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Quit nudge to UPA-pick envoys in UK, Canada

New Delhi, July 7: The Narendra Modi government is quietly nudging Indian ambassadors it has identified as the UPA government’s “political appointees” to step down, signalling its intent to have a foreign policy team not beholden to its predecessor.

Senior government representatives have hinted to the high commissioner to Britain, Ranjan Mathai, and the country’s top diplomat in Canada, Admiral Nirmal Verma, that New Delhi would like them to return, officials have said.

The Modi government may also ask former Air Force chief N.A.K. Browne, who is scheduled to take over as ambassador to Norway in August, to cancel those plans though a final decision is yet to be taken, officials said.

These moves mirror the Modi government’s policy with state governors who were the UPA’s political appointees. Four have already quit and a fifth has been transferred.

A new government seeking resignations from ambassadors who are political appointees is far from unprecedented — the BJP’s own appointees suffered a decade ago — but unlike with the governors, there’s no established political norm. (See chart)

“The indications sent to Mathai and Verma are in keeping with what we’ve seen so far over the past month and a half,” an official said.

Mathai, Verma and Browne were among India’s topmost public officials under the previous government.

Mathai was foreign secretary — India’s top official diplomat — from August 2011 till his retirement in July 2013. Verma was the naval chief from August 2009 to August 2012 and Browne the air chief till December 31 last year.

All three were appointed envoys between their retirements and the end of UPA rule — in the case of Verma and Browne, with no earlier diplomatic experience.

Mathai was made high commissioner last December and Verma a year earlier, in December 2012. Browne’s appointment was the most controversial of the three.

His selection as Norway ambassador was announced this April in the middle of the polls, inviting BJP questions on the propriety of the move by an outgoing government.

Political appointments to ambassadorial positions — as opposed to the appointment of serving foreign service officials — aren’t unique to India. Most heads of government across the world appoint key public figures they trust to important positions abroad.

One of the world’s best-known current ambassadors isn’t a career diplomat. US President Barack Obama appointed Caroline Kennedy, daughter of former President John F. Kennedy and the inspiration for the Neil Diamond classic Sweet Caroline, as ambassador to Japan last November.

Foreign policy veterans said past precedents of Indian envoys being recalled after a change of government had never been codified or even unofficially accepted as a norm to be followed by the political appointees and new governments.

Former cabinet secretary Naresh Chandra, appointed ambassador to the US in 1996 by P.V. Narasimha Rao just before his term ended, remained in the job under H.D. Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujaral and Atal Bihari Vajpayee till 2001.