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Indian Americans hail Rao's appointment as envoy

By Aziz Haniffa
July 17, 2011 16:01 IST
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There has been overwhelming elation from across United States from Indian American community leaders and activists over the decision by the government of India to appoint Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao as the new Indian Ambassador to the US, to succeed Meera Shankar whose term ends on July 31 after which she is expected to go into retirement from the Indian Foreign Service.

With the government intent to appoint Rao that was received by the US State Department last month expected to be approved shortly as it is a formality, Rao is expected in Washington sometime in late summer or early fall, and in the interim, Deputy Chief of Mission Arun Kumar Singh, who also has ambassadorial status, having been India's envoy to Israel before he came to DC three years ago, will hold the fort.

Several community leaders and activists, who had interacted with Rao from over a decade ago, when she was first counselor and then minister, press, information and culture, and then during her numerous visits to DC as foreign secretary, told that her appointment was "a great choice," and predicted that she would further solidify US-India relations and propel the strategic partnership between Washington and Delhi to even greater heights.

During the tenure of Ambassador Siddharth Shanker Ray, Rao was one of four Indian women diplomats in Washington, who formed Ray's A-team, and one of them would constantly accompany him to meetings that would deal with their expertise. The others were Shankar, who was then minister, commerce, Chitra Mohan, who was an all-rounder and would handle all portfolios, also with minister status and would step in to deal with political and also information and culture and Sukhdeep Brar, minister, economic.

The deputy chief of mission at the time was Kanwal Sibal, who later went on to become foreign secretary, after holding several ambassadorial assignments, including in Paris and Moscow.

Dr Joy Cherian, founder of the Indian American Forum for Political Education and the first Asian American to be appointed to a sub-cabinet level position in the US government when he served as Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the Reagan administration, said, Rao's appointment was "welcome news," and that "her wide experience from her past assignments, including at the embassy in Washington over a decade ago, has given her a tremendous understanding of all the elements and working of the US government, the people of America, including Indian Americans."

"So, all of this will definitely help her to be an effective ambassador," he said.

Cherian said, "From my personal observation about her past diplomatic activities gives me the confidence that she will be a tremendously successful ambassador here and once again endear herself to the Indian American community as in the past when she has shown such high respect to the community."

He recalled that "one evening of May 2009, my wife, Alice and I were sitting at the Washington Dulles Airport waiting for a plane trip to Beijing to join an American tour group and Ambassador Nirupama Rao, then ambassador to China, who was also at the airport walked towards us and greeted us and during our short conversation she was so gracious that she invited us to visit her home in Beijing."

Cherian also remembered fondly Rao's husband, Sudhakar Rao, who was minister, economic affairs, at the time Rao was minister, press, and spoke of how "extremely helpful to Indian American business people while he was."

"I am fully confident that his wide contacts and his popularity with the Indian American community too, would be such a value-add to her in her diplomatic activities to win the heart and minds of all American people, and their elected and appointed leaders," he predicted.

Cherian declared, "She is going to be a great success and I am sure will make a major impact in propelling US-India relations to the next level."

Echoing similar sentiments, Subhash Razdan of Atlanta, Georgia, chairman of the Gandhi Foundation of USA and erstwhile national president of the National Federation of Indian American Associations, said, "We are indeed delighted to hear the welcome news of Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao's next assignment as ambassador of India to USA. What a great choice with superlative credentials! A topper in IFS, Harvard connections, foreign secretary, US ambassador to China, DCM in Moscow, Minister of Press in US Embassy in DC, etc.! Wow!"

"She was a foreign secretary working at a frenzied pace during difficult Indo-Pak negotiations under the clouds of terrorism. She kept Indo-Afghan relations in good spirit. Her deft handling of Indo-China relations without jeopardizing the new direction of the spirited Indo-US relations, also showed what a great diplomat she is," he said.

Razdan reminisced about how "I personally have very fond memories of her overwhelming support as the minister of press of the embassy of India in DC for our Gandhi Statue project in Atlanta with guidance from then Ambassador Sidharth Shankar Ray."

Razdan said, "Our community looks forward to Ambassador Rao's arrival in the US with the new and improved emphasis for improved visa and consular services as we in Atlanta also get ready for India's new consulate soon."

