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In Shiv Shankar Menon, the best person has won

By TP Sreenivasan
Last updated on: September 01, 2006 15:33 IST

The stars had foretold many years ago that Shiv Shankar Menon would be foreign secretary one day. It was written in the horoscope of his grandfather, KPS Menon (Sr), that his son and grandson would occupy the same position that he occupied in the government.

When KPS Menon (Jr) was packing his bags for his retirement from Beijing, his mother thought that the astrologer had got it wrong, but a few days before he retired, Rajiv Gandhi summoned him to New Delhi to replace A P Venkateswaran, who left in a huff when the then prime minister announced publicly that he would appoint a new foreign secretary soon.

And now the stars have proved right again. Shankar has superseded more than a dozen competent officers to take over as foreign secretary for the next three years. The ink had barely dried on reports that this appointment would be delayed for a year.

In fact, it was not just the stars that had predicted Shankar's appointment as foreign secretary. The question in the minds of observers of the ministry was not whether he would be the foreign secretary, but when it would happen. His age and experience were in his favour, not to speak of his pedigree.

Diplomatic dynasties exist in many countries and belonging to one of them is considered an advantage everywhere. Each generation has to prove its worth in open competitive examinations before it can inherit its predecessor's mantle and, therefore, there is no stigma of nepotism attached.

Apart from his celebrated uncle and grandfather, his father, PN Menon too was a diplomat. He passed away as ambassador to Yugoslavia. When Shankar was ambassador in Beijing, the World Tibet Network recalled that he had spent some of his boyhood days in Lhasa, where his father was consul general of India there. Shankar's father-in-law, RD Sathe, was foreign secretary as well as ambassador to China. Although he did not call himself KPS Menon, (he had the same name as his uncle and grandfather) it was certain from the start that he would be foreign secretary.

Shankar, his wife Mohini and their daughter Aditi were our neighbours upstairs in the ministry of external affairs hostel on Kasturba Gandhi Marg in the late seventies. I had just returned from Moscow, where I had come to know KPS Menon (Sr) and I was happy to get to know two more generations of the family.

We were indeed good neighbours and we have good memories of many acts of kindness of the young couple, including how Mohini rushed my wife to the hospital when she developed labour pains exactly at the time when I was clearing my baggage, which had just arrived from Moscow.

As special assistant to the foreign secretary, I had the occasion to watch this young officer's work as the under secretary for China at a time when India was taking new initiatives with regard to China. His proficiency in matters relating to China and maturity of approach were quite evident even at that time and these have multiplied over the years of his experience of dealing with China.

No other officer may have done as much of China as he has done, even though the Indian Foreign Service has quite a few China specialists. It is not unusual for China experts to occupy the post of foreign secretary.

As a middle level officer in Vienna and later as the MEA representative in the Department of Atomic Energy, Shankar gained considerable experience in nuclear issues, which should give him the requisite background to deal with the Indo-US nuclear agreement and its fallout.

Stories about his exceptional abilities were heard in Vienna many years after he had left the city. It was providential that a proposal to induct him into the International Atomic Energy Agency did not materialise. The IAEA's gain would have been the loss of the ministry of external affairs.

Our career paths did not cross after those early years, but his subsequent postings as envoy to Israel, Sri Lanka, China and Pakistan at a relatively young age were testimony to his brilliant stints at each of these capitals. Like Mani Dixit before him, Shankar planned his career to remain in India's neighbourhood, without being tempted to go to glamorous stations in Europe or North America.

His diplomatic skills and amiable personality were recognised by successive governments in New Delhi as his fortunes did not change when governments changed. Whenever a tough diplomatic job had to be done, the government turned to Shankar. He is perhaps one of the few IFS officers who avoided controversies and made no enemies. His old school, the Scindia School of Gwalior, conferred the Madhav award on him for his dynamism and dedication as a diplomat.

Speculation about Shankar bringing big changes in foreign policy is out of place. Foreign policy has a certain continuity and tradition which no individual can change. There will be certainly a change in style, even though he and Shyam Saran are of the same mould and both are China experts.

Much should not be read into Shankar not having served in the United States. He will be neither anti-US nor pro-China. He will act in the best interests of India and implement the government's policy faithfully and competently. He is fully equipped to deal with the challenges of the future. He will enjoy the loyalty and respect of his colleagues after the initial bewilderment of his seniors at being superseded. His balanced personality and temperament will ensure his success. Like his uncle and grandfather before him, he will bring laurels to India.

This is not the first time that an officer supersedes several senior colleagues to become foreign secretary. Shyam Saran himself was a case in point and his choice over several others has been fully vindicated. He has turned out to be one of the best foreign secretaries we have had in recent years.

In the present case, some of the affected officers have had particularly brilliant careers, but they can be deployed for delicate assignments outside the country. An earlier practice of following the pecking order too strictly had landed square pegs in round holes.

Much is being made of many Malayalis being in high places in New Delhi at this time. None of them got there by patronage or political pressure from Kerala leaders. Kerala politics had nothing to do with any of those appointments. Keralites do not have the habit of supporting each other either in bureaucracy or in politics. Legend has it that live Kerala crabs are exported in open cans because each ensures that the other does not climb out of the can. Each one of the incumbents has risen in his respective area by sheer merit. In fact, some of them had to contend with the feeling of 'over-representation' of Kerala before they were selected.

No one complains that there are too many people from UP or Bihar in the higher echelons of the Indian bureaucracy. If Malayalis happen to be the best people available for some crucial posts, their origin should not go against them in the process of selection.

Mercifully, we do not have a system of quotas for bureaucrats for different states as yet. Let the best person win, as has happened in the case of Shiv Shankar Menon.

T P Sreenivasan was India's former ambassador to the United Nations, Vienna, and former governor for India, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna.

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TP Sreenivasan