After my first posting in Moscow, I got posted to Astana, the new Capital of Kazakhstan as the Representative of India. Our Embassy was still located in Almaty. However, a Representative Office had been opened in Astana since the shifting of the Embassy to Astana was to take some time. When I landed in Astana in July 2004, I had a local secretary. After some time, we hired a multi-tasking staff (to do cleaning and sundry jobs) and a driver locally. The 4-member team was sufficient unless we had a crisis situation or a visiting delegation.
(My Office in Astana. You can see my shadow as I am taking the photo.)
In May 2005, a decision was taken that India would be admitted as an Observer in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in the Summit which was to take place in Astana on 5 July. It was obvious that there would be a high-level participation from India at the Summit. However, the suspense continued for a long time. Around mid-June, I found that the hotel rooms in Astana were going away fast. There were a limited number of hotels in Astana then and preparations by the SCO Member-States to receive their leaders had already reached an advanced stage. We quickly reserved rooms in whichever hotels we could.
A week or so before the Summit, I finally got news that our delegation would be headed by our then External Affairs Minister (EAM), Mr. Natwar Singh. Soon, it was clear that the EAM would come by a special flight, have a full official delegation and would be accompanied by media-persons from India. This was almost like a Head of State/Government level visit. In a place such as Astana, where facilities were limited, the task was by no means easy given the short amount of time at hand. We got assistance from our Embassy in Almaty and hired more people locally. The team worked without a break for one week and we were finally ready to receive our delegation.
After the flight took off from India on 4 July, I got a call that the EAM would like to address the local media as soon as he arrived at the Hotel. We had about three hours to arrange this. I was in doubt if we would be able to get even a single local media-person since Presidents of five SCO Member-States were already in town. Nevertheless, we drafted a Media Advisory quickly and faxed it to as many local media as possible.
The flight landed on time. But I could not see a single media-person inside the Hotel. I knew that I would be in deep trouble if the EAM would be told on arrival that we were not able to arrange a local media briefing as requested.
After some time, as I came out of the Hotel entrance, I saw that a crowd had gathered near the Hotel gate, which was at some distance. I went to the gate to check if some of these were media-persons for our briefing. It turned out that the entire crowd of about 30 media-persons had come to cover our event. I was elated. However, there was another issue. The Hotel was a high-security zone since all Heads of delegations were staying in the Hotel. It took several minutes of pleading and prodding before the security relented.
The media-persons were taken to the make-shift briefing room at a restaurant in the Hotel. Just when they had finished setting up their cameras and settling themselves, the EAM’s carcade arrived. We took him to the briefing room. He made a quick statement and took some questions. Everything went off well.
The next day, even leading newspapers put the news on front page. I realised that all this could happen because I was representing a country like India. That India would be a part of the SCO was big news. I felt proud to be an Indian diplomat. That was the first time that I realised in a big way that I was in the right job.
(Leaders at the SCO Summit in Astana. Mr. Natwar Singh is 3rd from right.)