Three days before he was scheduled to retire and a day after the diplomatic success of US President Barack Obama's visit for Republic Day, India's envoy to the US, Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, got a call from the Modi government to take over as a the nation's next foreign secretary. But the move may have been in offing for long given that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reportedly been keen on shunting Sujatha Singh out at the earliest.
The government was characteristically tight lipped about the change of post and in its release only said that Singh's tenure that was due to end in eight months was 'curtailed' with immediate effect. Singh took charge in August 2013, and was only the third woman to hold the post. While some reports indicated she could take charge of a diplomatic mission abroad, no posting have been assigned as of now.
However, a report in the Hindu quoted government sources as saying that Singh had sought voluntary retirement and it is unclear whether her removal will spark tension with other bureaucrats in the ministry. The last time such a major change occured when Rajiv Gandhi sacked his Foreign Secretary AP Venkateswaran leading to a huge controversy and stiff protest by the Foreign Service.
The Congress has questioned the reason for her removal with spokesperson Manish Tewari tweeting that it was late retribution for the stand taken on the row with the US over the arrest of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in 2013:
Is sacking of Foreign Secretary late retribution for stand on the Devyani Khorbode affair?Removal after Presidential visit mere coincidence?
— Manish Tewari (@ManishTewari) January 29, 2015
However, Singh may have been in the crosshairs of the government for some time now.
According to a Times of India report, the Prime Minister had wanted her removed from the post and it was only the intervention of Foreign Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj that had stalled the action so far. The impasse had also meant that the government had refused to clear any ambassadorial appointments for the last six months and is now expected to follow up with a slew of appointments.
Officials also reportedly said that Modi had kept Singh out of crucial decision making like the cancellation of Foreign Secretary talks with Pakistan and the Obama visit to India.
Jaishankar was reportedly a front runner to be the foreign secretary when the Manmohan Singh government was in power but Singh was reportedly picked over him because of her seniority. However, other reports suggest that her appointment was also influenced by the fact that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may have been overruled by his party on the decision to appoint Jaishankar as the foreign secretary. The UPA government's decision at the time may have been influenced by the fact that Singh's father was former IB chief and ex-UP governor TV Rajeshwar, who is seen as a Congress loyalist.
Former PM Manmohan Singh was reportedly keen on appointing Jaishankar as the foreign secretary for his work done during the Indo-US civil nuclear deal while he was joint secretary in charge of the Americas between 2004 and 2007. The diplomat, who is the son of defence strategist K Subrahmanyam, also happens to be the longest serving ambassador to China.
Jaishankar was India's ambassador to the US at the time the relationship between India and US soured over the arrest of Khobragade, but has since been credited with turning things around. After the success of Modi's trip to the US, Jaishankar was credited with getting Obama to attend Republic Day celebrations.
A 1977-batch IFS officer, Jaishankar had only days to go for his retirement. He took charge as the foreign secretary on Thursday morning. While Jaishankar refused to take any questions on his appointment this morning, he did say he was 'honoured' to be entrusted with the responsibility. "Government's responsibilities are my responsibilities," he added.
Modi government had reportedly waited for the US president's trip to end before making the announcement. It will now be hoping that Jaishankar can re-create the success of the last few months many times over in his two-year tenure.
Updated Date: Jan 29, 2015 12:11 PM