Sartorial foreign statement - External affairs establishment is getting a makeover

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By K.P. NAYAR in Washington
  • Published 9.08.09

Washington, Aug. 9: Indian diplomacy is acquiring a decidedly more ethnic exterior, pleasanter and one that ordinary Indians can relate to, but that does not presage any change in foreign policy or ambivalence in its articulation of the Sharm-el-Sheikh variety. If anything, it will be to the contrary.

For the first time, almost the entire leadership of the ministry of external affairs will be made up of women career officers. Goodbye to three-piece suits, Dunhill pipes and handmade Cuban Habanos that have been tied to the personas of successive secretaries in South Block.

External affairs minister S.M. Krishna and the new foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, have just picked a woman officer, Parbati Sen Vyas, as another secretary.

Vyas, who has served on deputation in the finance ministry, has been asked to look after economic relations, including the bulk of South Block’s economic diplomacy.

Another woman Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer, Vijaya Latha Reddy, has been slotted to take over as secretary (east) when Neelakantan Ravi, who now holds the post, retires in December.

With this, three of the four secretaries in South Block and one of its three ministers will all be women for the first time.

Another woman officer is said to have been considered for the fourth post of secretary as well. But Vivek Katju, a special secretary in charge of international organisations, is putting his foot down and refusing to go out of the country on any posting.

Katju is senior to Reddy, and the new South Block leadership, not wanting ruffle bureaucratic feathers at this stage, has reluctantly agreed to accommodate Katju as the only male secretary in place of Nalin Surie, who is leaving for London this month end as high commissioner.

The government has just sanctioned a three-month extension for deputy national security adviser, Leela K. Ponappa, a woman officer who retired three years ago from the IFS. She is also secretary of the national security council secretariat.

In the US, too, the face of Indian diplomacy is changing. India’s new ambassador in Washington, Meera Shankar is a woman. So is the consul general in San Francisco, Susmita Gongulee Thomas, who has just been empanelled to be yet another woman secretary.

South Block is also seeing an unspoken rivalry in sartorial elegance with its new team in place.

The new foreign secretary’s clothes became a hot talking point among Keralites everywhere and on Malayalam television channel chat shows after she was resplendent in a traditional Kerala sari and matching blouse with zari border when she formally took charge as foreign secretary.

The man who relinqished charge to Rao on July 31, Shivshankar Menon, although a Malayali, has unerringly been in public in formal western wear that is the hallmark of diplomats in most parts of the world.

But Shashi Tharoor, minister of state for external affairs, is offering stiff competition to the new foreign secretary in chic ethnic Malayali attire.

In addition to veshti -- the Kerala version of dhotis -- with borders in zari, Tharoor often goes to work in South Block in shawls and mundu, another Kerala variant of dhotis.

Where Tharoor’s wardrobe stands out, though, is that he has these shawls and mundu designed in the colours of the Congress party flag along their borders.

The two senior members of the cabinet from Kerala, defence minister A.K. Antony and overseas Indian affairs minister Vayalar Ravi, also wear their ethnic clothes in public.

But the two men have now been left way behind because they belong a generation which still takes pride in being seen in simple white khadi in the best Gandhian tradition.

Tharoor and Rao are, however, lucky that their boss, Krishna, has not viewed the sartorial excellence of these juniors as competition.

Krishna could easily outshine these two Malayalis with his exquisite wardrobe, if he chose to. Much of what he wears has been designed by Krishna himself.

Designing menswear is the external affairs minister's hobby although he jokes it away now-a-days that he does it as a need, unable to find clothes “to contain my curves”.

In New Delhi’s diplomatic circuit, Krishna’s elegant western style jackets -- a contrast to the bandh galas or Indian-style buttoned up coats worn by most ministers in New Delhi for official functions -- and contrasting handkerchiefs peeping out of their breast pockets have become dinner table subjects of conversation.

The first to comment on Krishna’s clothes in Chanakyapuri, according to one South East Asian diplomat in New Delhi, was Yu Myung-hwan, South Korea’s foreign minister, one of the early callers on the external affairs minister after he took charge in the new UPA government.

The second minister of state for external affairs, Preneet Kaur, is no pushover, when it comes to fashion.

Her permanent home address: Moti Bagh Palace, Patiala, the royal seat of the former princely state and her education at Shimla’s St. Bede’s College in the very British Chelsea estate settings perhaps make it natural that she should have good taste, and not merely in what she wears.