October 31, 1999
Delhi-London-Delhi. For most ordinary people the flight takes some sixteen hours, but the distance to be travelled by the new Foreign Secretary-designate Lalit Mansingh from 9, Kensington Palace Gardens in heritage London to 3, Circular Road in New Delhi’s Chanakyapuri, could be much longer.
It will take another whole month actually, which is when the current foreign secretary, K. Raghunath, finally hands the baton over, after a two-and-a-half-year-long stint that included two one-year extensions.
Mansingh comes to the top job in the Foreign Office with the reputation of being something of a connoisseur of arts. Indeed, he is known to be passionate about Indian classical dance and music. He was human enough — a characteristic not usually noted in the bureaucracy — to fall in love with his first wife, Sonal (she has since become a well-known dancer) when as a young diplomat he saw her on a Delhi stage.
Old IFS-wallahs remember them as a happy couple. Sonal Mansingh, in fact, graciously remarked in arecent Doordarshan interview that their marriage fell apart because her dance came in the way. In any case, when things didn’t work out, they had the honesty to divorce each other.
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Mansingh’s friends say he is an affable sort. Unlike some of his larger-than-life predecessors, though, he is low-key but accessible. The introverted Raghunath, in contrast, has preferred to display his extra dry sense of humour only to his close circle of friends. Mansingh is said to also understand the propaganda value of foreign policy, as much as the policy itself, much as the main protagonists of the Cold War did. But with the foreign office only now getting out of its isolationist mode, a whole decade after the end of the Cold War, Mansingh could have his task cut out for him.
It may sound trite to call him India’s Millennial Foreign Secretary, but given the agenda that New Delhi has set out for itself, life in the months ahead could prove pretty hectic for Mansingh. For the first time since independence, India is makingno pretence about who runs this unipolar world and is gearing to engage the US seriously. The climax is expected with the visit by President Clinton in early February. But before and after the main course, are likely visits from Russian President Boris Yeltsin, French PM Lionel Jospin and a spate of others. The diplomatic traffic is only likely to ease around March.
As is usual, Mansingh’s appointment has been preceded by some lobbying. Chandra Shekhar Dasgupta, currently the country’s ambassador in Brussels, is the senior-most diplomat in the service, but only has six-odd months in the service. Some felt that since Mansingh was “doing such a good job in London” the job could have gone to India’s High Commissioner in Bangladesh, Dev Mukherjee. But ministry sources also point out that Mansingh had topped his 1963 batch, a batch that had included officers of the calibre of Mani Shankar Aiyar (now in the Congress) and Arundhati Ghosh (representative in Geneva when India refused to sign the CTBT in1996).
There are, of course, the critics who maintain that apart from being the number two man in Washington in the late 1980s, Mansingh has not done duty in any of the big posts — Moscow or Beijing (London after the Cold War being rendered more or less irrelevant). Neither has he worked in the neighbourhood, his career graph having taken him to places like Geneva, Kabul, Brussels, Abu Dhabi and Nigeria.
But it is his postings at home in India — which were far longer and certainly different — that may have given his claim to the post of foreign secretary a boost. He was director-general of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations in Rajiv Gandhi’s 1980s, a veritable mini-cultural empire. He was required to oversee the gargantuan Festivals of India abroad, especially a particularly successful one in the Soviet Union. He has also served in various capacities as MEA’s man in the Finance ministry, an experience which should come in handy with the new government set to use trade and economics as the new bigidea in its foreign policy.
Before going to London, Mansingh was dean of the Foreign Service Institute, where he undertook to bring out authoritative volumes on `Indian foreign policy in the new century’. Later, as secretary (West) in the MEA, dealing with 50-60 countries, he had to frequently stand in for Raghunath.
Mansingh may also now make it to the news for an entirely different reason. His wife, Indira, has refused to quit her job with the Rupert Murdoch-owned Star News. Formerly with the Indian Information Service, she had quit Doordarshan some years ago and joined Star TV as its high-profile director, in charge of News & Current Affairs.
It is a subject with some potential for controversy, especially as the IFS prohibits ambassadors’ and consul-generals’ wives from working abroad (the rule does not apply at home). In fact, when Mansingh was in the running for the foreign secretaryship last year, there was much speculation whether the fact that wife Indira worked for a wholly foreign-ownedtelevision channel — perceived by the BJP to be pro-Congress — could come in the way of him being given the post. When London happened, Indira Mansingh got around the rule by staying on at home. With broadcasting legislation possible in the second Vajpayee government, this could still become a touchy issue.
To Mansingh’s credit, then, he didn’t ask his wife to quit her controversial job. (Or even if he did, she didn’t comply.) Instead he set himself a deadline last year, after which he decided he would not wait for that all-important call informing him that he was to be India’s new foreign secretary. When the self-imposed deadline expired, he packed his bags and left by a regular eight-hour flight to London. He was the first career diplomat to have been made high commissioner to the UK, a post usually reserved for political appointees with Cabinet rank.
From a middle-class family in Sambhalpur, Orissa, to South Block, Lalit Mansingh may have — after 58 long years — finally come home.
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