The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Envoys on chopping block

New Delhi, May 16: The fall of the NDA regime has opened up the race for the foreign secretary’s post and key postings to Indian missions across the world.

Current foreign secretary Shashank retires on July 31. The shock victory of the Congress-led coalition in Delhi has led several senior diplomats and South Block mandarins to rework their political equations.

Till a few weeks ago, India’s ambassador to Nepal Shyam Saran was leading the race to the coveted foreign secretary’s post. It was widely believed in diplomatic circles that with the backing of Yashwant Sinha and Brajesh Mishra — foreign minister and national security adviser in the outgoing Vajpayee government — Saran would have little difficulty in moving in.

But with the new dispensation in Delhi, a number of takers has sprung up. The seniormost among them is Dilip Lahiri, the ambassador to Spain, who was shifted to France to make Saran’s transition easy.

Lahiri’s colleague from the 1968 IFS batch, P.K. Singh — now in Brussels — was to replace him in Spain. R.M. Abhayankar, a secretary in South Block, had been posted in Brussels in place of Singh.

However, none of the three has taken up the new assignments. Though all of them are due to retire next year, the political developments in Delhi have raised their hopes and brought them back in the fray for the foreign secretary’s post.

There are at least three key missions — Washington, London and Moscow — which have either fallen vacant or will do so in the next few days.

Former foreign secretary K. Raghunath was a political appointee when he was sent to Moscow three years ago as ambassador. Lalit Mansingh has retired as ambassador to Washington and so has Ronen Sen as India’s high commissioner in London.

As part of custom, political appointees tender their resignations the moment there is a change of government.

However, there have been instances when some have refused and had to be recalled to Delhi by the new government and forced to resign.

Congress leader Natwar Singh today made it clear that all those appointed by the NDA government would have to quit.

The first to make the move was B.K. Agnihotri — posted in New York as India’s ambassador-at-large. He met Atal Bihari Vajpayee yesterday and submitted his resignation.

Agnihotri, an NRI businessman in the US, was known for his close links with the RSS. His appointment — although it did not mean anything diplomatically and was not recognised by the US government — was made to keep sections in the Sangh parivar happy.

“We will do away with the Agnihotris of the world,” Singh said this afternoon.

It will not come as a surprise if deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha Najma Heptullah, who recently left the Congress and joined the BJP and is the chairperson of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, is removed from the post.

Kamaluddin Ahmad, India’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and former journalist Kanchan Gupta, who heads the Indian Cultural Centre in Cairo, may be on their way out as well.

By July, the key posts of foreign secretary and two secretaries will fall vacant.

Soon after assuming charge, the foreign minister will have to decide on these three posts as well as that of India’s permanent member at the UN headquarters in New York. The present incumbent, Vijay Nambiar, is due to retire shortly.

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