S Jaishankar has one more year to repay Narendra Modi's faith: Will he pull it off?

Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar’s one-year extension announced on Monday does not come as a surprise considering Prime Minister Narendra Modi has complete faith in him. However it is an unprecedented move, more so since the two-year tenure for secretary-level appointments was fixed since 2010 with Nirupama Rao. Jaishankar got the job after he retired as Indian Ambassador to the US. So he is already on extension. At least eight senior IFS officers will have missed their chance, and will be disappointed.

But prime ministers have the privilege of picking officers they trust, even though cautious leaders like Manmohan Singh usually stuck to the rules. Apparently, Manmohan was also keen on having Jaishankar as his foreign secretary, although he was over ruled and the senior-most officer of the batch Sujatha Singh took over. Her term was cut short when the government changed and Modi brought in Jaishankar from Washington. Having the same team at the helm of foreign policy ensures there will be continuity at the top.

While the foreign secretary as head of the service is important, policy is always the prerogative of the prime minister. Whether it was India’s first prime minister Jawaharla Nehru or Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao and even Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the policy was always driven by the PMO, which includes the office of the National Security Advisor. Brajesh Mishra, Shiv Shankar Menon or the current incumbent Ajit Doval all played/play an important part in formulating policy. The Ministry of External Affairs gives the inputs and carries out the instructions.

 S Jaishankar has one more year to repay Narendra Modis faith: Will he pull it off?

File image of S Jaishankar. PTI

Another thing working well for Jaishankar is that he is also on the same page as Doval and the two work together seamlessly.

Jaishankar, a 1977 batch IFS officer has been ambassador to both China and the US — two countries of enormous importance in Modi’s worldview, albeit for different reasons. India’s desire to repair relations and come closer to the US began during the first NDA government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But it was the civil nuclear deal signed by Manmohan and former president George W Bush that brought a tectonic change in ties between the two countries. Despite the landmark nuclear deal, during the second term of Manmohan’s government, there was very little further movement as the UPA regime was beset with problems at home.

Modi came to power in 2014 and has since made it clear that India would veer much closer to the US. The signing of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (Lemoa) was an indicator. Former governments had hesitated to do so although the foundation agreements were on the anvil since the first UPA regime. As an officer who had been involved in the tough civil nuclear negotiations and as a former ambassador to the US, Jaishankar understands the American system well. In fact, during a recent visit to the US, he was also in contact with the Donald Trump transition team.

The fact that Trump spoke to Modi on Tuesday — the fifth world leader he contacted since taking office — is a clear indication that the new president realises the importance of India. Modi took the opportunity to invite Trump to India. It may be recalled that in 2015, Trump's predecessor Barack Obama became the first US president to be the chief guest for the Republic Day parade. That was seen as a coup of sorts in Delhi, and Jaishankar is believed to have a hand in it. As ambassador, he knew many of the movers and shakers in the Obama administration. Although the Trump team consisting of billionaires and former army generals are unknown entities, the foreign secretary is quite aware of how the American system works and could make the change easy for Modi to comprehend.

China presents both an opportunity and a challenge for Modi and having a foreign secretary familiar with the Chinese system is a major advantage. As Gujarat chief minister, Modi had visited China several times. Jaishankar was the ambassador and it was his duty to take the visiting VIP around.

The prime minister was reportedly impressed by Jaishankar since he saw him in action in Beijing.

As prime minister, Modi began on a high with China. President Xi Jinping visited India in 2014, months after Modi took office. Instead of the usual visit to the capital, the Chinese president and his wife flew in to Gujarat, Modi’s home state. They later flew to Delhi. The atmospherics were just right, and there was hope that India-China ties would hopefully take a different turn now. Modi too went to China and visited Xi’s home province. But relations have since dipped and how.

China has blocked India's entry to the Nuclear Supplier Group, it has refused to allow Masood Azhar, the head of Jaish-e-Mohammed chief to be designated a terrorist by the UNSC, and gone ahead with the $46-billion Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor — some of which runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir that India claims is its territory. One reason for New Delhi’s wish to get closer to US was also because of India’s belief that its proximity to the US would stop Chinese adventurism in the region. India and the US both stand to benefit from working together to ensure that the balance of power in Asia is maintained.

The Japan, US, Australia and India strategic quadrilateral favoured by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is likely to progress under Trump. Jaishankar who also worked in Japan is familiar with Abe. He was in Tokyo during Abe’s first term as prime minister.

So far, Modi’s foreign policy has been spot-on, but for the neighbourhood. Pakistan continues to be a problem. Nepal is also a country where India lost much of the goodwill Modi had generated during his first visit. Maybe the Modi-Doval-Jaishankar team will overcome this soon. Jaishankar has one more year to prove his mettle.We have to wait and watch what he is able to deliver.

Updated Date: Jan 27, 2017 13:06:03 IST