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Que Saran Saran?

So, who'll fill India's top foreign office post after Shyam Saran?

Que Saran Saran?

No. 1 Seed Shyam Saran The current FS, the government is inclined to give him an extension. But will he accept it? Second option: he could be drafted into the PMO. Has delivered the goods, PM comfortable with him

No. 2 Seed Rajiv Sikri Comes into the reckoning only if Saran retires or goes to the PMO. Currently secretary (east), he's the seniormost of the 1970 batch. But has served as ambassador only in Kazakhstan.

No. 3 Seed Shiv Shankar Menon The blue-eyed boy of the foreign service, he is currently high commissioner in Pakistan. Should Saran continue as FS for a year, he's most likely to take over from him next year.

No. 4 Seed T.C.A. Rangachari Currently ambassador in Paris, his career path is better than Rajiv Sikri's. Has served in Germany and handled China for six years. Should Saran go to the PMO, he's the dark horse in the race.

No. 5 Seed Veena Sikri Currently high commissioner in Bangladesh, she topped the 1971 batch. Making her FS would mean transferring the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds out of South Block.


Taking time out of their daily routine of grappling with complex foreign issues, the mandarins in South Block have turned to crystal-gazing: who will succeed Shyam Saran, whose tenure as foreign secretary (FS) expires on September 30? As they speculate on the names of contenders for the top post in the Indian Foreign Service, and assess their chances as well as strengths and weaknesses, senior diplomats say there are three possible scenarios.

Scenario 1 Saran is granted an extension for a year.

Scenario 2 India's ambassador to Pakistan, Shiv Shankar Menon, becomes the new FS.

Scenario 3 Saran shifts to the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) as advisor. In this case, another officer becomes FS.

The first scenario has gained currency because of the year's extension granted to cabinet secretary B.K. Chaturvedi. Also, political appointees sent as ambassadors to other countries have been granted a year's extension, from Kamlesh Sharma (high commissioner in London) to Kanwal Sibal (ambassador in Moscow) to Ronen Sen (ambassador in Washington). But this possibility has become complicated because it is understood that Saran may decline a proposal for his extension.

Born in September 1946, Saran is a 1970 batch foreign service officer who superseded colleagues from three earlier batches—1967, 1968, 1969—when he became FS. The government's move, in effect, placed primacy on merit over seniority, a principle rarely applied in promotion of bureaucrats.

Saran's grasp of foreign affairs and the effectiveness with which he can carry his colleagues with him, as well as his access to the political leadership, have only grown in the two years he has been in office. One senior colleague calls him a "thinking man's foreign secretary". With the political leadership challenging the foreign ministry to recast Indo-US ties, Saran provided the lead, particularly in the tricky period after the Volcker controversy surfaced on October 29, 2005, to consume then foreign minister Natwar Singh.

The political leadership has every reason to extend his term: he has carried the mandate with competence—in the dialogue with his American interlocutors, in carrying the media, in carrying the 120 Indian missions, and in carrying the scientific establishment on the Indo-US nuclear deal.

There are other arguments in favour of retaining Saran in government. "The prime minister doesn't want to get used to a new person," says a senior source. Manmohan Singh has invested heavily in the relationship with the US, and an extension to Saran will ensure continuity in the policy till the pending critical nuclear issues are resolved. "Given the linkages Saran has built with his foreign interlocutors, it may not be possible for a successor to master the complex brief of his task instantly," adds another senior source.

There's the possibility of drafting Saran into the PMO, thereby enabling him to effectively guide the critical policy issues. However, that will raise issues of overlap. Senior sources say such a move could cut into both the nsa and the incoming FS's role. Much will consequently depend on evolving a clear-cut line of responsibility. There's also the question of rank: would Saran be brought into the PMO as principal secretary or minister of state? The potential downside of this move is that it could upset the delicate power balance in the PMO.

