Sujata Singh, the country’s third woman Foreign Secretary, will face a much more challenging international atmosphere than her predecessor, Ranjan Mathai, during her two years in the highest diplomatic chair.
Although Ms. Singh’s thin experience profile in dealing with countries that matter to India could be held against her, the presence of a strong support team including National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, along with institutional memory, would take care of that aspect.
What will be a matter of concern to South Block during her tenure is the ebbing of the India success story in the global mind due to slow economic growth. Internationally too the economic climate holds little hope of a rebound, and pressure will increase on India from developed countries to open up and deliver on its promises.
The sluggish economic growth has also meant India cannot send abroad its professionals, skilled or otherwise, in great numbers as before. The U.S. is putting in place a system that has made visas for software professionals more expensive. The European Union has built its fortress in which preference in migration is for the impoverished insiders. Even Russia and Ukraine, which have a special arrangement with Schengen countries, now put onerous visa requirements in order to retain that privilege.
There is little that the Foreign Office can do on this count, but Ms. Singh would continue with the efforts to open up new frontiers for Indians in Africa and, possibly, Central Asia, in addition to striving to ensure that the 60 lakh Indian workers in the Gulf retain their jobs even as the wider region is in the middle of political turbulence.
The quest for energy, in which India has fallen short, will be another priority area for the next Foreign Secretary, who takes over on August 1. The U.S., France and Russia have not been able to harvest the benefits of India entering the civil nuclear commerce mainstream due to the Nuclear Liability Act. India recently lost bids for hydrocarbons in Russia and Kazakhstan but on the flip-side, entertains hopes of sourcing them from the U.S. and Canada. The future energy mix and the road map for sourcing it remain unclear but Ms. Singh’s tenure should give some firm indications in this direction.
While security and defence issues have their own dynamics, Ms. Singh’s experience of handling the attacks on Indians in Australia would stand her in good stead on consular issues that today enjoy a salience in the media and become a hot topic in no time thanks to social media.
During her stint in Melbourne, the worst affected Australian city for newly migrated Indians at that time, Ms. Singh unobtrusively persuaded local authorities to sensitise their security force and expand their social security programmes to cover immigrants more comprehensively. Her handling of the recent high profile visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Berlin, where she was Ambassador, has also come in for special mention
With social media becoming an important tool in fanning an issue or bringing it forcefully in the public domain, Ms. Singh has enough years of watching these trends first-hand to ensure that the Foreign Office will ride the crest of the wave rather than come out spluttering after every media flare-up.