February 17, 2020
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At Home On Foreign Affairs

Cultured, soft-spoken, unassuming and trend-setting. That's India's first woman foreign secretary designate, Chokila Iyer.

At Home On Foreign Affairs
India's first woman foreign secretary designate was called 'muy culta' (very cultured) while she was ambassador in Mexico. "She's utterly soft-spoken and gentle," says an old friend. "But it will be a mistake to think that she can be bullied." Her style has been described as 'low key and high culture' and she was the beloved of the diplomatic community in Mexico. The most senior woman civil servant ever in the history of India, Chokila Iyer is an unassuming pioneer.

"I'm quite excited," Iyer told Outlook from Dublin where she is currently ambassador. "I'm proud and honoured and hope I have set a trend. Many women will surely follow after me." She also betrays a mite of trepidation: "I hope I'm able to live up to my predecessors."

AND indeed, Chokila Iyer—nee Tshering, 58, economics graduate, married to G.C. Iyer, with one daughter, GAYatri—is hardly mainstream. Foreign secretaries have generally been upper-caste, Hindu and male. Iyer is a tribal from Sikkim and is female. Some foreign secretaries have been doughty warriors with weighty tenures in South Asia or the P5. Iyer has never been posted in the neighbourhood or in the P5. Instead, she's served in 'soft' places like Berne, in the Seychelles, at the iccr in New Delhi, in Mexico and now Dublin. She's known to be non-confrontational almost to a fault. A jnu professor says media and diplomats were dismayed and disappointed when she refused to attend a high-profile conference after Pokhran II, in Mexico City. The Pakistani charge d'affaires was present at the conference to put foward his country's views but Iyer refused to come, saying she would attend only if Pakistan and China were kepT Out. "Such a conference would have been the right moment for Iyer to defend India's stand," says the academic, "but she chickened out."

Foreign secretaries have been known to directly advise prime ministers, as the likes of G.S. Bajpai and J.N. Dixit have. Or carve out definitive treaties like T.N. Kaul did the Indo-Soviet treaty of 1971. But Iyer will assume charge at a time when the shadow of Brajesh Mishra, "a principal player" and "a super-bureaucrat" looms large over the mea. She comes at a time when the highly publicised 'tension' betWEEn foreign minister Jaswant Singh and Mishra on account of ministerial favourite Kanwal Sibal's name being proposed for the top job almost led to resignations of 19 top-ranking officers. "If Sibal had been appointed," says security anaLYSt Bharat Karnad, "he would have superceded 19 officers. Thus, in terms of seniority, Iyer was the rational choice. She's as good or as bad as any other candidate would have been." Karnad believes that the idea of a Golden Age of foreign secretaries is pure humbug. "The post of foreign secretary is basically to function as an administrative choke-point and obey ministerial directives."

NEvertheless, Veena Ravi Kumar, Reader in political science at Lady Shri Ram College, believes that Iyer's appointment is a significant one. "Women often become singular when they occupy a top job, but the fact that a woman has become foreign secretary is not without importance." Former ambassador Rukmini Menon points out that a number of women have risen to ambassadorial and secretary-level posts in the ifs and therefore there is no reason why there should be so much fuss over Iyer's appointment. "Iyer's as deserving as any man," Menon says, "and should not be congratulated just because she is a woman."

But the fact remains that the ifs is as untouched by gender equality as other services. Women officers are generally consigned to soft, comfortable postings. Wives are relegated to the status of 'hostesses', to be assessed according to how well they prepare official dinners. In the '70s, C.B. Muthamma moved the courts because she was denied a promotion and Surjit Mansingh was forced to resign because she married an American national. (Since then, the rules have been changed and an ifs officer is allowed to marry a foreigner provided the partner takes Indian citizenship.) How does Iyer feel about being the first woman foreign secretary? The important thing is to work together and sort out situations as they come,she says.But it helps to have an understanding spouse.

Chokila Iyer may well be the compromise candidate. She may be the beneficary of the luck of the draw, the generalist taking her place at a top post by virtue of a mere accident of her date of birth. Yet the appointment of this retiring baku-clad woman from Sikkim is also democracy-in-action. It is democracy-in-hope in an India where a quiet wife and mother can rise unfussily to the top of her profession to lead a diplomatic corps into the new millennium.

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