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India's new foreign secretary: A firebrand and go-getter

July 05, 2013 12:04 IST
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Sujatha Singh stands for the right values and quite simply, she's a "good person" who understands complex economic issues thoroughly, say her friends. 

Foreign secretaries are considered to have authority and earn the respect of their peers and juniors not only because of the position they hold, but also if they have fought from the trenches. The Indian foreign service, or IFS, equivalent of this is a posting in either Pakistan or China, the two countries that test your capacity for diplomatic thrust and parry.

Sujatha Singh, foreign secretary designate, has served in neither -- in fact, in none of India's neighbouring countries, with some of whom it is hard to always be diplomatic. But IFS officials are quick to dispel the impression that European postings were the only influences in shaping Singh's worldview. "She's served in Ghana as first aecretary," says an official triumphantly. But there is more to life than China and Pakistan and there's more to Singh than culture and vulture. "Taskmaster, firebrand and a go-getter" -- that is how Singh is being described by her colleagues.

She's held a range of jobs: from training young officers at the foreign services institute where she was known to have a special rapport with the probationary officers, to the National Defence College where foreign service officers learn to look at the world from the perspective of the fighting arms of countries around the world. Her posting in Australia is, in many ways, the most important as she helped negotiate the Indo-Australian uranium deal -- although she was modest to interviewers and said that the credit should go to the Labour Party and then Prime Minister Julia Gillard. While it is true that domestic politics did have a role to play in clinching the deal, it wasn't just the question of uranium. She made the point that by not signing the deal, Australia was losing out by not having India as a strategic partner, especially in view of Australia's support at the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the International Atomic Energy Agency for the waiver that got India the civil nuclear cooperation agreement.

Her husband, Sanjay Singh, who was also in the IFS and recently retired as secretary (east), once remarked that his wife is not married to him but her work. She is quite unpopular for working late hours. But her interests and pursuits are somewhat different from other foreign secretaries.

She had to manage the difficult task of maintaining balance in Indo-Australian relations in the face of race attacks on Indian students there. And when a young woman was raped in a bus and thrown out of it, Singh did not attempt to defend the indefensible to an outraged Indian community and the government but tried to be empathetic.

In her note to overseas Indian communities in Germany, she said, "An entire nation is united in its determination to uphold the rule of law and ensure that justice is meted out. Every candle that is lit in her memory is a measure of our determination to ensure that her death will not be in vain."

Much has been made about the fact that she's the daughter of TV Rajeshwar, a civil servant and former governor. That she is seniormost is the strongest argument for her elevation, her critics say. It is true that in the recent past, candidates like Shyam Saran, of the 1970 IFS batch, and Shiv Shankar Menon, of the 1972 IFS batch, were chosen on the basis of merit rather than strict seniority. These selections had caused a lot of heartburn among those who lost out despite their seniority. Some resigned. One of them, Veena Sikri, then posted as India's high commissioner to Bangladesh, went on long leave and later challenged the government's decision before the Central Administrative Tribunal. She believes the selection of a foreign secretary must be transparent. This time, the government has opted to play safe.

But Singh's friends are forthright. They say that she's stood for the right values and quite simply, she's a "good person" who understands complex economic issues thoroughly. She might not seek out the media glare, but Sujatha Singh has a mind of her own.

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