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Did Sujatha Singh pay the price for not being media savvy?

Sujatha Singh, in one of her first few press conferences as India’s foreign secretary, told a senior journalist that he ran the risk of being prosecuted under the Officials Secrets Act. The journalist had asked Singh a question based on a “top secret” document he claimed was in his possession. Singh had made the remark half in jest. But few, if any, journalists in the media hall were amused.

According to reports, Singh is livid at being so unceremoniously sacked. These reports, quoting sources close to Singh, claim that the outgoing foreign secretary believes her dismissal had much to do with her not being media savvy, and that Singh thinks being a media darling is no sign of competence.

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The 1976 batch Indian Foreign Service officer’s perfunctory, at times monosyllabic, replies to questions at her media briefings didn’t win her many friends amongst the media corps. Journalists returned from her briefings with the distinct feeling that for Singh, a media conference was an exercise to share as little as possible. 

This was in some contrast to several of her predecessors, all of whom had made an effort to overcome their misgivings about the media and understood that the information age demanded a better outreach. When appointed foreign secretary in August 2013, Singh stepped into shoes left behind by a series of erudite and articulate men, and a woman. 

Over the past decade, India has had such able foreign secretaries like Shyam Saran, Shiv Shankar Menon, Ranjan Mathai and Nirupama Rao. The men were all good exponents of foreign policy, and were comfortable interacting with the media. Rao, the first and only woman to serve out a full two year term as foreign secretary, had a remarkable stint where she made foreign policy accessible to the common man by her near revolutionary use of micro blogging site twitter.

But Singh preferred quiet but solid work. Colleagues recall how she worked until past midnight at her South Block office on most days. 

That she wasn’t then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s first choice foreign secretary weakened her profile. Her equation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi led PMO lacked warmth from the first few months of the new government. She got along well with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, but neither of the two was kept much in loop while the PMO took all the important decisions. These included such decisions as New Delhi deciding to call off the Foreign Secretary level talks with Islamabad.

Eventually, Singh was asked to reduce her media briefings or accompany the PM to any of his key visits. Singh did her bit to successfully pull off the swearing in ceremony of the new government which all SAARC heads of state attended. But the PMO needed somebody more than just a good and hard working team leader. Singh had done her ambassadorial stints in Germany and Australia – important but not key countries for India. With ambassadorial stints in China, the US and the ASEAN region, S Jaishankar looked an eminently better prospect as Modi’s interlocutor to key international powers.

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