Notes from a trailblazer

Meera Shankar, a retired civil servant and former Indian ambassador to the United States of America (USA) was one of the speakers for the recent Women’s Leadership Forum on ‘Pathways to Resilient Leadership’ conducted by Goa Institute Of Management (GIM). NT BUZZ gets details about her work and more


Though there were many capable women in the field of foreign service there was, perhaps, an unconscious gender bias which led to hesitation in giving women substantive or sensitive ambassadorial assignments in the past. Happily, today, that glass ceiling has cracked open, says Meera Shankar. India’s first woman ambassador to Germany and India’s second woman ambassador to the USA, Shankar was recently in Goa for the Women’s Leadership Forum on ‘Pathways to Resilient Leadership’ conducted by Goa Institute Of Management (GIM).

Being the first woman ambassador from India to Germany during Chancellor Angela Merkel’s first term, she says that Germany itself was getting used to the first female chancellor and as it turned out she proved to be a trusted and capable leader who was re-elected three times.

“We pursued very active diplomacy to engage Germany during my term, with India as the partner country for the Hannover fair, the Frankfurt Book fair, the Berlin Tourism fair and the Berlin Air Show. We also finalised and signed a Defence Cooperation Agreement,” she says. She was also instrumental in starting a multidimensional government dialogue between the two governments chaired by India’s Prime Minister and the German Chancellor. Germany, she states, has this kind of dialogue with only one other country – Israel. “All in all we were able to impart new momentum to the relationship which had earlier faced some challenges in the wake of sanctions imposed by Germany over our nuclear tests,” she says.

Also, having served as India’s ambassador to the United States during the first term of President Barack Obama, she says that we have the most broad based relationship with the US – at the government level, at the business level and at a people to people level. “We sought to give substance to the strategic partnership, building on growing security convergences in the Asia Pacific region. Both countries agreed to look beyond weapons purchases in the field of defence to encompass joint research, development and production. US export control regulations for defence and dual use technology exports to India were substantially liberalised,” says Shankar.

She has also had the opportunity to deal with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan and regional cooperation under South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), a task she found both fulfilling and challenging. “This involved a large number of sensitive issues, including land and maritime boundaries, river water development and sharing and cooperation on energy and development projects. I also negotiated and signed an Agreement on Pre-Notification of Flight Testing of Ballistic Missiles as a Nuclear Confidence Building Measure,” says Shankar.

Besides this, Shankar served as director in the Prime Minister’s Office and had the privilege of working with four Prime Ministers – Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh, Chandra Shekhar and Narasimha Rao. Sharing her experience working under each, she says that they had their own ways of working and this meant preparing papers for them in a format which they were comfortable with and which they could absorb quickly.

From cultural relations to security issues to economic diplomacy and mentoring women, Shankar has been involved in variety of roles and for her the best part of being a diplomat is the great variety of experience and responsibility and the ability to contribute to the country’s goals.

Shankar now serves on the boards of several companies as an independent director and on the governing body of a not-for-profit think tank. “Currently I chair the FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry) committee for mentoring women for corporate boards which has helped to prepare women with the requisite experience for serving as directors on company boards,” she concludes.

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