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All dressed up, but no place to go

New Delhi, Jan. 3: In May last year, when Harsh Bhasin was identified as India’s high commissioner to Islamabad, his wife Kumkum reportedly predicted, rather unwittingly: “I think he will retire from service while waiting to be posted to Pakistan.”

Eight months down the line, her words have almost turned prophetic. The “high commissioner designate” is yet to take up his assignment as the head of India’s mission in Pakistan. And going by the drift in ties between the two countries, it is unlikely Bhasin will be on a plane to Islamabad any time soon.

Worse still, Bhasin — of the rank of secretary — was for several months without any designated office space in the foreign ministry or an official car, and was seldom consulted or included in discussions when South Block mandarins formulated the policy on Pakistan. Only recently was he apparently given a room to sit in South Block.

There are those in the ministry who deny that Bhasin has been cooling his heels for the last eight months. They say he has been touring the country, visiting Kashmir and Gujarat, to “prepare” himself for the role.

They also claim that though Bhasin cannot be part of the consultation process because “he is not the man on the ground”, he has been given important documents on the latest developments in Pakistan.

Bhasin, a 1968 batch IFS officer, is described by his peers in the service as a “soft-spoken gentleman” with an academic bent of mind. Although his compulsory foreign language is Chinese, over the years he has picked up French, German and Czech.

He has published a number of papers, including one on “India-China relations: recent trends and options for the future”.

In his long diplomatic career, Bhasin was posted to key capitals, including Beijing, Hong Kong, New York, Kuala Lumpur, Kathmandu and Johannesburg. He was India’s high commissioner in South Africa.

Till his return to Delhi last year, Bhasin was teaching African Studies at New York’s Stony Brook Institute. Perhaps he is regretting his decision to return and begin an endless wait to be formally posted to Islamabad.

South Block mandarins emphasised that, so far, India has not officially announced Bhasin as its high commissioner to Pakistan.

“All that was said is that a person who will be our high commissioner in Islamabad has been identified,” one of them said.

His name was selectively leaked to the media by the Centre after Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s May speech that indicated he would make efforts to end cross-border terrorism.

Delhi — which had withdrawn high commissioner Vijay Nambiar from Islamabad as a punitive diplomatic measure after the December 13 attack on Parliament House — started talking about a new high commissioner in the middle of last year.

This was done to assure the global community that India was willing to mend relations with Pakistan, provided it fulfilled its pledge to stop infiltration across the Line of Control.

But relations between the two have only got worse since. And with Pakistan refusing to grant India the most favoured nation status or offer it preferential trading facilities, there seems little hope for Bhasin to take up his Islamabad assignment. He will retire in August 2004.

If circumstances permit, he may yet serve a year and a half in Islamabad. Otherwise, he would retire as the longest serving “high commissioner designate”.

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