South Asia and Beyond

New Foreign Secretary Set To Take Charge; Expect A Shake-Up

 New Foreign Secretary Set To Take Charge; Expect A Shake-Up

Harsh Vardhan Shringla, who was India’s ambassador to the U.S., is scheduled to take over as India’s foreign secretary later this month.

NEW DELHI: The external affairs ministry is all set to get a new captain of the ship with Harsh Vardhan Shringla taking over as foreign secretary on January 29, so expect some important announcements in the coming days regarding transfers and postings of diplomats. Many senior officers have been awaiting new assignments but had to wait for Shringla’s return to South Block so he could vet them.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, a former foreign secretary, will have a say in some key postings. For instance, India’s ambassador to the U.S., where Shringla was ambassador for about a year. Current high commissioner to Sri Lanka Taranjit Singh Sandhu is said to be the frontrunner for the Washington job.

Will the government go ahead with Sandhu or prefer a political appointee? Shringla and Jaishankar, also a former envoy to the U.S., will put their heads together on this. Whoever
wears the hat in Washington will have to hit the ground running as U.S. President Donald Trump is likely to visit India in late February. Besides, the new envoy will need to ensure a bipartisan
outreach in an election year in the U.S.

Another important slot, the one in Colombo when Sandhu moves out, is expected to be filled by Gopal Baglay, a joint secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) since July 2017. With his departure, the PMO slot for a senior IFS officer will need to be filled.

Baglay was MEA spokesperson for a few months till he was picked for the PMO. He has some neighbourhood experience as well, having been deputy high commissioner in Pakistan. He will have his hands full as New Delhi is keen on ramping up ties with the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government to limit Beijing’s influence.

Then there’s Singapore, with incumbent Jawed Ashraf moving to France as ambassador. Considered one of the sharpest minds in the foreign service, it will probably be Ashraf’s final posting before retirement.

The high profile post of the MEA spokesperson will also be up for grabs in a few months, with incumbent Raveesh Kumar completing his tenure. He could be headed for Austria; the ambassador’s post there having fallen vacant after Renu Pall completed her tenure.

The spokesperson’s appointment is one where the minister invariably has a say. Not only is he/she the ministry’s face, holding forth on a wide variety of foreign policy issues but the
spokesperson is also present during important bilateral meetings of the PM and the EAM.

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Renu Pall has been appointed additional secretary NEST (New, Emerging and Strategic Technologies), a freshly minted MEA division said to be Jaishankar’s brainchild. The division will be looking at new technologies like 5G and the worldwide technology trade.

With India-Pakistan relations in limbo, Ajay Bisaria who is high commissioner in Islamabad but has been in New Delhi ever since ties were downgraded, is headed for Ottawa as high commissioner to Canada.

Anupam Ray, presently consul general in Texas who played a key role in organising the ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston is also back in Delhi awaiting a posting.

Two crucial MEA divisions—Americas and PAI (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran)—are also expected to get new joint secretaries in the next few months with the officers heading them, Gourangalal Das and Dr Deepak Mittal, respectively, due for postings. Dr Mittal has been handling the challenging PAI division since February 2017.

The new foreign secretary will also have to decide on a name for the coveted posting of high commissioner to the UK, with current envoy Ruchi Ghanshyam set to retire in April. Yet another crucial slot that will be need to be filled is India’s Permanent Representative at the UN. Syed Akbaruddin who’s deftly handled the job since January 2016 also retires in April.

The ambassadorial post in Ankara will need to be filled as India’s envoy there until recently, Sanjay Bhattacharyya, is back in New Delhi and has taken over as the secretary, CPV and OIA (consular, passport and visa division and overseas Indian affairs). The envoy in Turkey will need to put in tremendous effort into getting New Delhi-Ankara ties back on track. Bilateral relations took a nose-dive after Turkish president Recep Erdogan backed Pakistan on Kashmir at the UN General Assembly session last year.

Another ambassadorial slot that will fall vacant soon is in Prague, with current envoy Narinder Chauhan headed for retirement. The Indian ambassador in Portugal, K. Nandini Singla will be completing her tenure soon, having been appointed to the post in March 2016.