Should Saran go to the PMO, the strongest claimant to his current post, in terms of seniority, is Rajiv Sikri. Born in January 1948, and also of the 1970 batch, he could have 16 months in office, should he become FS on October 1. Sikri served in Moscow, Delhi, Paris, and was ambassador in Kazakhstan for four years. On his return to Delhi, he was sent to the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses for one-and-a-half years. He became secretary (east) in October 2004. Almaty is his only ambassadorial posting. Traditionally, one of the secretaries in the headquarters has had a better chance than other contenders posted abroad; for instance, Saran's predecessor Shashank was secretary (east) before he became FS.

There's also T.C.A. Rangachari (born 1947) who is due to retire in September next year. As FS, he can consequently have a year in office. (Bureaucrats, in the normal course, retire at the age of 60.) Rangachari has served in Hong Kong, Beijing, New Delhi, Permanent Mission of India in New York; he was also the No. 2 man in Islamabad for five years ('86-91), ambassador in Algiers, joint secretary, China (six years from July '94 to July 2000), and two years as additional secretary, UN, in New Delhi. Thereafter, he went as ambassador to Germany and currently holds the same post in Paris. Although his record looks better than Rajiv Sikri's, and he shares the same date of birth as Saran (September 4), will his stars smile on him?

Then there is Sashi Tripathi, now secretary (west), of the 1970 batch. She retires on July 1, 2007, and can have 10 months in office, should she become FS. What might go against her: she hasn't had substantive experience in Delhi, never having served as joint secretary in a territorial division (a clubbing of different countries; for example: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran), nor as additional secretary.

From the time Saran superseded officers from three batches, it's assumed his successor can be from the '71 and '72 batches as well. In the running, theoretically, is also Veena Sikri, a '71 batch officer. Born in October 1948, she retires in October 2008. She has served in Kathmandu, Moscow (four years), as director-general, Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) in Delhi (March '89-December '92), and Paris. She was consul-general in Hong Kong, then high commissioner in Kuala Lumpur for three years, before moving to Dhaka as high commissioner. She has been out of Delhi since 1992, and has not had charge of a territorial division.

There's also S.S. Mukherji (born August 1949), who as head of the Indian mission in Kathmandu played a crucial role in pulling out India's chestnuts from the fire of democracy in Kathmandu. Earlier, he had been the country's foreign spokesperson, DG, ICCR, and ambassador in Cairo and Pretoria. His drawback too is that he hasn't handled a mainline division in Delhi. Also, he still has three years of service left, and the government may not want to give him such a long tenure.

There are others in the 1971 batch: Rinzing Wangde, Navrekha Sharma (en route to Indonesia from Philippines), Amitabh Tripathi, P. S. Ray, Pramathesh Rath, S.K. Tripathi and P.V. Joshi. Ultimately, the decision, say sources, will not preponderantly depend on the career path. There is a large element of idiosyncrasy in such decisions: personal and political connections could come up trumps against all else.

Logically, at the moment, the odds favour Shiv Shankar Menon of the 1972 batch. This is the batch that has two prominent persons under cloud: Harish Dogra (who has been recalled from New Zealand), and Rakesh Kumar (under investigation by the CBI). Others in the batch are R.L. Narayanan, R.K. Bhatia, Satya Pal, Surender Kumar, S. Kipgen and Tara Singh. Menon is the blue-eyed boy of the Indian foreign service. His record is outstanding. He served as ambassador in Tel Aviv ('95-97), Colombo (1997-2000), Beijing (2000-2003) and is now high commissioner in Islamabad. That makes him a natural contender for the post.

But, like S.S. Mukherji, he will have three years should he become FS. It is unclear whether the government would want Menon to leapfrog over so many others listed above. The reason? The government will have to move all his seniors who are in Delhi out of the immediate working ambit of the FS. Only two—Rajiv Sikri and Sashi Tripathi—are in Delhi. Therefore, if the government takes the decision of appointing Menon, then Rajiv Sikri could make a lateral move to become the deputy national security advisor. It is unclear what fate then will await Tripathi. If Saran accepts an extension, the likely scenario would be Menon continuing in Islamabad for a year till he returns to Delhi as FS. By that time Tripathi would have retired.


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