The appointment of S Jaishankar in place of Sujatha Singh as Foreign Secretary was in the works for over a month, but the Narendra Modi government wanted to avoid taking a harsh decision and remove her seven months ahead of her retirement. Jaishankar, India’s ambassador to the United States took over as the new Foreign Secretary on the morning of 29 January, two days ahead of his scheduled retirement.
Senior Indian diplomats were privy to the behind-the-scenes goings on and had shared the subterranean developments with me several weeks ago, though I found the proposed move outlandish.
The government had made up its mind to bring Jaishankar to New Delhi and two positions were being talked about: as foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Narendra Modi or as full-fledged foreign secretary. The former option was found to be rather messy as it would have created yet another power centre in the PMO apart from National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and the PM was not in favour of this and went about exploring the second option.
Making Jaishankar foreign secretary had a deadline because he was to retire on 31 January and if he were to be made foreign secretary this had to be done before that because service rules do not permit appointing somebody as foreign secretary after his retirement.
Sujatha Singh was asked to take over a “Constitutional post” – as member of UPSC – but she declined and dared the government to sack her. Daughter of former Intelligence Bureau chief TV Rajeshwar, Singh had taken over as foreign secretary one and a half years ago in similar circumstances as the Manmohan Singh government wanted to appoint Jaishankar, her junior, to the post but she had her way.
The government was left with no option but to take the unpleasant decision of sacking her, the first foreign secretary to meet this fate in 28 years after the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had sacked AP Venkateswaran abruptly at a press conference where the diplomat was also present.
Singh put her foot down and dared to take on the government, perhaps hoping that the Modi government would not take the extreme step of sacking her or would perhaps send her to Washington in a swap with Jaishankar. She recently batted solidly on behalf of the government during her press conference on the outcome of US President Barack Obama’s talks with PM Modi.
However, the government chose to bite the bullet and issued orders of curtailing her tenure and appointing Jaishankar as the new foreign secretary. It is understood that the government will be appointing the next ambassador to the US very soon, perhaps within a week.
Jaishankar is a hands-on diplomat who will bring in qualitative change in the functioning of the Ministry of External Affairs as well as in his interactions with the media.
Singh’s press conferences would be boring affairs in which she always read out her opening remarks, never straying from the prepared text. During the Q&A sessions, she made sure that she answered questions in mono syllables and invariably divulged nothing.
Jaishankar, who has been India’s ambassador in China also, is a much more confident man and is known to speak his mind. More than a decade ago when he was Joint Secretary (Americas), a top post in the MEA as the person in-charge navigates India’s relations with the US, he had told me that the people and media of India failed to fully appreciate the extent of American cooperation with India.
He said the Indo-US cooperation was far deeper than the more glitzy nuclear deal and the US had much to offer in areas like agriculture and education. Jaishankar is the best bet for the top job of Foreign Secretary and after many years since Shyam Saran India will have a highly capable man on this crucial post.
The biggest USP of Jaishankar is that he was not only the chief architect of the Indo-US nuclear deal, and thus close to the American officials, but also has a very good equation with the Chinese after having served in Beijing as ambassador. Incidentally, Nirupama Rao is another career diplomat whose career has followed a similar trajectory as Jaishankar’s as she too served as ambassador to China and the US and also as foreign secretary.
Jaishankar will provide enough heft to the Modi government in balancing US and China, a prime objective of the Indian government today.
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Updated Date: Jan 29, 2015 21:27:12 IST