The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Quality scores over seniority

New Delhi, June 10: The government today put “merit” before seniority in choosing the man who will head the country’s elite foreign service.

Shyam Saran, who takes charge as foreign secretary on August 1, supersedes three batches of the foreign service and at least a dozen officers. The appointments committee of the cabinet approved the name of the 57-year-old, who is at present India’s ambassador in Nepal.

The 1970-batch IFS officer, who succeeds Shashank, will have a tenure of over two years as he is due to retire in September 2006. But his appointment may have a demoralising effect on career diplomats.

“With merit and not age becoming the main principle for choosing the foreign secretary, in future things will become easier for the government to bring in favourites for posts of their choice,” a senior diplomat said.

Three years ago, the NDA government had to change its plans of making Kanwal Sibal foreign secretary after senior diplomats threatened to move court. It had to bring in Chokila Iyer as a compromise candidate. Sibal became foreign secretary only after she retired.

A similar controversy erupted almost a decade ago when J.. Dixit was chosen by the P.V. Narasimha Rao government. One of the superseded diplomats threatened to go to court, but the government stuck to its choice.

Dixit, now the national security adviser, may have had a role in getting Saran’s name approved, as the foreign secretary is chosen not only by the foreign minister but also by the Prime Minister and his advisers.

Few deny that Saran has an impressive record, but questions are being asked whether he was the only one with such qualities. One argument cited in his favour was his term would last over two years. But at least two officers — Shyamla Kaushik, India’s ambassador in the Hague, and Nirupam Sen, high commissioner in Sri Lanka — are not only senior to Saran (both are from the 1969 batch) but also have some months left after Saran retires.

While Kaushik retires in December 2006, Sen will be in service till February 2007.

Seniority in the IFS, like many other administrative services, is on the basis of batch and not age. This means a person may be senior by age but junior to someone who is younger because he has joined the service later. But the foreign secretary, unlike secretaries in other ministries, is also head of the IFS.

There is, however, an established convention in South Block by which diplomats ignored for the foreign secretary’s job are posted abroad. Only those junior to the person heading the service are kept as secretaries. Technically, the Centre has done that.

1967-batch officers Dilip Lahiri and P.K. Singh, ambassadors in Madrid and Brussels, have been posted to Paris and Spain. 1968-batch officer R.M. Abhayankar, secretary Asia-North Africa, has been posted outside. However, none of them has taken up their new postings so far.

Another officer of the 1969 batch, Santosh Kumar, is the dean of the Foreign Service Institute in Delhi, which means he is also in the headquarters. It is likely the government will give him a posting outside the country.

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