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Merit takes Menon to the top

New Delhi, Aug. 31: Choosing merit over seniority, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has appointed Shiv Shankar Menon, India’s high commissioner to Pakistan, as the new foreign secretary.

Menon, who takes the place of Shyam Saran retiring next month, supersedes a record number of 14 officers.

Saran will continue to be a part of the foreign policy establishment as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for the India-US nuclear deal he has been steering as foreign secretary.

Even in Saran’s appointment two years ago, the Prime Minister had set greater store by merit than seniority. He had superseded many officers.

Menon, 57, was in Delhi last week to prepare for the Prime Minister’s visit to Cuba to attend the Non-Aligned Movement summit next month where he is likely to meet General Pervez Musharraf.

Coming from a family of diplomats, Menon brings with him experience of having worked in China and Pakistan, countries that occupy top positions in India’s foreign policy priorities.

With Saran given the job of bringing the nuclear deal to conclusion, the government’s preoccupation thus far, Menon can concentrate on the two neighbours. Chinese President Hu Jintao is visiting in November.

Sources said Saran — earlier there was speculation he would be given a one-year extension — would not be seen as a super foreign secretary. His brief will be to travel to all the 45 member-countries of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, whose endorsement is necessary for the Indo-US nuclear deal to work.

Better known as Kuki, Menon has served in three difficult positions as ambassador — Islamabad, Beijing and Colombo.

Colleagues and former IFS officers are unanimous about his competence. “He is an accomplished diplomat who has served well wherever he was posted,” said G. Parthasarathy, a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan.

Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had handpicked Menon, a 1972 batch officer, for the job in Pakistan.

His appointment will rattle some of his seniors. Three of them — secretary (east) Rajiv Sikri, secretary (west) Sashi Tripathi and secretary (coordination) Ringzing Wangdi — are posted in Delhi.

With Menon moving out of Islamabad, the government has to find a replacement. The frontrunner is Nalin Surie, the ambassador in Beijing.

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