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Navtej Sarna ends tenure on Monday

india Updated: Sep 14, 2008 16:16 IST
IANS
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Navtej Sarna, the longest serving spokesman of India's external affairs ministry, ends his tenure on Monday after nearly six years in the job. He has been in the coveted post, that many feel is one of the most high pressure jobs in the government, since October 2002 having served two prime ministers, three foreign ministers and four foreign secretaries.

The record of sorts - no other foreign ministry spokesman before him has had such a long tenure - has not affected the amiable Sarna who has decided to take it in his stride.

"It was a challenging and interesting job. But as a trained diplomat and civil servant you try and do your best in whatever job you are assigned to," was all that Sarna would say with characteristic understatement.

A 1980 batch officer of the Indian Foreign Service, Sarna has served in Thimpu, Moscow, Warsaw, Geneva, Tehran and Washington.

Sarna is also a writer of repute and has authored two novels and a non fiction on history of the Sikh religion. He has also written many articles and essays in well-known literary journals and newspapers in India and elsewhere.

The tall, turbaned and imposing figure of Sarna has for the past six years been a familiar sight in Shastri Bhawan that houses the Ministry of External Affairs' (MEA) spokesman's office. And he was a familiar sight on television's evening news with his daily briefings that were good-naturedly termed "evening follies" by beat reporters.

The spokesman's job is considered to be one of most high-profiles and important jobs in the foreign ministry. The list of those who had occupied the spokesman's chair in the past has the names of some of the brightest Indian diplomats. Some like Mani Dixit and Salman Haider had gone on to become foreign secretaries.

"It is not easy to be a good spokesman," KC Singh, a retired secretary in the MEA who had served in the post during the May 1998 nuclear tests, said.

He argued that it has to be seen both in the context under which one has been brought into the job and also how convincingly one manages to articulate the government's foreign policy.

"In an age where there has been a proliferation of TV channels, the spokesman has to speak to the camera and do his job succinctly," Singh added.

Sarna came into the MEA spokesman's post on October 16 in 2002, while the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government was in power. But he continued in the job even after the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance formed the government in April 2004 and went on to serve it for over four years.

Sarna's tenure as the ministry's spokesman could have ended in 2005. When the joint secretary's post in the disarmament division fell vacant, he was considered to be the most suitable candidate to head it. But as arrangements were being made to put him up in his new assignment, the then foreign minister K Natwar Singh intervened and changed the orders to retain him as the spokesman.

He has seen many an important development from close quarters. He has also been part of the Indian delegation during discussions with important foreign leaders.

Perhaps one of the most important developments during Sarna's tenure has been the growing closeness in Indo-US ties and the near completion of the nuclear deal.

On September 25 when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush meet in Washington, the 123 agreement on civil nuclear cooperation may be signed. Although Sarna will not be there, he will have the satisfaction of having seen through the conclusion one of the most significant and strategically important phase of a growing relationship between the world's biggest and most powerful democracy.

He now takes up the job of India's ambassador to Israel, an assignment that he will take up in mid-October.

Sarna will be replaced by Vishnu Prakash who has been the Indian consul-general in Shanghai.

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