Why Modi chose S Jaishankar as India's new foreign secretary

PM's political will to project India as a key player in the region as well as outside has come clear by this appointment.

 |  IST  |  3-minute read |   30-01-2015
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The abrupt naming of Subrahmanyam Jaishankar as foreign secretary of India has certainly flabbergasted New Delhi, except for those who have kept it a tightly held secret for some time. As some say, change was anticipated since early October, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi returned from his highly successful visit to both New York and Washington DC.

But Jaishankar is no stranger to Modi. As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi visited China on several occasions and would be duly received by Jaishankar who was at the time India's ambassador to the People's Republic of China. In fact, Jaishankar was the first diplomat to meet Modi soon after he became prime minister in Delhi, setting off speculation that the new PM would induct him in some way in his team.

There was talk in the early days that he would be named National Security Advisor (NSA), but Ajit Doval, a close aide and confidante to Modi, was soon named for the job. Then it was said he would be given the job of foreign policy advisor in the PMO, but that didn't happen either.

Even in July 2013, Jaishankar had been in the running to become foreign secretary, but lost out to Sujatha Singh primarily because her father, TV Rajeshwar, a former IB chief to Rajiv Gandhi, called in his friendship with Sonia's husband to count. It was well-known in Delhi at the time that the then prime minister Manmohan Singh had wanted Jaishankar for the top job, because of his extraordinary competence and abilities.

Certainly, Jaishankar is an old school diplomat, who can leverage one difficult relationship to promote another. He speaks Russian, has served in Beijing, was a key player in the nuclear deal when the agreement was signed with the George W Bush government in the US in 2008, and has been instrumental in delivering a whopping success of a Barack Obama visit to Delhi.

In 2007-2009, in the negotiations for the India-US nuclear deal, Jaishankar's team in Delhi happened to be all Russian hands. He often said that the training they had all received while dealing with one superpower prepared them to deal with another.

Certainly it is easy to praise a man in power, but Jaishankar's return to Delhi in many ways symbolises prime minister Modi's intention to use his political will to project India as a key player in the region as well as outside.

By cutting short Sujatha Singh's two-year fixed tenure as foreign secretary by seven months, the PM has put on notice all those rule-bound bureaucracies who like to go by the book. In this case Modi was saying, I will decide the rules as well as the rulebook.

Of course, Modi could have handled this better. He could have called external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and told her what he was thinking, then asked her what she thought and persuaded her to see what he wanted. Basically, Modi should have been a team player. But by showing his impatience with form and procedure, Modi could also be in danger of short-changing the venerable institution of the Indian Foreign Office. His saving grace is that he's picked a fine man to bring about the change.

Of course Modi has several precedents to his action. Not only was there the culling of Jagat Mehta by Charan Singh in 1980, the famous public dismissal of AP Venkateswaran by Rajiv Gandhi in early 1987, but also the removal of SK Singh by VP Singh in 1990.

Like the prime ministers before him, Modi remains intensely interested in the formulation of foreign policy. The months ahead should be interesting.


Jyoti Malhotra Jyoti Malhotra @jomalhotra

Senior Journalist & President, South Asian Women in Media (SAWM), India.

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