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India gets 'thinking foreign secretary' in Mathai

Last updated on: June 28, 2011 17:15 IST

Is Pakistan or China experience a 'must' to be appointed Indian foreign secretary? Former diplomat and distinguished writer M K Bhadrakumar scoffs at that notion.

Ranjan Mathai, who will be assuming office as India's new foreign secretary from August 1, has attracted criticism before joining office for not having extensive experience of handling countries like Pakistan and China.

When asked about Mathai's appointment and criticism against him, Bhadrakumar described him as one of the most distinguished members of the IFS. Mathai, he said, is a thorough professional who believes in the axiom that the devil lies in the details and he painstakingly analyses problems and issues and makes it a point to master them before taking his decisions or begins acting on them.

Bhadrakumar said he could see if at all, only one 'flaw' in him as a professional is that he is far too self-effacing as a personality, "who does a good day's work with the utmost integrity and diligence, strictly within the four walls of the policy parameters laid out by the leadership and entirely through the prism of the country's national interests" -- and thereupon, "left to himself, would prefer to withdraw modestly to the quietude of his study to read a fine book."

Bhadrakumar repeatedly mentioned him as a first-rate intellectual and said the Indian media will find him a "stimulating interlocutor" when he sets out on the foreign policy issues "from the corner room in South Block," Bhadrakumar said.

Mathai's predecessors like Nirupama Rao, Shiv Shankar Menon and Shyam Saran had first hand experience of India's neighbourhood. Saran was posted in Nepal as well as Myanmar as ambassador before he was selected to lead the diplomats' cadre. Menon, in his illustrious career was lucky to serve as high commissioner in Sri Lanka and Pakistan; he was also ambassador in China before he became foreign secretary. Before getting coveted post as foreign secretary Rao was ambassador of China and had, also, served as high commissioner in Sri Lanka.

According to Bhadrakumar, it is not a posting in Pakistan or China that qualifies an IFS officer to become India's foreign secretary. "It has never been so in the past, and it should be even less so today." India's engagement with global politics is "deepening and broadening" and what the country needs is a "thinking" foreign secretary.

However, it's not the case that Mathai is unaware of India's neighbourhood. A 1974 batch Indian Foreign Service officer, Mathai has held variety of diplomatic positions. He was joint secretary in charge of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Maldives from January 1995 to February 1998. He has served with distinction in the Indian embassies in Vienna, Washington, Tehran, Colombo, and Brussels. He has served as India's ambassador to Israel (February 1998-June 2001) and Qatar (August 2001 to July 2005).

The time has come now when it's necessary that ministry of external affairs strike a balance between its role in public diplomacy and policy making. Increasingly, the intellectual work of shaping foreign policy to carry forward India's vision on the world platform is being done in the Prime Minister's Office while MEA is in real danger of becoming merely an implementing agency of the policy made outside MEA and mostly "entertaining media crews".

Also, over the years, Bhadrakumar said, foreign secretaries became paranoid about the bureaucratic politics on Raisina Hill and arrogated to themselves enormous authority, which created "a hopeless situation because even a foreign secretary after all gets only 24 hours in a day and it is humanly impossible to discharge duties optimally."

What followed was that conceptual thinking, policy planning, broad spectrum vision -- all these took a backseat "amidst the inter-ministerials and phone calls and the routine chores, apart from the panache for what passes for public diplomacy before TV cameras."

A foreign secretary reaches that position because he is expected to possess the capability to navigate the foreign policy as an extension of the country's national policies and priorities and, therefore, to "get trapped in the small pond of the mundane and the routine and in-house wrangling is a veritable tragedy."

The "salvation" lies, Bhadrakumar says, in the government's decision to give an assured two-year term to a foreign secretary. "Freed of the insecurities of tenure and attendant turf wars, it is now up to future foreign secretaries to begin to delegate work to their competent peer group and to work within a collegium "so that the FS can overcome the tyranny of time and concentrate on the profound challenges" that Indian foreign policy faces, he said.

Bhadrakumar concluded that "despite the dust and heat in domestic politics", the government has done remarkably well in the foreign policy sphere and signs of "new thinking" have appeared. "Which is why the new foreign secretary will prove to be a great asset to the government," he said.

Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi