Friday, December 04, 2009

A diplomat and a politician

T P Sreenivasan remembers Ambassador SK Singh, a dominant figure in
the Indian Foreign Service and the governor of Rajasthan [ Images ]
and Arunachal Pradesh, who passed away on December 1.

Ambassador SK Singh was short in stature and had a squeaky voice, but
he stood tall and made his voice heard as a diplomat and as a
politician. As a diplomat, he was known for being politically savvy
and always at home among politicians of all hues. After he left the
Indian Foreign Service and dabbled in politics, he deployed his
diplomatic prowess to be a successful governor in Arunachal Pradesh
and Rajasthan. He had his ups and downs, but he remained calm and
confident in adversity.

Ambassador Singh was a dominant figure in the IFS during much of my
career, though I worked directly under him only when he was foreign
secretary and I was joint secretary (UN). He was already a legendary
official spokesman when I reached South Block. Though he operated from
the Shastri Bhavan, he was visible everywhere and was recognised as a
guide and a guardian by the New Delhi [ Images ] press corps. He was
clearly a role model for us at that time even though we knew very
little of his work.

I saw him in action first when he was additional secretary (UN and AD)
and I was special assistant to Foreign Secretary Jagat Mehta. He was
quite a popular figure not only because he held charge of two very
important divisions in the ministry, but also because he was close to
the powers that be. Everybody seemed to be friendly with him, but
nobody seemed to know what his next move would be. He was loyal to
Jagat Mehta and served him well at a difficult time when Mehta was
eased out of the ministry. When efforts were made by some to change my
posting to New York after Mehta moved out, he gave me solid support
and made sure that I went to New York. He was gracious and generous
whenever I travelled with him to Latin America and other places from
New York.

His outstanding work in Vienna [ Images ] was well remembered when I
reached there, though he had acquired the reputation of a manipulator
in the UN system. His earlier experience in New York in the Fifth
Committee and the powerful Advisory Committee on Administrative and
Budgetary Questions came in handy for him to use the UN system to
plant his favourites there and to get close to the high UN officials.
He got the Vienna residence and chancery renovated and refurbished.
Though the residence was maintained well by his successors, the office
was allowed to deteriorate and it took me my full term to make it
worthy of the Indian mission. He was a legend in many ways in Vienna.

SK Singh was a bit restless in Vienna as he was away from the scene of
action, where he always wanted to be, and his appointment to Islamabad
[ Images ] was a bonanza for him. He made such a mark in Islamabad
that it was rumoured that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi [ Images ] would
appoint him foreign secretary by superseding colleagues like AP
Venkateswaran and KPS Menon. But his elevation came only later, at the
fag end of Rajiv Gandhi's tenure as prime minister.

As foreign secretary, he gave me full support during the political
crisis in Fiji. But it was obvious that he approached every issue from
the perspective of the Congress party winning the elections. When the
military government in Fiji ordered me out since India [ Images ] had
not recognised it, he was in panic because he thought that the event
would affect Rajiv Gandhi's election prospects. I told him that the
Fiji policy should be projected as a success, but he was not too sure
of it and his instinct was to hush up my expulsion.

Life as foreign secretary became difficult for him when VP Singh
became PM and IK Gujral became foreign minister. I had seen how much
he used to needle Gujral when he was ambassador in Moscow [ Images ]
and Singh was dealing with administration in the ministry. Gujral was
not comfortable with Singh and prematurely replaced him with Muchkund
Dubey. Singh was told that he would be appointed governor, but nothing
was done till the Congress came back to power. With all his talent and
experience, he continued as governor till his very end.

SK Singh remained a bachelor till he became an ambassador and had
small children when he was foreign secretary. But he was obviously a
loving husband and a fond father.

Singh was in many hot spots during his career for no fault of his, but
the joke at that time was that any country would go up in flames if he
went there. When he was appointed foreign secretary, someone wrote
that everything was ripe for a revolution in India and it would
explode the moment Singh arrived on the scene!

SK Singh had many qualities of head and heart and his was a successful
life both as a diplomat and as governor. He had his detractors, who
thought that he was a master manipulator, but he will be remembered
with admiration and affection by his friends and colleagues.

T P Sreenivasan

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