WASHINGTON, D.C.— As much as erstwhile Indian Ambassador to the U.S. Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s appointment as Foreign Secretary was perhaps the worst kept secret in diplomatic circles so is that of his successor in Washington, D.C., Taranjit Singh Sandhu, whose appointment, while still not official, is said to be a done deal.
Sources told India Abroad that Sandhu, currently India’s High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, would shortly be given the official imprimatur by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and in February would head to D.C. for this third incarnation in the nation’s capital.
Shringla left for New Delhi on Jan. 12 and will take charge as Foreign Secretary on Jan. 29, succeeding Vijay Keshav Gokhale.
Sandhu had previously served as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of India in Washington, D.C. from July 2013 to Jan. 2017 and also earlier as First Secretary (Political) from 1997 to 2000 when he was the embassy’s point man in liaising with U.S. lawmakers and their staff on Capitol Hill.
And, if his stint with the Indian Mission to the United Nations in New York from July 2005 to Feb. 2009 is counted, this would be his fourth avatar in the U.S.
The news that the popular Sandhu would soon be back in D.C. was welcomed by former senior Congressional staffers, and Indian American community leaders like Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s close friend and confidante Dr. Bharat Barai, who had coordinated closely with Sandhu in organizing the Madison Square Garden event in New York when Modi made his first visit to the U.S. as Prime Minister in Sept. 2014.
Kapil ‘Kap’ Sharma, former senior Congressional staffer and currently vice president for Government and Public Affairs, North America for tech giant Wipro, who is arguably today the most influential Indian American lobbyist in D.C., told India Abroad that Sandhu is “an excellent choice” to be India’s next envoy to the U.S., and said, he “understands Washington and will surely be able to convey the Government of India’s interests/views in a way that Washington — and the U.S. state governments — will understand and appreciate.”
He said, “To succeed in Washington and make a difference, you must understand how Washington works. Ambassador Sandhu knows Washington. I’m sure his transition will be seamless. I know the Embassy will not miss a beat.”
Sharma, who worked on Capitol Hill, both in the House and the Senate, in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, first as a legislative assistant to Rep. Frank Pallone (D.-N.J.), helping Pallone to found the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, and then later as senior counsel and legislative director to Sen. Robert Torricelli(D.-N.J.), added, “Ambassador Sandhu has deep relationships on Capitol Hill built over many years, and it’s having those relationships — and developing new ones — that will make him a great advocate for stronger Indo-U.S. relations on Capitol Hill.”
Nisha Desai Biswal, president of the U.S.-India Business Council (USIBC) and the former Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs in the Obama administration, said, “At this time of dynamic political and policy challenges as well as growing economic and trade focus on India, Ambassador Sandhu will be an experienced leader for the Indian Embassy to navigate both the opportunities and challenges in the bilateral relationship.”
She told India Abroad that “having served multiple times in the U.S., he has deep knowledge and longstanding relationships that he can leverage to build and strengthen US-India ties.”
Biswal, also a senior Congressional staffer before she joined the Obama administration, recalled, “Ambassador Sandhu was key to successfully navigating the political crisis in 2013-2014 in the aftermath of the arrest of India’s Deputy Consul General (in New York), Devyani Khobragade and turn it into an era of rapid expansion of U.S.- India ties.”
“His close relationship with the Foreign Minister (Subrahmanyam Jaishankar) and Foreign Secretary (Shringla), both of whom also have served as Ambassador to the U.S., means India will have the most experienced team in recent times to advance the bilateral relationship,” she predicted, and added, “USIBC looks forward to engaging with Ambassador Sandhu and his team.”
Chicago-based physician Barai, said, “I am delighted to hearthat Taranjit Singh Sandhu is likely to be next Ambassador of India to the U.S. and it will be great pleasure to welcome a dear friend back to the U.S.”
Barai told India Abroad, “As you know, he was DCM here a few years ago and was a solid representative of India in the U.S. and I am confident he will represent India very well once again and do us all proud.”
“He knows a lot about the community and endeared himself to all of us in the community around the country, and I am sure we will once again have a very good and mutually rewarding working relationship.”
Barai said, “I had met him as DCM when Nirupama Rao was the Indian Ambassador, and also when Dr. Jaishankar became the new Indian Ambassador to the U.S., and he was always very friendly and easy to get along and so was his wife Reenat at the embassy. Reenat Sandhu, also a career diplomat, who was minister, commerce, at the time is now India’s Ambassador to Italy and San Marino.
“I got an opportunity to work a lot with Taranjit during the preparations for Prime Minister Modi’s reception at Madison Square Garden in 2014 and it was such a unique hybrid situation. And, although it was a 100 percent Indian American community organized and financed event, we had to coordinate with Indian embassy in Washington DC, and as one of the lead organizers of the event, I met with him several times in D.C. and New York,” Barai said.
“With almost 40 Congressmen coming to the event, we had to make special arrangements working with the U.S. Secret Service and making unique arrangements of the rotating podium and telecasting Prime Minister Modi’s address in Times Square, and it was great working with a very able and easy going diplomatic partner, rather than a government bureaucrat,” Barai recalled.
I hope we have opportunity to partner with him again for another mega event for the Prime Minister in the next 2-3 years, hopefully in Chicago,” he added.
Community stalwart Dr. Sambhu Banik said that “the entire Indian American Community, especially the members of NCAIA (National Capital Area Indian Association) are extremely happy and elated that Taranjit Singh Sandhu will soon come back as the next Ambassador of India to the U.S., as he had maintained a very positive relationship with NCAIA when he was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the embassy in Washington, D.C.”
“He is fiercely popular among the U.S. lawmakers and the Indian Diaspora as he used his personal charm to forge relationships with people of all diverse backgrounds.”
Banik, is a former George H.W. Bush (41st President) administration official and retired professor at Bowie State University in Maryland, who’s lived in the U.S. for the past five decades.
“NCAIA is so excited about his return and we’ve already begun planning to welcome him back with a grand reception gala because to me Ambassador Sandhu is a diplomat of diplomats who possesses the uncanny ability to forge friendships with people of all backgrounds,” he said.
Sandhu joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1988 and has served in several world capitals, including in the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1990.
In the aftermath of the unraveling of the Soviet Union, he was tasked with opening the Indian embassy in Ukraine and served there as head of the political and administration wings from 1992 to 1994. He also served as Consul General in Frankfurt, Germany, from 2011 to 2013.
Sandhu is an alumnus of St. Stephens' College in Delhi, where he majored in history and also played alongside Shringa in the college hockey team. He also received a masters degree in international relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University.