India Insight

India’s North Korea envoy: experience preferred, but not essential

Asking someone to represent India in North Korea is a little like belling the cat. Everybody knows they need to pick someone, but no Foreign Service officer wants to go to “godforsaken” Pyongyang.

Finding someone to take the job must have been hard, but was it so hard that they finally had to settle for a stenographer? India’s ministry of external affairs might be wondering the same thing. It is reviewing the appointment of Ajay K. Sharma after some officials raised questions about his qualifications to represent India in the isolated country.

Media reports say Sharma, a principal staff officer in the stenographer cadre, joined the ministry 31 years ago as a personal assistant, and had some limited experience in Suva as a counsellor handling pay and allowances.

Officers of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), selected through rigorous civil services examinations, usually represent India in consulates and embassies worldwide. India and North Korea established diplomatic relations in 1973 and maintain embassies in each other’s capital cities.

But Pyongyang is not viewed as a plum posting and officers have no illusions about the joys of diplomatic life there. According to most reports, it’s somewhat of a spartan existence. In fact, Sharma’s appointment has been questioned not by IFS officers, but by the secretarial cadre that ranks below IFS officers.

India’s indignation over (un)diplomatic conventions

Forget WikiLeaks, according to India’s Foreign Minister the greatest threat to Indo-U.S. relations are the hands of airport security guards on New Delhi’s diplomatic elite.
A Transportation Security Agency (TSA) worker runs her hands over the head of a traveler during a patdown search at Denver International Airport, November 24, 2010.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking
On Dec 4, Indian Ambassador to the U.S. Meera Shankar was pulled from the interminable airport security queue at Jackson-Evers International Airport in Mississippi and subjected to a full body pat-down by security officials, despite reportedly stressing her diplomatic credentials.

India’s three biggest English newspapers gave the story front-page treatment on Friday, jostling for column inches alongside the continued investigations into a $39 billion telecoms scam and India’s crucial role in the ongoing climate change talks in Cancun.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s view, that the incident was “appropriate under the circumstances“, fuelled a sense of injustice in New Delhi.

Holbrooke, an unseasonal visitor?

Richard Holbrooke, the special U.S envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, is visiting India for a second time in seven weeks. But what has surprised many is the timing of the trip, coming as it does at a time when India is preparing for a general election and most government business is virtually on hold.Though India is not part of Holbrooke’s remit, New Delhi’s engagement is imperative for any effort to stabilise the so-called Af-Pak region.But that hardly explains the visit now, considering that he could expect to do little business with a “lame duck government” in New Delhi.So why is he coming now?Many Indian analysts believe that keeping India and Kashmir out of Holbrooke’s brief was a way of Washington massaging New Delhi’s ego.In reality, though, they say India is very much part of Holbrooke’s mandate because Pakistan wants a solution to disputed Kashmir as an element of any regional peace efforts — a demand Washington can hardly ignore if it expects Pakistan’s cooperation.An Indian analyst here says Holbrooke is using the interregnum to show his turf includes India.So if it is impossible to disentangle Kashmir from any effort to win Pakistani cooperation to stabilise Afghanistan, where does that leave India-U.S relations?

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Obama and his South Asian envoy

There's much talk about President-elect Barack Obama possibly appointing Richard Holbrooke as a special envoy to South Asia. The New York Times says it's likely; while the Washington Independent says it may be a bit premature to expect final decisions, even before Obama takes office on Jan. 20.

But more interesting perhaps than the name itself will be the brief given to any special envoy for South Asia. Would the focus be on Afghanistan and Pakistan? Or on Pakistan and India? Or all three? The Times of India said India might be removed from the envoy's beat to assuage Indian sensitivities about Kashmir, which it sees as a bilateral issue to be resolved with Pakistan, and which has long resisted any outside mediation. This, the paper said, was an evolution in thinking compared to statements made by Obama during his election campaign about Kashmir.

Before last year's Mumbai attacks, Obama had suggested that the United States should help India and Pakistan to make peace over Kashmir as part of a regional strategy to stabilise Afghanistan. In this he was supported by a raft of U.S. analysts who argued that Pakistan would never fully turn against Islamist militants threatening the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan as long as it felt it might need them to counter burgeoning Indian influence in the region. Obama's suggestion raised hackles in India, and broke with a tradition established by the Bush administration which had tended to be -- publicly at least -- hands-off about the Kashmir dispute. 

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