February 26, 2010

Shyam Saran: A glorious innings come to an end

Last updated on: February 22, 2010 15:11 IST

The departure of Shyam Saran from the Prime Minister's Office was a foregone conclusion after the Copenhagen Summit, where he did not see eye to eye with Minister Jairam Ramesh [ Images ], who appeared to have had the blessings of the prime minister for a grand bargain on climate change.
The appointment of Shiv Shankar Menon [ Images ], an old friend and junior colleague, as the National Security Adviser made it even more difficult for him to continue. Instead of clinging on to a sinecure on the basis of the dictum that the world is flat after retirement, Saran has decided to call it quits, ending a glorious innings in the Indian Foreign Service, followed by an equally commendable stint in the PMO. Nothing else should have been expected of an honest, upright and brilliant officer.

Many years ago, when Saran had just about four years in the IFS, I remember reading his dispatches from Beijing [ Images ] and telling my colleagues in Moscow [ Images ] that he would be a star one day. A senior colleague detected "foreign secretary material" in him then and there. He fulfilled all these prophecies as he moved from China to disarmament, from the PMO to Mauritius, Myanmar, Indonesia and Nepal and back to the PMO. If erstwhile External Affairs Minister I.K.Gujral had his way, Saran would have been the youngest ambassador to Japan [ Images ] early in his career, a move which was scuttled by someone in Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda's [ Images ] office. He had several such setbacks in his career, but he soldiered on regardless, turning every assignment into an opportunity for success.

As the special assistant to the foreign secretary in the late 'seventies, I dealt with two under secretaries the most, Saran as the point man for postings and transfers of IFS officers and Shankar Menon as the China desk officer. Both of them had made a difference to their jobs even in those early years. Saran brought an air of transparency and fairness in the posting policy of relatively junior officers by bringing in a certain system into postings and transfers. In the pre-digital age, he worked day and night with little pieces of paper and plastic to put the positions of all the IFS officers on his wall, making it possible for him and his visitors to know not only where everyone was, but also what posts would be available for officers to aspire for. He also became a philosopher and a guide to junior officers, especially the probationers, who had easy access to him.

Saran's stint in Geneva made him an expert on disarmament. During his frequent visits to New York to deal with disarmament issues, I saw for myself how he had won respect for his expertise and negotiating skills. I was astonished to see how he wrote out his speeches and reports in long hand through the night to ensure that every word was chosen with meticulous care. He continued this practice even during his busy days in the PMO and elsewhere.

It was in Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao's office as a joint secretary that he proved his value as a policy adviser, not only on foreign affairs but also on defence and nuclear matters. It was no wonder, therefore, that after his successful tenure as foreign secretary, he was invited to join the PMO as an adviser. His advice to the prime minister must not have been confined to nuclear issues or climate change. It is also well known that he was among those the prime minister had proposed for the post of the secretary general of the Commonwealth.

Saran was a member of our lunch club in the ministry even when he was in the PMO. He was careful to keep the secrets of the PMO, but freely participated in the discussions, much to our benefit on larger policy issues. The prospect of retirement had just begun to dawn on us at that time, and we had planned to start a consultancy firm called 'Four Ss', together with Rajiv Sikri and Himachal Som. Perhaps, the time has come to revisit that proposal.

Saran is a quintessential bureaucrat, who brings professionalism to any assignment, regardless of its glamour or otherwise. He was totally non-political even in the politically charged atmosphere of the PMO.

As someone who had dealt with disarmament issues and India's [ Images ] quest to find a way out of the nuclear isolation of India, he saw merit in the nuclear deal and not only embraced it, but also embellished it with his consummate negotiating skill. He did not hesitate to explain the rationale of the deal on live television with me even as foreign secretary. His essential point was that the deal gave us a higher range of options to deal with our energy needs. He had to deal with the dogmatic views of some of the scientists who did not take kindly to his outspoken support for the deal. As foreign secretary, and later as special envoy, he made a significant contribution to the deal. Once Shankar Menon took over as foreign secretary and took charge of the negotiations, Saran focussed on the clearance of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, for which he travelled around the globe to convert the sceptical nuclear suppliers to accept the new status of India. The country owes much to him for the finalisation of the deal.

Climate change was a relatively new subject for him, but he filled the gap in policy formulation in the ministry of environment after the days of Kamal Nath, who forcefully projected the Indian perspective.

Once the flamboyant Jairam Ramesh took over, it was clear that Saran's role would be limited. But he continued to help the government coordinate its views to the extent possible. He also defended the Indian position at Copenhagen convincingly, though it was known that the new track initiated in Copenhagen of going by voluntary rather than legal commitments was anathema to him. The moving away from the per capita approach to emission entitlements also did not gel with the Indian policy since 1992. In a conversation with me on television, he dwelt more on the political benefit of working with China rather than on the benefits of the Copenhagen Accord [ Images ].

During his tenure in the PMO, Saran maintained a steady flow of writings and speeches on disarmament and climate change, which went beyond the stated official position to give an indication of the thinking of the prime minister on some important issues. His speech at Brookings on the nuclear deal soon after the advent of the Obama [ Images ] Administration opened several doors for India to work with the United States. He did the same in Copenhagen to make it possible for the US to work with India. President Obama was seen patting Saran's back after the Copenhagen negotiations, but he characteristically laughed it away when I mentioned it in my TV conversation with him.

Saran will be missed in the government, but he will be a welcome addition to the strategic community, which will benefit from his immense experience and innate wisdom.

T P Sreenivasan, a former member of the Indian Foreign Service, was India's ambassador to the United Nations, Vienna [ Images ], and governor for India, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna

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