WASHINGTON, D.C. — It was perhaps the worst kept secret in diplomatic circles, both in New Delhi Washington, going back to even a year ago that Harsh Vardhan Shringla — the current Indian Ambassador to the United States — will be the next Foreign Secretary of India. On Dec. 23, it was out in the open when it was officially announced that Shringla would take charge on Jan. 29, when Vijay Keshav Gokhale’s two-year term ends.
A career diplomat, Shringla, who hails from Darjeeling, and is an Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer of the 1984 batch, held several top postings in his diplomatic career spanning 35 years, including stints as India’s High Commissioner to Bangladesh and Thailand, and earlier serving in France, India’s permanent mission to the United Nations in the New York, Vietnam, Israel and South Africa.
During the few days short of a year that Shringla, an alumnus of St. Stephens College in Delhi University, served in Washington, he more than made his presence felt, hitting the ground running and assiduously immersing himself in moving the U.S.-India strategic partnership forward even as he dealt with several contentious issues that kept cropping up, including trade disputes and the aftermath of the imbroglio in Kashmir — in the wake of this state losing its special status after the Indian government repealed Article 370 of the Indian Constitution on Aug. 5 — and more recently the controversy over the Citizenship Amendment Act, perceived as anti-Muslim, leading to continuing concerns both within the Trump administration and the U.S. Congress.
But Shringla — who was accorded the rare honor of being invited to the White House just two days after his arrival to present his credentials to President Trump — with his signature affability and amiable personality, took it all in stride, actively engaging U.S. lawmakers, think tanks, media personnel, and any other all-comers, to apprise them of India’s point of view and articulate New Delhi’s actions, even as he maintained and continued to develop strong links with the Indian diaspora, traveling all across the U.S., meeting with them and reiterating the undeniable and value-add they contributed to the U.S.-India relationship, especially through the invaluable people-to-people interactions.
On Feb. 7, less than a month after his arrival and presenting his credentials to Trump, more than 65 lawmakers from both sides of the aisle of the Senate and House, and several hundred Indian Americans from across the country accorded a rousing welcome to Shringla on Capitol Hill.
The reception, hosted by the co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, was quite a feather in the cap of Shringla, who within a month of his arrival was being accorded this kind of a Congressional welcome with a significant turnout, traditionally only reserved for new ambassadors of America’s closest ally, Israel.
But in October, when the Kashmir situation was coming to a head in the U.S. Congress with allegations of human rights violations and scathing criticism over the continuing communications blockade after the revocation of Article 370, and with it the earlier euphoria toward India that was reminiscent at the reception accorded Shringla, and the positive statements made about India and its democratic ideals and the relationship with U.S. seemed to be dissipating, Shringla — in a rare briefing on the eve of a Congressional hearing to explore ‘Human Rights in South Asia,’ with a focus on the crisis in Kashmir was up on Capitol Hill, apprising members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the latest ground situation in Kashmir.
On Oct. 16, Shringla briefed committee members and also some other House members who are not members of the foreign policy making committee but who had requested to participate, on the tangible steps that the government had taken to alleviate the situation and withdraw some of the stringent measures that had been taken to preserve peace and security in the Valley after New Delhi had revoked Article 370.
Earlier, on Oct. 7, the same Committee that Shringla met with, that is chaired by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and also includes among its senior members Reps. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) had sent out a tweet saying that “India’s communication blackout in Kashmir is having a devastating impact on the lives and welfare of everyday Kashmiris.”
Thus, it argued, “It’s time for India to lift these restrictions and afford Kashmiris the same rights and privileges as any other Indian citizen.”
The briefing by Shringla, was the first by an Indian Ambassador in more than three decades, when then New Delhi’s envoy to the U.S., the late Kocheril RamanNarayanan — who later went on to become India’s president — had briefed Congressional members on alleged human rights violations against minorities in India, when some U.S. lawmakers had taken up the issue at the time.
Sources told India Abroad at the time that Shringla who had met with and briefed the members of the committee and also several other members of Congress who were not members of this influential panel, but were members of the Congressional Caucus on India — the largest country-specific caucus in the U.S. Congress — of how of his own volition, had pointed out that many of the restrictions that had been imposed immediately on the abrogation of Article 370 had been removed.
During this period, Shringla also told India Abroad that he has met with scores of lawmakers, including the likes of Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), “whom I met with three times,” after he had expressed concern over the situation in Kashmir, and made clear that he stands ready to meet with any lawmaker at any time who has similar concerns and to explain the government’s action and what plans it has in store to alleviate the lot of the people in Kashmir.
And then it was Citizenship Amendment Act controversy that began to consume all of his diplomatic skills and instead of hunkering down and feeling besieged, he took it upon himself, along with his team to aggressively push back and explain the rationale for this action too by the government of India.
In December, Shringla was once again in the thick of coordinating the two-plus- two meetings between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper with External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, where the discussions were permeated by both parties committing to redouble their efforts to take the burgeoning Indo-U.S. strategic and security partnership to the next level, even as they acknowledged the growing challenges by China and Russia, particularly in the Asia-Pacific arena.
However, it can be argued that the jewel in the crown of his short ambassadorial stint in the U.S., was the role he played in choreographing with the Indian American community, the highly successful mega ‘Howdy, Modi!’ extravaganza in Houston on Sept. 22, which drew over 50,000 Indian Americans and included the history-making gesture by President Trump to nt only grace this occasion, but stay on for a considerable period, showering kudos on “my good friend, Prime Minister Modi,” and the contributions of the Indian American community and then after being the warm-up act, listen in to the entire tour-de-force of Modi, and then allow himself to be led by the hand of Modi and take a victory lap around the NRG stadium to the cheering crowd.
At the time, Shringla told India Abroad that this “huge and unprecedented” history- making gesture by Trump was an unambiguous and unequivocal endorsement of the India-U.S. strategic partnership.
In an exclusive interview, Shringla said, “This is the first time that a U.S. President and an Indian Prime Minister will be addressing an audience together — outside of Washington, D.C. or New York, or anywhere else for that matter.”
Shringla also said that besides this underlining “the warmth between the two great nations and also the personal warmth and respect between the two leaders,” argued that “it’s the fact that Prime Minister Modi has been able to transcend the political divide in the United States of America, and has a great working relationship with both (former president Barack) Obama and Trump.”
Now as he prepares to take up his most momentous avatar yet as India’s top diplomat, the historic significance that he will be working with Jaishankar, a former career diplomat himself and an erstwhile Foreign Secretary and not a politician as has always been the case before of the person holding the External Affairs Minister portfolio, their combined nearly seven decades of experience in diplomacy, makes them a great tag-team—a tangible manifestation of which was on full display during the recent U.S.-India two-plus-two talks in Washington.