The post of Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson, known in the bureaucratic jargon as JS (XP) or Joint Secretary (External Publicity Division), is truly a hot seat. Few other posts in Government of India are as demanding and work-intensive as this one is.
But it depends on the man who occupies this hot seat. Syed Akbaruddin has made this seat hotter than a burning ember by his sheer hard work and the amazingly long working hours– seven days a week– consistently for the past three and a quarter years that he has held the post of JS (XP).
His normal day starts at 7 am when he starts getting calls and SMSes from byte-hungry electronic media even while he is getting ready for work. He invariably reaches office around 9 am. From 10 am to 5 pm it is a maddening schedule of back-to-back meetings in his office in Shastri Bhavan, where the headquarters of the MEA are located and in Jawaharlal Nehru Bhavan where many MEA divisions are now located. This also happens to be the new venue for in-house as well as international conferences.
After 5 pm, Akbaruddin normally gets back to his office, where he invariably remains till 9 pm or so. He uses this window to attend to piled up official work and talks to the journalists calling him for his perception of the day’s important events.
His phone continues to ring till about 11 pm and he attends to every call or SMS. On a ‘newsy’ day, Akbaruddin responds to an average of 300 calls/SMSes daily. Considering the long work hours he has been putting in (15 hours a day on an average) it works out to 20 calls/SMSes per hour, or one call/SMS every three minutes. Phew!
By the way, hardly a day goes by in MEA when it has not been a ‘newsy’ day.
And if it is a maddening day like a top world leader’s incoming visit – and such days come several times every month – then the work load of JS (XP) increases phenomenally and his working hours stretch further.
Over and above this, Akbaruddin monitors the New Media (a mix of social media and digital media), manages his Twitter account by posting tweets and photos of official engagements and monitors major TV news channels.
The amazing thing is that Akbaruddin has been maintaining this rigorous schedule consistently throughout the three and a quarter years he has been occupying this hot seat.
Added to all of the above is the hectic traveling he has to undertake. He undertakes about two dozen foreign visits every year, accompanying the Prime Minister and the External Affairs Minister. It is not only since Narendra Modi took over as PM that the prime ministerial visits have become frequent. It has always been so particularly for last one decade.
As India’s global profile is on the rise and the role of international diplomacy is getting incrementally important with each passing year, the number of foreign visits by the PM and the EAM are consistently on the rise. One of the jobs of JS (XP) is to accompany the PM and the EAM on their foreign visits and brief the media during such visits.
This should convey the vital importance of the office that Syed Akbaruddin has been so ably handling all these years. It would not be wrong in this context to say that Akbaruddin has made this hot seat even hotter by his workaholic nature.
Narendra Modi had been watching Akbaruddin very closely since he was made the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in September 2013. When he took over as PM on 26 May, 2014 he came to know about the workhorse called Akbaruddin. This was the quality Modi had wanted to see in each of his ministers and officials. This is how Modi became a fan of Akbaruddin.
Left to him, Modi would have never let an asset like Akbaruddin go. When he failed to convince Akbaruddin to become the PMO spokesperson – Akbaruddin expressed his unavailability for the honour as wanted his maiden ambassadorial posting now, when he is just six years away from retirement – Modi understood.
But since Modi’s advent, Akbaruddin increasingly took Government of India related questions, which were not MEA-specific. A burning example of this was his hour-long live chat on Facebook, a first for any ministry in Indian government. He answered hundreds of questions, many on bullet trains and infrastructure.
PM Modi had to reluctantly agree to relieve him and appoint a new spokesperson as Akbaruddin is now due for promotion as additional secretary and the spokesman’s post is of joint secretary-level.
It was against this backdrop that Vikas Swarup, a highly competent and articulate diplomat, was named as Akbaruddin’s successor. The daunting task for Swarup is clearly cut out. He will be face to face with this challenge when he joins the PM’s official delegation on his three-nation tour to France, Germany and Canada (9-17 April) and finally takes over as the new spokesperson of the MEA on 18 April.