In statecraft that is practised in Washington under George W. Bush, the ultimate tribute to a public official is when his loss in the line of duty persuades the office of Vice-President Dick Cheney into action over the death of that official.
One of the first calls received by an Indian diplomat here this morning – even before the embassy opened for the day’s business – came from Cheney’s office to mourn to tragic death of V. Venkateswara Rao, counsellor at the Indian mission in Kabul in a terrorist attack.
Mark Webber, a key aide to Cheney, had spent many hours with Rao in Washington, drafting and fine-tuning a number of bilateral commercial agreements at a time Indo-US economic relations were taking off in the run-up to and following Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the White House three years ago.
Webber phoned Raminder Singh Jassal, India’s deputy chief of mission here, to share India’s grief and to recall his association with Rao. Webber was then with the US department of commerce and Rao was first secretary and later counsellor for commerce at the Indian embassy here.
Serving in Kabul was not just another posting for Rao, who was ‘Venkat’ to Indian journalists in Washington. It was a mission. German was his language as an Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer, the “compulsory foreign language” (CFL) that every IFS recruit has to learn as part of his or her training.
At an age when many IFS officers forget their CFL out of disuse or sheer laziness, Venkat chose to learn Dari, in addition, so that he could make the most of his posting in Kabul.
He firmly believed that there was no point in being posted in Afghanistan if he were to merely rub shoulders with fellow diplomats and UN officials in Kabul’s secure hotels instead of interacting with Afghanistan’s diverse and complex society and its politics. To do that, he was convinced that knowing Dari was essential.
Because Venkat had a way with languages, it was not tough for him to learn Dari in his early middle age. In addition to German, he had already learned French although he was never posted in any French-speaking country.
After three years in Washington, Venkat was posted to headquarters in August 2006. But instead of a comfortable three years in South Block, he volunteered to go on a hardship posting in Kabul even though it meant being away from his son and daughter and Malathi, his wife whose vivacious nature was celebrated in the Indian-American community during the couple’s three-year stay in the US.
Venkat had been in the IFS only for 18 years. But in less than two decades he packed into his service of Indian diplomacy what many officers do not chalk up in double that many years.
Venkat followed in the footsteps of some of the best in Indian diplomacy like J N Dixit and the present foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, who opted to serve in India’s neighbourhood instead of comfortable western capitals.
Other than his German language training in Berlin and three years in Washington, every one of Venkat’s postings have been in India’s neighbourhood. Colombo, Kathmandu, Kabul and, of course, New Delhi, where he dealt with Bhutan as under secretary and later as deputy secretary.
He used to say that he wanted to complete the cycle at some stage in his career with postings to Islamabad and Dhaka.
His expertise on the biggest challenge to Indian foreign policy in the years to come, an unstable and unpredictable neighbourhood, will be missed in South Block for many years to come.