Taranjit Singh Sandhu, Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, is expected to be officially named as India’s Ambassador in Washington DC, the Hindustan Times reported on Tuesday. Sandhu, who will be completing his three year term, is expected to leave Colombo after a successor is announced.
Sandhu’s term in Colombo would be remembered for his untiring efforts to put India-Lanka ties on an even keel and on a growth trajectory as well, after they suffered a big jolt in the second half of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Presidency between 2010 and 2014.
In that period, Rajapaksa’s regime was seen in New Delhi to be favouring China to the detriment of India’s geo-political and strategic interests.
According to Hindustan Times Sandhu had put India back in the reckoning as the island nation’s most important partner, “elbowing out the aggressive Chinese”.
“Sandhu’s long and in-the-ring experience of dealing with Indo-US relations spanning decades across two previous postings in Washington had made him a popular choice for Washington DC among think-tankers, past and present Congressional aides of both Republican and Democratic lawmakers and officials, many of whom he had worked with and struck lasting relationships,” the New Delhi-based daily said.
It quotes a former Congressional aide who went on to hold a senior administration position as saying: “ Taranjit grew to understand the Hill the best, with his ability to work with both parties.”
Sandhu was able to demonstrate his diplomatic skills when the India-US relationship was rocked by the 1998 Pokhran-II nuclear tests conducted by the Vajpayee government. There was shock and outrage in Washington. The US applied severe sanctions, mandated by Congress. India was shunned and slammed by officials, lawmakers and Congressional aides.
But led by then Indian ambassador, the very politically astute Naresh Chandra, an Indian fire-fighting team, with Sandhu in it, quietly worked to modify the sanctions. He was handling the toughest elements among the Americans, Congressmen on Capitol Hill. However, eventually, President Bill Clinton visited India in 2000 and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visited the US later that year. The Indian team had also neutralized Congressman Dan Burton who had repeatedly tried to “punish” India for alleged human rights violations.
Sandhu returned to Washington DC in the early 2010 for a second stint, this time as the Deputy Chief of Mission. In 2013 came another crisis. A young Indian lady diplomat in New York was arrested for underpaying her Indian house maid. It was the most testing of challenges posed to bilateral ties as Indians strongly felt that the US officers were wantonly harsh. The then Indian Ambassador Jaishankar led a fire fighting team which included Sandhu to get the lady released and sent back to India.
Jaishankar and Sandhu went to work on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first US visit in 2014, marked by the rock-star rally at New York’s iconic Madison Square Garden and his meeting with President Barack Obama. Sandhu worked on three more Modi visits, including the historic address to a joint meeting of the US Congress in 2016.
As High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Sandhu hosted two visits by Prime Minister Modi, one of them in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings that had killed 259 people. Modi was the first foreign dignitary to visit the churches which were bombed by Islamic radicals. This signified India’s support for Sri Lanka in its fight against terrorism.
“These visits and other diplomatic exchanges and efforts are understood to have forged an Indian comeback in the country, rolling back the web of Chinese influence,” Hindustan Times opined.
On the night of November 17, as results of the 2019 presidential elections came in, Sandhu was the first foreign diplomat to call on President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He convinced Gotabaya that his first official overseas visit should be to India. Sandhu succeeded in bring Foreign Minister Jaishankar to meet Gotabaya before other overseas dignitaries did. Jaishankar convinced the new President that he should visit New Delhi for a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Modi quickly and even got an agreement to have the visit on November 29.
After President Gotabaya’s very successful visit, Sandhu persuaded Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, a strong Sinhala nationalist, to choose India as the first country to visit as Foreign Minister. That too proved to be very fruitful from the point of view of both countries. India and Sri Lanka moved towards practical programs for cooperation in skills development and entrepreneurship, fields in which India has expertise and Sri Lanka has dire needs.
Sandhu then persuaded Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, not known to be enamored of India, to undertake a visit to New Delhi as his first overseas outing as Prime Minister. Thus, within two months of coming to power, the Sri Lankan President, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister had visited India, thanks to the diplomatic skill of High Commissioner Taranjit Singh Sandhu.
Though a bureaucrat, Sandhu has an inborn political sense which has enabled him to read the political tea leaves accurately wherever he has been posted. Both as a junior and a senior diplomat, he has been a perceptive observer of the political scene, gathering information through personal interaction with political persons of all hues.
He is a master at sensing social, cultural and economic variations in the host society. He believes that these nuances have to be clearly and accurately grasped to enable Indian diplomats to correctly and accurately assess the political and economic situation and trends. A 24-hour diplomat, Sandhu, is never too disengaged from his vocation and passion, which is diplomacy.
If Sandhu has been a success in the US and Sri Lanka, it is because he has been truly bi-partisan in both countries. In the US, he had assiduously cultivated Republican and Democratic politicians at the Capitol Hill. He not only interacted with the State Department, but also with hundreds of Congressmen both formally and informally. This came in handy when firefighting on behalf of India at crucial moments when bilateral relations had hit the rocks.
In Sri Lanka, Sandhu had an excellent grasp of the nature and capabilities of individual political leaders. Even as a young political officer, he knew that Mahinda Rajapaksa was the man to be watched at a time when the political scene was dominated by grand personalities like Chandrika Kumaratunga and Lakshman Kadirgamar. After Rajapaksa left the Presidency following his defeat in the January 8 2015 election, he suspected India’s hand in his defeat and distanced himself from India and Indians. But the scene changed when Sandhu came back to Colombo as High Commissioner.
Sandhu re-established contacts with Rajapaksa. He arranged a meeting between the visiting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa at his residence. Given Modi’s interest in reaching out to leaders of all political hues, rapprochement with Rajapaksa, desired by Sandhu, was not difficult.
However, Sandhu kept up his good relations with the government led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister RanilWickremesinghe. When Sirisena overthrew Wickremesinghe and replaced him with Mahinda Rajapaksa in a widely condemned coup, India did not support Rajapaksa. Likewise when Northern Province Chief Minister was going to be overthrown by his own party men, Sandhu saw that the bid did not succeed for he was keen on political stability and the survival of the provincial council which India had helped establish.
Despite India’s goodwill for the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, the duo failed to implement a number of big ticket development projects which Sandhu had proposed in order to checkmate China’s influence in this area. But Sandhu did not lose heart. While trying his level best to coax the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo to honor their solemn promises (existing in the form of an MOU signed in April 2017), Sandhu went ahead with projects the Sri Lankan government was keen on implementing . These have been grassroots level projects in the field of health, sanitation, water supply and housing both in the Tamil and Sinhala areas of the island. The Indian grant aid of US$ 560 million for projects of this sort have been winning friends for India at the ground level.