on the Italian marines case are beginning to raise questions. Is the problem one of policy, its implementation or of failure to effectively communicate to the rest of the world the rationale for the decisions taken? Most of the current senior officials lack the art of communications and also briefing their former colleagues who have now started writing extensively as experts for the media. Even some of them are poorly informed about the latest diplomatic developments. The political class has reason to be worried. If South Block mandarins fail to acquire communication skills, most of the ruling dispensation’s allies already alienated for one reason or the other coupled with problematic relations with countries in our neighborhood could add to many more problems for the UPA in the run-up to May 2014.
Dash for the post
With the US, UK and many others pulling out of this Vienna-based United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), there is very little interest in the real world among professionals to head the agency. Not so in the Foreign Service biradri. As soon as the word got out that the post of DG was going to fall vacant, two serving officers, Hamid Ali Rao, India’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, a wife of a serving diplomat and another retired officer T P Sreenivasan threw their hats into the ring. MEA did what comes naturally to it. It acted like the Post Office and sent the list to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry for its final approval. But the ministry rejected all of them and decided to suggest M Ganapathy’s name, who recently retired as secretary in the MEA and had hardly any experience of handling UNIDO. But the PMO applied its own yardstick. It overruled both the MEA and the industry ministry. Last heard, no Indian candidate for the post which is currently held by a diplomat from Sierra Leone.

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