With Vikram Doraiswami taking over as the high commissioner to Bangladesh on Monday, it is quite evident that the road to high-profile ambassadorial assignments in the neighbourhood goes through the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
Last week, Rudrendra Tandon went to Kabul to take over as the Indian ambassador to strife-torn Afghanistan. Both Doraiswami and Tandon have served in the PMO as private secretary to the Prime Minister and PMO’s director.
While the ministry of external affairs (MEA) will never publicly admit it but the key diplomatic assignments in the neighbourhood are given to foreign service officers with inter-ministerial experience which goes beyond diplomacy. Indian envoys to neighbourhood countries are now rigorously selected and given to those who have big picture experience.
The Indian ambassador to Nepal is Vinay Mohan Kwatra, who was joint secretary to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and so was the Indian high commissioner to Sri Lanka, Gopal Bagley. The last Indian high commissioner to Pakistan Ajay Besaria had served in the PMO and the current ambassador to Myanmar Saurabh Kumar has served in National Security Council Secretariat, an adjunct of PMO vis National Security Advisor. The only exception to this rule is the Indian ambassador to Bhutan, Ruchira Khamboj, as Indian envoy to Beijing Vikram Misri has significant PMO experience.
While the neighbourhood is a top priority for the Modi government, the envoy selection by South Block for the Indian sub-continent has taken a different meaning after Beijing has started posting non-diplomats as ambassadors in South Asia, particularly those having direct links with PLA intelligence or United Front Works Department (UFWD) directly under President Xi Jinping. The current Chinese ambassadors to Islamabad and Dhaka belong to UFWD, while the envoy to Nepal has intelligence background.
Although the ambassadorial assignments are at present the domain of senior-most Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officers, a number of India’s key allies post non-diplomat specialists as their envoys to Delhi. At least eight of India’s close allies have posted non-diplomats with expertise in electoral politics, trade and economics as ambassadors to Delhi. They are Kenneth Juster (USA); Ron Malka (Israel); Barry O’ Farrell (Australia); Nadir Patel (Canada); Nilamber Acharya (Nepal); Austin Fernando (Sri Lanka); Saud bin Mohammed Alsati (Saudi Arabia) and Ahmed Abdul Rahman Al Banna (UAE). All these envoys have rich experience and present a wholesome view of the country they represent. If Juster is an expert in trade and commerce, Malka has headed Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and O’ Farrell has served as the Prime Minister of New South Wales.