Piyush Agrawal of Miami, Florida, and president of the Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin, was equally enthused over the GOI's decision to appoint Rao, and said, "We are delighted that the government of India has decided to send such a seasoned foreign service officer as Mrs Rao as its ambassador to India's most visible and important ambassadorial assignment."

"Looking at the current situation of a very close relationship between India and USA, this position becomes an anchor in shaping India's foreign policy especially in the light of difference in approach to India's status as a global player between Bush administration and the Obama administration," Agrawal, an Indian American Republican Party stalwart, said.

But he predicted that "as a former foreign secretary she is eminently qualified and knowledgeable about her mission in USA."

"Still, Rao's job shall be quite challenging and could become a landmark in US-India relationship, if she plays it right," he said. "And, to achieve that she will need the broad support of the Indian American community," he said.

Agrawal said, "During Rao's previous tenure, she might not have had the opportunity to interact with a broad based community and might have confined her acquaintances only with the DC crowd which is a very small fraction of the Indian diaspora in the US. So, she will have to work hard and in a sincere manner to reach out the Indian community throughout the country."

"Ambassador Lalit Mansingh, Ambassador Ronen Sen, and Ambassador Meera Shankar did tremendous work of connecting with the community and that is why their mission of building a strong relationship between India and USA was extremely successful," he added.

Dr Sambhu Banik, of Bethesda, Maryland, another community icon in the Washington, DC area, spoke of how Rao, when she was minister, press, information and culture, did "such a fabulous job in handling her portfolio.

She was very friendly, approachable and personable individual who attended many community events. With her extensive experiences as an Ambassador in various countries as well as her role as an outstanding foreign secretary she will be such an asset and Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh deserves the highest praise for choosing someone of the highest caliber like Nirupama Rao to represent India here in the US."

Banik said that "when it was officially announced that Nirupama would be the next ambassador, it came as one of the best news to the entire Indian American community here."

He recalled that "during her earlier stint here, she charmed everyone with her ever-smiling and extroverted personality and quickly became the darling to the Indian American community because she had such an easy-going and charismatic personality. She visited my home on several occasions and being such a wonderful singer and poet, she would regale us with her songs and poems and they were such fun-filled evenings, and we are looking forward to many more of them during the next few years when we have her amongst us again."

"Even when she came here in recent years as foreign secretary and accompanying the Prime Minister during his state visit or when she visited New York, despite her hectic schedule, she would always find time to interact with old friends," he recollected fondly.

Another close friend of Rao in the Washington area, Sunny Wycliffe spoke of how he and his wife Tresa have know Rao for more than three decades, and declared, "anyone who has known her personally can attest to the fact that she is a down to earth lady with grace and glamour, not to mention a wonderful sense of humor."

Wycliffe said, "The warm aura of the confidence and perennial good cheer she always exuded, her quick repartee, and her incisive intellect, her humaneness, and her ability to steer clear of the confining nature of traditional bureaucratic functioning; her intuitive grasp of that which constituted the essence of a given foreign policy issue, her balanced judgement, and her eloquent turn of phrase, are going to be tremendous assets as ambassador and will endear her once again."

"With her extensive experience around the globe, she will be a shining star in the diplomatic circles in Washington, DC bringing honor and glory to India and Indians," he added.

Dr Navin Shah, one of the founders and former president of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, arguably, the largest and most influential international medical groups in the country, also spoke of his earlier interactions with Rao and said, "In appointing Nirupama Rao as the next ambassador of India to the US, the government of India has made the right decision at the right time because she has all the credentials to take US-India relations to the next level."

"She has always been a people's person," he recalled, and noted all of the assistance she had always provided to his various medical projects in India.

Shah said, "She appreciated and actively assisted in our projects when she was posted at the embassy over a decade ago, to help improve medical education and health care in India."

But perhaps the most enthusiastic over Rao's coming back to Washington, this time as India's envoy was the revered community elder statesman, Padmashree Rajan Devadas, now 92 and one of Rao's favourite people.

Devadas, a photojournalist in DC since the 1950s, who has covered several US presidents and visiting Indian prime ministers and other dignitaries over the years, said, "I am just jubilant that my dear and wonderful friend Nirupama is coming back, and this time as ambassador and I am so confident that she will be just great and leave such an imprint on US-India relations."

"So, I join my other friends in welcoming her and I am so happy and can't wait to have her back in our midst," he added.

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC