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Indian American community hails Shankar's appointment as envoy

By Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
May 10, 2009 15:52 IST
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Less than two weeks after her arrival in Washington, India's Ambassador-designate to the United States, Meera Shankar, became India's ambassador after presenting her credentials at the State Department to Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg.

This is usually the protocol for new ambassadors posted to the US, where they present their credentials at the State Department, so that they can begin work as their country's representative before the formal presentation to the US President, which usually takes some time.

In recent years, the State Department usually assembles a bunch of new envoys together so that they can meet with the President for the 'exchange of letters' and the customary hand-shake and photo-opportunity.

Administration sources told that US President Barack Obama has still not met any of the new envoys posted to Washington and may not do so for quite some time.

But they added that Shankar would be among the first group of ambassadors to 'exchange letters' and be greeted by Obama in the White House.

Shankar arrived on April 26, and on the same day greeted the Indian American community at the annual Baisakhi celebration, hosted by the Indian Embassy and put together by the Minister of Community Affairs Sanjay Sinha.

She also made a cameo appearance at the reception hosted by the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin -- arguably the largest and most influential international medical group in the country -- on Capitol Hill at the end of the AAPI's legislative conference.

At this reception, Shankar had the opportunity to meet with several US lawmakers, many of them longtime supporters of India, including the co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans and several past co-chairs.

At the time it was announced in New Delhi that Shankar would succeed Ambassador Ronen Sen, whose extended term ended on March 31, key representatives of US and Indian business and industry, and the Indian American community, hailed her appointment and fondly remembered her tenure as the minister of commerce, in DC, under then Ambassador Siddhartha Shankar Ray.

Shankar, a 1973 batch Indian Foreign Service Officer, was posted in Washington between 1991 and 1995.

When Sen had put in his retirement papers last March -- at a time when the nuclear deal was still in limbo and was tethering on deep differences between Washington and New Delhi over the provisions in the 123 Agreement -- Shankar's name was among those being thrown up as possible successors, along with erstwhile Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran and Satyabrata Pal, then India's High Commissioner to Pakistan, who recently retired and was replaced by Sharat Sabharwal.

Shankar, an accomplished career diplomat, will be the first career person to be posted in Washington in more than two decades after K Shankar Bajpai, and is only the second woman ambassador posted to the US.  Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit -- Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's sister -- was India's Ambassador to the US and Mexico between 1949 and 1951.

During her stint in the 1990s, Shankar was part of a 'dream team' of female diplomats serving under Ray, comprising Nirupama Rao, currently India's Ambassador to Beijing (and strongly tipped to be the next Foreign Secretary when Shiv Shankar Menon's term expires) who was then minister, press and information, and Chitra Narayanan, now India's ambassador to Sweden, who then took care of cultural affairs and also stepped in whenever there was any political work to be done up on Capitol Hill.

The Deputy Chief of Mission at the time was Kanwal Sibal, who later went on to become India's Foreign Secretary, punctuated by stints as Ambassador to France and Russia.

Interestingly, at the time, Ray's assistant was Vikas Swarup, now DCM at the Indian Embassy in South Africa, and author of Q & A, which was made into the Oscar-winning screenplay of Slumdog Millionaire.

Raymond Vickery, currently senior vice president at Stonebridge International, a top Washington DC lobbying firm headed by former President Bill Clinton's National Security Adviser Samuel 'Sandy' Berger, and one of the lobbyists for the US-India Business Council, told about how much he enjoyed  'working very closely' with her during her earlier stint in Washington. He described her as "a bear for detail," and hence "a great choice" as ambassador to Washington, DC.

Vickery recalled, "I had the pleasure and privilege of working with Ambassador Shankar when she was an assistant to Ambassador S S Ray, and I was (then) Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown's Assistant Secretary for Trade Development."

"We collaborated especially on Secretary Brown's historic Presidential Trade and Investment Mission to India in 1995," he said, and noted, "In conjunction with that mission, Secretary Brown announced India as a 'Big Emerging Market,' and billions of dollars in US-India deals."

Vickery added, "I found Ambassador Shankar to be a consummate professional with a keen eye for detail and virtually unlimited energy. She combined these qualities with a strong intellect and an excellent sense of humour."

He reiterated that "she is an outstanding choice for the post of Ambassador to the United States," and predicted that "her selection bodes well for continuing the upward trajectory of US-India relations."
Kiran Pasricha, director general of the Confederation of Indian Industry in Washington, DC, acknowledged that Shankar was the quintessential professional and recalled that during her tenure in DC, "She was very effective, very persistent in getting our viewpoint across. So, she's going to be terrific."

She said that Shankar, who has also handled nonproliferation matters and headed India's counter-terrorism dialogue with several countries and interacted with senior US officials since her previous posting in DC, "has done it all, and I mean, really has huge experience behind her."

She recalled, "The first time I met Meera was when we didn't get any attention and we struggled to form the India Interest Group, which was headed by Michael Gadbaw, a vice president of GE, who was handling India for the company. She was here at the time and she was a tremendous support when we first established it."

"So, for me, she goes back to that era, when we needed her support and she was there for us. So, she's been there, done that, and will be great to have her back."

Pasricha said that at the time the India Interest Group was being set up, the USIBC, "was dead in the good old days, and it was rough times for us (in India-US relations), and Meera was a tower of strength and so it is great to have her back again now at a time when our relations are on such an upward trajectory."

"And, since she's so versatile, having handled everything from commerce to the non-proliferation stuff to counter-terrorism matters, her background is very good for Washington right now. So, I see only see pluses, pluses, and more pluses," she added.

North Carolina entrepreneur and political activist Swadesh Chatterjee echoed the sentiments of Vickery and Pasricha and described Shankar "as very articulate, very smart, she understands commerce, nonproliferation, security matters, terrorism matters. She's an outstanding person -- very focused, very serious, very specific, very knowledgeable."

Chatterjee, chairman and founder of the US-India Friendship Council, who is currently a member of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Global Advisory Council, told how Shankar had accompanied Ray, when he took the then ambassador to meet then North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt and the state's Secretary of Commerce, Dave Phillips.

"Meera, who always comes so prepared and does all of her homework and then some, impressed the Secretary of Commerce Phillips so much that I remember him telling Ray, 'Mr Ambassador, we would like to have her here with us on our team."

"And it's going to be great to have a woman ambassador. We have a woman secretary of state and so to have an Indian woman ambassador here in the US is very good. It also shows how progressive India is and that really says something," he argued.

Another longtime community and political activist in the DC area, Dr Sambhu Banik, the vice chairman of the Indian American Republican Council, also remembered Shankar as a "very, very disciplined lady, and it's great that India is sending a woman ambassador."

"Over the last 30 plus years that I have been here in the Washington, DC area, we have seen only men, and more men. Now, India has a president who is a woman and here in the US, we have a woman secretary of state. So it will be super to have the first woman ambassador from India," he said.

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC