January 30, 2015

Jaishankar: Man to implement Modi’s foreign policy agenda

Updated:Jan 29, 2015 
By C Uday  Bhaskar

The appointment of   S. Jaishankar as the new Foreign Secretary (FS) of India and the rather unexpectedmanner in which it was announced late at night on January 28  should not come as a surprise. Delhi's grapevine had been anticipating this for some months, given that the preference of PrimeMinister (PM) Narendra Modi in the matter had been doing the rounds.  

This announcement was expected soon after the Modi visit to the US in late September but one can only conjecture that the Obama visit may have led to adelay of a few months.  Concurrently, the fact that Dr. Jaishankar was due to retire on January 31would have necessitated that the announcement be made before that date.

As for the abrupt manner in which the incumbent, Ms Sujatha Singh 's tenure was "curtailed", it's  a reflection of the Modi's style of governance where decisions are taken and implemented  with  neither past practice nor  institutional protocol  being a constraint. And neither is the abrupt change ofa serving FS unprecedented, for PM Rajiv Gandhi had 'sacked' his FS, the late A. P. Venkateswaran, in a press conference.

Dr. Jaishankar, till yesterday, the Indian ambassador to the US, is undoubtedly an accomplished diplomat and was in the running for the post in mid-2013. However, considerations of seniority and the decision taken by the UPA government led to Ms Singh being appointed as the FS with a two year term.

At the time Jaishankar was the ambassador to Beijing and later moved to Washington DC andhit the ground running as he had to deal with the fallout of the arrest, and what India saw as humiliation, of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade over the immigration status of her housemaid from India.  The new FS's careerprofile is distinctive and is amongthe very few Indian diplomats to have such a wide spectrum and of domain expertise.  A Ph.D in international relations with a nuclear specialization, he has dealtwith the former USSR and later served in the US, apart from being an ambassador in Eastern Europe and ASEAN before moving to Beijing and then Washington DC.

A key official in the India-US civil nuclear agreement of 2005, it is a measure of his  contribution,  that  even as High Commissioner in Singapore, he was often consulted by South Block to  participate in the negotiations. Credited with  managing the India-China relationship  adroitly  even when incidents such as the Depsang  incursion  tested the resilience of the bilateral relationship, he was able to  bring about a radical change in the India–US relationship  and managed the Modi visit  in  a manner that clearly made a strong impression on  the PM .

It is understood that Modi had first noticed Dr. Jaishankar when the former was the Chief Minister of Gujarat and had visited China to further trade and investment for his state.  The PM's ability to spot talented and highly competent civil servants and place them in important positions was evidenced in Gujarat and some of the key appointments made in Delhi since May 2014 reflect a similar pattern.

A  PM taking charge of foreign policy directly is not new to India and from Nehru to Manmohan Singh, this has been differently discernible. Some have been hands-on to an excessive degree (Nehru), while others have relied on key officials (Narasimha  Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee  and Manmohan Singh). The Modi template from all accounts is going to be distinctive and the traditional organizational chart,  bureaucratic hierarchy and division of labor will be radically altered.

Creative problem-solving and innovative  policy initiatives are the Modi hallmark and   the appointment of Jaishankar will see greater synergy between the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and the Ministry of  External Affairs (MEA). The possibility that the new FS will gradually assume the role of ade facto National Security Adviser (NSA) with a foreign policy and strategic affairsfocus is reasonably high.  This combination is reminiscent of the UPA – I when the late J N Dixit – a former Foreign Secretary was appointed NSA by Dr. Manmohan Singh - and the later induction of M. K.Narayanan, a former Intelligence Bureau chief,  as the NSA after the sudden death of Dixit.

Modi has  an ambitious foreign policy agenda and within less than a year of assuming office he has made many confident and assertive moves on the diplomatic chessboard.  The need to have a nimble staff thatwill be able to implement what the PM has outlined and, if need be, advise him if the policy is imprudent and could adversely impact the larger national interest isthe hallmark of thehigh-calibre civil servant.  

Modi had demonstrated that after a decade plus of vacillation, the political leadership will now recognize and reward professional competence and not be constrained by the straitjacket of seniority and perpetuate post-retirement sinecure. Jaishankar's appointment is indicative of this new determination.

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