The crisp Mysore silk saree, a small bindi in place, coiffed hair, minimal make up, a Fendi handbag and smart shoes… she has been running up the South Block staircase to the her office for 14-hour work days for the last two years now.
She does this with the same ease when she runs up Air India One, to fly with the Prime Minister to various capitals around the world for his summit meetings.
Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao has a fascinating persona. She retires as foreign secretary at the end of this month, but only to take over as India's ambassador to the United States.
By her own admission, she is looking forward to the new assignment. However, no job could be as exciting as the one she currently holds.
Few people, if any, ever doubted that she would be India's top diplomat one day. After all, having been an achiever all her life, the foreign secretaryship seemed destined for this soft-spoken lady with a steely determination from Kerala.
A family friend once told me that she has never stood second in any exam --- always a topper. Academic laurels sit easy on her delicate shoulders; there are no signs of intellectual snobbishness. She hasn’t got to where she has by bullying or by playing politics. Her quiet competence, pleasant demeanour and non-threatening personality have won her friends in the bureaucracy and in the political establishment. But, she is no shrinking violet.
Nirupama’s introduction to the harsh glare of the media was when she took over from Raminder Jassal as the spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in 2001. India had just won the Kargil War but had invited President Musharraf to Agra for peace talks. As the joint secretary in the External Publicity Division of the External Affairs Ministry, her initiation into the job was a proverbial trial by fire.
The Agra summit failed, Musharraf went back angry, and the media from both countries was livid. This being his second attempt at peace with Pakistan after the Lahore Bus Yatra, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee did not have much domestic support for the peace talks in the first place.
The Agra talks were an unmitigated disaster. As the MEA spokesperson, Rao had the tough job to defend India’s decision to invite President Musharraf, an international pariah then, and furthermore, to send him packing without so much as a joint communiqué.
It was Rao’s first experience of dealing with unruly and angry Indian and Pakistani media, anxious to know what exactly happened and both were not satisfied with the trickle of information that was being given to them.
That was ten years ago. But not much has changed. As foreign secretary now, Rao sits at the high table during India-Pakistan talks.
Her last week at the job also involves chairing meetings at Hyderabad House and attending the India-Pakistan foreign minister-level talks.
Asked what was the biggest challenge in her two years as foreign secretary, a candid Nirupama said: “Neighbours”.
Ties with Pakistan have swung from bad to worse to aggressive to awkward in the past two years. Rao, who loves to speak in metaphors with literary references, says that one of the hardest challenges was to take the India-Pakistan relationship off life-support and bring it into the incubator stage.
She is following the Prime Minister’s agenda. Evidently, Rao has a smooth working relationship with Dr Manmohan Singh.
As foreign secretary in the UPA government, she has handled visits of heads of state of P-5 countries (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and accompanied the Prime Minister to several multilateral forums. She counts among her success the setting up of the public diplomacy division, starting 300 Passport Seva Kendras and the evacuation of Indian nationals from Libya.
The public outreach of the MEA is the legacy that Nirupama Rao will be most remembered for. Nirupama Rao has earlier been the Deputy Chief of Mission in Moscow, Minister of Press Affairs in Washington DC, Ambassador to China and the High Commissioner to Sri Lanka. None of these were easy assignments.
She has earned her spurs as a diplomat.
Ernest Hemmingway once said: "By 'guts,' I mean grace under pressure". Grace under pressure — that is exactly what her colleagues say of her years in China and Sri Lanka.
Rao is also probably the most media savvy of foreign secretaries that India has ever had. She is witty, knows the value of sound bytes, speaks in measured tones, answers to the point, and never hums and haws. She is always ready to laugh at a humorous comment, even if it leans on the politically incorrect. She can quote at will from Shakespeare to Churchill, share a cup of tea with you and even sing a song on request.
She can be sharp too, but she couches the punch with a smile before you can even realise what hit you!
The relationship between bureaucrats and journalists is often an awkward one. We have to ask questions, and more often than not, be critical.
Naturally this doesn’t endear us to those in the government, especially senior officers. Some are mature enough to know that it is our job to question, our role being of watchdogs in a democracy. But no one likes being questioned.
Nirupama Rao has endeared herself to the media because she doesn’t talk down to them. Even a cub reporter gets her/his question answered with patience and a liberal dose of humour. Nirupama Rao will be missed in Delhi.