Washington, July 29: A Pranab Mukherjee presidency is likely to put a premium on external outreach, judging by a new Rashtrapati Bhavan secretariat that is being put together by Omita Paul, the newly appointed secretary to the President.
For the first time that anyone can remember in the history of Rashtrapati Bhavan, its incoming administration will have two Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officers, drawing on Mukherjee’s long association with the ministry of external affairs as the political head of Indian diplomacy on multiple occasions.
One of these IFS officers, Venu Rajamony, earned Mukherjee’s trust as the man he moved from South Block to North Block as finance minister and put in charge of multilateral institutions. This was the first time that an IFS officer was given charge of institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, among others, although foreign service officers have been on secondment to the finance ministry from time to time.
Rajamony will be the new press secretary to the President. He is a former journalist, and has a long history in the IFS of being a spokesman at the Indian embassies in Washington and Beijing, among others. He has also worked in the external publicity division of the external affairs ministry.
In Rashtrapati Bhavan, going beyond a limited role as spokesman, he is expected to replicate an experiment sought by Mukherjee in the finance ministry when Rajamony ended the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) culture of the joint secretary in charge of multilateral institutions being a gatekeeper restricting the World Bank and others and instead functioning as a facilitator for them in North Block for the first time.
Such an unconventional role was enthusiastically endorsed at that time by Pulok Chatterjee, then India’s executive director to the World Bank in Washington, now principal secretary to the Prime Minister.
The new presidency has also decided to recall another IFS officer, Gaitri Issar Kumar, from her post as deputy chief of mission at the Indian embassy in Paris and deploy her as social secretary to the President.
The post of social secretary to the President was created by Pratibha Patil, who appointed an IFS officer, Vijay Thakur Singh, to the job. But since Patil’s Rashtrapati Bhavan was woefully short on talent and since the previous President was a novice in foreign affairs, Singh ended up being the presidential speech writer during Patil’s foreign travels which she was fond of.
Kumar was joint secretary in charge of the US and Canada for an extended period before she went to Paris. But since the substantive work of dealing with Washington was handled by others like Ronen Sen and Shivshankar Menon, she gained considerable experience in bandobast, protocol, the frills of state visits and entertaining during an intense period of Indo-US bilateral exchanges in the years of negotiating the nuclear deal.
Mukherjee was then external affairs minister and will draw on Kumar’s experience to reorganise and uplift the pathetic condition of Rashtrapati Bhavan’s entertainment and housekeeping services.
These have steadily gone into such disrepair that state guests to India no longer want to stay in the presidential abode. When Jacques Chirac became the first major state guest to refuse to stay in Rashtrapati Bhavan during his first visit as French President, diplomats from Paris told the Indian chief of protocol that it was impossible to get a cup of coffee there late at night. Even at other times, a simple beverage order would take 45 minutes to be delivered, they complained.
Mukherjee expects to have many more foreign visitors than Patil or even A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and he will expect Kumar to spruce up the Rashtrapati Bhavan staff’s social skills and efficiency, a job Singh was originally brought in to do.
Both Rajamony and Kumar are joint secretaries from South Block. All previous IFS officers in the Rashtrapati Bhavan secretariat have been junior: directors or lower. Mukherjee, with his long experience in government, is said to have pointed out that when foreign guests visit New Delhi, the brief sent to the President and the Prime Minister are identical.
Hence he felt there was a need for parity in the rank and level of officers who dealt with these briefs and their spin-offs in both Rashtrapati Bhavan and the Prime Minister’s Office during such visits.