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Farewell, farewell but no welcome

- Why India’s man in London was unable to take up Swiss assignment

London, Nov. 27: Stories abound about ministers in Delhi refusing to move out of their spacious bungalows long after losing their jobs. Now there is a variation on that theme — an ambassador who is staying put despite retiring from the diplomatic service.

The reluctance of Chitra Narayanan, India’s ambassador in Switzerland since August 2008, to move from her post has caused an embarrassing logjam.

Worse, in the eyes of western diplomats, it has turned India’s foreign service into something of a joke.

This is because Rajesh Prasad, appointed ambassador to Switzerland back in June, was attending one farewell party after another in London, including one from the British Foreign Office and another from the Indian Journalists’ Association, but his departure date for Bern always kept getting postponed.

Finally, he was given the green light and advised he could get his packing done and proceed to Bern.

But almost on the eve of his departure, Prasad, who was getting pretty fed up with being kept waiting, has been told to return to Delhi and Chitra won’t move from Bern.

A source in Bern told The Telegraph: “She is the daughter of a former President, didn’t you know (the late K.R. Narayanan)? The people in the MEA (ministry of external affairs) have been overridden.”

Chitra has served in Nairobi and in Washington and been ambassador in Sweden and Turkey before coming to Bern.

Prasad has served in Geneva, Jakarta and Jeddah and been ambassador in Accra and Algiers.

It seems neither Salman Khurshid, the new external affairs minister, nor Ranjan Mathai, the foreign secretary, can do much to resolve the problem. Chitra has already sought and been given two extensions — most ambassadors serve three years in a post and she has already done over four.

From all accounts, Switzerland, location for umpteen Bollywood song-and-dance sequences, is an agreeable posting.

Here, the story gets messier. Chitra has said she is ill and needs to remain in Switzerland to continue with her treatment. According to MEA rules, she is entitled to medical treatment but not to hold up the work of the embassy. She is unable to attend office on a regular basis, her staff say, but hasn’t given up her job and moved into private accommodation so that her successor can take up his post.

A former foreign secretary told The Telegraph: “Extensions are given in rare cases but in a situation like this, she is entitled to treatment. But she cannot hold up the work of the mission.”

Chitra has refused to answer questions from journalists (“call back tomorrow”, “sorry, she is not in the office today, call next week”) or respond to email queries.

The MEA has not announced Prasad’s successor in London — which means the post could remain unoccupied for months. Prasad was acting high commissioner for eight months while the top post was left vacant after the departure of the last high commissioner, Nalin Surie.

This gave the impression that the Indian government was not particularly bothered about UK-India relations. There was a huge sigh of relief when Jamini Bhagwati, a diplomat, arrived in London and took charge but now he will have to do without a deputy, a key role in London.

The current foreign secretary, Ranjan Mathai, was deputy high commissioner in London before going to Paris as ambassador.

In all this, Prasad has been an innocent victim. It was the MEA which officially announced his appointment as ambassador to Bern in June. The website of the Indian embassy in Bern posted his name as ambassador-designate shortly afterwards. At the end of August, Chitra retired from the diplomatic service — and sought an extension. When that ended after three months, she sought another and this, too, has been agreed.

In London, the farewell lunch hosted by Indian journalists was attended by Frank Gruetter, deputy head of mission at the Swiss embassy in London.

He extended a warm welcome to Prasad on behalf of the Swiss government — an official notification from Delhi confirmed Prasad was proceeding to Bern, followed by a last-minute telephone call advising him he was not.