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Age of unrest in foreign office

Washington/New Delhi, Sept. 9: The ministry of external affairs was today thrown into turmoil with the abrupt resignation of Rajiv Sikri, secretary (east), the senior-most official in South Block after foreign secretary Shyam Saran.

Saran abruptly cancelled his planned departure for Washington on Sunday to negotiate the Indo-US nuclear deal, partly on account of Sikriís decision to put in his papers after he lost the race for the post of foreign secretary to his junior colleague Shiv Shankar Menon.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is also external affairs minister, asked Saran to stay put in the capital because more resignations from the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) are expected while Singh is travelling to Brazil and Cuba from Sunday.

Sikri called it a day after meeting Singh three days ago and after two lengthy discussions with Saran, who tried to persuade his colleague not to resign, according to sources in South Block.

Menon, Indiaís high commissioner to Pakistan was appointed as foreign secretary to replace Saran on October 1. The 1972-batch IFS officer superseded a record 16 officers, including three secretaries and several ambassadors.

Menon, Indiaís high commissioner to Pakistan was appointed as foreign secretary on October 1 to replace Saran. The 1972-batch IFS officer superseded a record 16 officers, including three secretaries and several ambassadors.

They include Indiaís envoys to France, Malaysia, Nepal and Tunisia.

According to sources in South Block, the ambassador to France, T.C.A. Rangachari, has made up his mind to follow Sikri and resign. Rangachari is next in seniority in the IFS to Saran.

Sikriís wife, Veena, is high commissioner to Bangladesh. She, too, is senior to Menon and her husbandís decision to quit puts her and the MEA in a piquant position.

Meanwhile, the choice of the new foreign secretary has forced the Prime Ministerís hand into undertaking a major reshuffle in South Block, which is without a full-fledged cabinet minister. Singh is understood to have decided to bring Indiaís ambassador in China, Nalin Surie, to headquarters in place of Sikri. Surie is said to be resisting and prefers to go to Islamabad to take Menonís place.

Indiaís ambassador in Vietnam, N. Ravi, will take the place of Shashi Tripathi, secretary (west). She is senior to Menon, too, and will be sent abroad as ambassador to avoid embarrassment to both her and the incoming foreign secretary.

Indiaís hgih commissioner in Sri Lanka, Nirupama Rao, a China expert, is likely to move to Beijing and step into Surieís shoes. Her place may be taken by Alok Prasad, now high commissioner in Singapore.

If Veena Sikri resigns in solidarity with her husband or is moved out, the choice for Dhaka will be narrowed to two Bengalis: Aloke Sen, ambassador in Pnom Penh, and chief of protocol Pinak Chakravarti.

Former foreign service officers said that there should not be resentment among top officials over Menonís appointment.

According to the service rules, foreign secretaryís post comes under Grade I and so is the secretary rank.

Besides, it is not the first time a foreign secretary was appointed after superseding others. Even Shyam Saran was junior to six officers when he assumed office two years ago. There has always been preference for merit over seniority unlike the armed forces where the appointments are strictly based on seniority.

Menon also superseded secretary (coordination) Ringzing Wangdi and Atish Sinha, dean of the foreign service institute. Menon will have a long stint and will serve for close to three years.

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