Harsh Vardhan Shringla, who assumes charge as India’s foreign secretary today, faced his first real life challenge involving foreign affairs when he was a little boy. And he overcame that challenge diplomatically, with pragmatism.
Born in Mumbai to T Tshering La, his name was to have been Harsh Vardhan Tshering La, a mix of his father’s Buddhist ancestry and his mother’s Hindu faith. Both his parents are Sikkimese from Darjeeling and spoke Nepali at home. Harsh Vardhan’s birth and school documents, made in Mumbai, where the name Tshering La is not well known, recorded his surname as Shringla. Tshering La and Shringla are phonetically identical. This was in the 1960s when Sikkim was not a part of India. Implicit in this conundrum was an element of foreign affairs. Harsh Vardhan settled for the change in his surname and became a Shringla.
As a diplomat abroad, his surname has sparked curiosity about his ethnicity. Five months ago when Shringla accepted an honorary doctorate from the ICFAI University in Sikkim, his acceptance speech was made partly in Nepali: “My native language… also a language of Sikkim.”
Shringla’s rise to the top of the Foreign Office brings closure to one of India’s foreign policy challenges for three decades: The merger of Sikkim with the Indian Union in 1975. Chokila Iyer was the first Sikkimese to briefly become foreign secretary. Shringla’s full tenure will be an important message to lingering critics abroad that there is no glass ceiling for ethnic Sikkimese in India.
That Shringla would become foreign secretary one day was accepted by the Indian foreign service as a fait accompli in August 1984 when he joined the IFS. Shringla topped the entire civil service examination that year. Only a grave misstep in his 35-year service would have cost him the top job.
The biggest challenge any diplomat can face is when he comes across information that can end the career of his own foreign minister. That was the dilemma Shringla faced in 2005 when he was a minister at the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations. Because of his extensive contacts in New York, Shringla was one of the first diplomats at the UN to get hold of the report of the Independent Inquiry Committee that looked into huge bribery in Iraq’s “Oil for Food” programme before the 1,000-word report was presented to the Security Council.
Shringla did not duck, he did not shrink. He told his boss, Nirupam Sen, Permanent Representative to the UN, that K Natwar Singh, the powerful external affairs minister, was named in the report. No one other than these two men at the large diplomatic mission had a whiff of what was coming. When this writer met Shringla that day at the UN, he was so cool, calm and collected that there was no indication that this diplomat had information which was to inflame India’s politics in a day or two. Sen managed to convey the damaging information bypassing the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), directly to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Natwar Singh resigned after a futile resistance. The MEA is not one of those ministries where corruption scandals erupt periodically. An exception was in 2011 when India was contracted to build 50,000 houses in civil war-ravaged Tamil areas through a line of credit to Sri Lanka. A civil war erupted inside the MEA with the joint secretary in charge of Sri Lanka, accusing on files, then External Affairs Minister S M Krishna’s office of corruption in the contract.
It was an unequal battle between the middle-level IFS officer and the minister’s office, but the joint secretary dug his heels in, so much as refusing an ambassadorial assignment to stay on and fight alleged political corruption.
For then Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, this situation could not be sustained. The compromise was to draft Shringla as joint secretary for Sri Lanka, who firmly, but diplomatically ended the civil war within the MEA and successfully oversaw completion of the housing projects sans any corruption. This experience stood him in good stead later in delivering critical assistance to Bangladesh, as high commissioner, making relations with Dhaka one of the recent success stories of the Narendra Modi government’s neighbourhood diplomacy.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 29, 2020 under the title ‘A Diplomat Foretold.’ The writer was a resident UN correspondent in New York when Shringla was minister at the Permanent Mission of India to the UN from 2002 to 2006
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