THREE years ago when Siddhartha Shankar Ray was appointed ambassador to Washington, few thought the septuagenarian would survive till the end of his term. Everything about him seemed wrong. He was too old and set in his ways. His cabinet status precluded him from interacting with lower ranking US officials. He carried the weight of his past heavily on his shoulders--Sikh separatist groups blamed him for the death of innocent Sikhs when he was governor of Punjab. And, most importantly, no one thought he could fit into Abid Hussain's shoes.
But Ray has managed to confound his critics. With dexterity, and with hard work. His three-year tenure has been rocky and dogged by criticism, but he has managed "not just to survive but succeed". Says a Clinton Administration official: "Ambassador Ray doesn't stand on ceremony. He guards India's interests carefully."
In his 70s, Ray's seen it all: a high profile legal career, a successful political innings with a second-term ambassadorship in Washington crowning his earlier appointments as chief minister and cabinet minister. He maintains a gruelling schedule and has travelled to more than 40 American states. "I am trying to do the job as best as I can," he says. Does he then deserve the press reports which attribute every downturn in Indo-US relations to him but none of the glory? "Others must judge that," the diplomat says solemnly.
Ray is most appreciative of the Indo-US community and has often called upon the services of this powerful and previously under-utilised lobby whose efforts have reaped many benefits, both legislative and otherwise, for India. But he hasn't endeared himself to others in the community. BJP supporters are suspicious of his secular credentials and describe him as a supporter of the Babri Masjid and Khalistani Sikhs refer to him as "the butcher of Punjab".
A journalist who has often interviewed Ray acknowledges that the "rambling old man" is also a "shrewd and consummate politician". Ray himself sums up his record in one sentence: "The appointment of a firm of lawyers to work for us on Capitol Hill, the setting up of the India Group in the House of Representatives, the establishment of the India Interest Group comprising key US investors in India, and the reorganisation of Indo-American associations to make them more effective."
And his failures? "We have not been able to penetrate the US media in a way I would have liked," he admits. Indeed, Prime Minister PV. Narasimha Rao's US visit last year went unnoticed in the US press, whereas Benazir Bhutto's subsequent trip attracted much fanfare.
But despite this, and the recent tremors in Indo-US relations, Ray is confident. "We now have a mature relationship," he says. "We will continue to have upsets. But these issues have to be resolved quietly without public confrontations. I have always worked on the assumption that we cannot agree on everything, and no two democracies should. But each has to respect the other's democratic processes. At no point in our history have four cabinet-level US secretaries visited India within three months. A governor has also visited India. And senators, House members and their aides are planning to do so. If these interactions bring about an understanding of concerns, we ha indeed succeeded."
He dismisses explanations which attribute all upsets in Indo-US relations to Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphel. "We have to take America seriously. Decisions are taken at the highest level. It' is wrong to assume that the South Asia; Bureau alone makes policy.
Ray is critical of the US Senate vote approving the arms package to Pakistan which he feels is a major "setback". Referring to the negative media coverage, an embassy source said it was unfair for the media to lay the blame squarely on Ray. "One has to be aware of the complexities of the US legislation process. The Senate vote is not a done deal. The bill has to gel through conference committees and other procedures before it is declared law. Things could change." Another embassy contact "Even Clinton can't Senate to do everything he wants. And they expect Ray to play God."
A large measure of Ray's success also goes to his wife; Maya, who is well liked for her friendliness, a quality not associated with the wives of former Indian ambassadors. When Hillary Clinton spoke fondly of the Rays at the Mahatma Gandhi anniversary celebrations recently, it was obvious that their personal relationship with the First Family was something other envoys Washington envied. Maybe therein lies clue to this old war-horse's popularity: eclectic mix of the official and the person.