S Jaishankar's appointment as foreign minister reveals Narendra Modi's mindset on trust, acumen and leadership

Narendra Modi has kept up his propensity for surprise by inducting Subrahmanyam Jaishankar into the Cabinet. When the 1977 batch IFS officer took the oath on Thursday to be part of the NDA-2’s Council of Ministers, there were wide expectations that he would be handed the Ministry of External Affairs portfolio. More so because Sushma Swaraj, who had been handling the responsibility during Modi government’s first term, had expressed her desire to opt out this time.

Jaishankar is not the first career diplomat to be appointed as Union External Affairs Minister. That honour belongs to K Natwar Singh in UPA-I. However, the technocrat’s lateral entry into the highest level of government is a bold move, and the reasons behind Modi’s decision are worth exploring.

Jaishankar, who retired in January 2018 as foreign secretary of India (serving his term with a year’s extension since January 2015), is widely acknowledged as an astute thinker, a policy wonk and an exceptionally talented diplomat who brings domain expertise and years of experience to the table. His handling of the Doklam crisis in 2017, when India stared down Chinese bullying tactics with resolve and pragmatism, received extensive appreciation.

His appointment makes it evident that Modi places a premium on merit above other considerations.

The BJP alone has 303 MPs in the Lower House of the Parliament. Along with NDA allies, the prime minister had 353 lawmakers to choose from to handle the EAM portfolio. This is a problem of plenty. There must have been covert pulls and pressures on Modi and his trusted general Amit Shah to accommodate more names. We find, however, that the Council of Ministers includes 24 Cabinet ministers, nine Ministers of State with independent charge and 24 Ministers of State. Modi has kept for himself Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, Department of Atomic Energy and Department of Space portfolios.

 S Jaishankars appointment as foreign minister reveals Narendra Modis mindset on trust, acumen and leadership

File image of Narendra Modi and S Jaishankar. PTI

The Council of Ministers isn’t a bloated one, and it carries the imprimatur of a leader who enjoys complete dominance over his party and government. Modi has clarified that BJP, in the “spirit of compromise and cooperation” will take its allies along, but no amount of arm-twisting may work as JD(U) chief and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar found out when his party refused to accept one Cabinet berth and preferred not to be a part of the government. It is unlikely that Modi will bend over to give in to his demands.

To this context — where allotment of berths follows a different algorithm than a ‘please all’ policy — now add the fact that Jaishankar, a technocrat who has no experience in politics and is not a member of any political party, has been made a foreign minister and a member of the Cabinet Committee on Security. This points to Modi’s confidence in Jaishankar and conviction in his own decision. This is close to the kind of leadership that Modi had promised, and people had expected while handing him an unprecedented mandate.

The induction of Jaishankar into the Cabinet and trusting him with a key portfolio also tells us something about Modi’s character. For that, we need to rewind a few days to the time when he delivered a post-victory speech at the Parliament’s Central Hall to the new MPs.

The prime minister, while offering advice to first-time lawmakers to navigate the power corridors of Delhi, urged them not to be entrapped in ‘coterie’ culture and be careful in selecting people to invest their trust. He advised them to put their faith only in people whom they have known for a long time and not newly minted companions who may seem overtly friendly.

Modi’s note of caution for MPs was aimed primarily at degrading the coterie culture and intricate network of patronage that define power broking in Lutyen’s Delhi, but it also gives us a glimpse into the mind of a man who even after five years at 7, Lok Kalyan Marg, remains obsessively suspicious of power brokers.

This is where Jaishankar’s appointment becomes most interesting. This is a technocrat whom Modi clearly trusted and developed enduring faith in his abilities that started when Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, had visited China during Jaishankar’s tenure as India’s ambassador to the country. The bonding that developed between the two deepened further when Jaishankar, during his stint as India’s ambassador to the US, helped “smooth the passage” for Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the country following a decade-long visa ban.

The change in trajectory of India-US relationship coincided with Jaishankar’s tenure as India’s envoy to Washington DC and he should get a fair amount of credit for the upswing in bilateral relationship and close strategic partnership between the two nations. Little wonder that Modi had broken convention to appoint Jaishankar as India’s top diplomat in 2015 by dismissing Sujatha Singh, his predecessor. Not surprising to note again that Jaishankar, whose term as foreign secretary was supposed to end in 2017, was given an year’s extension by the Modi government.

According to a Livemint article, "Modi was also reportedly insistent that Jaishankar travel with him on almost all his foreign trips prior to his retirement in January 2018". Jaishankar repaid the trust shown by not only handling the Doklam crisis with élan but also propagating Modi’s vision of India as a leading power and a source of stability in the Indian Ocean Region. His role in stabilising India’s relationship with China, delivering on Modi’s Act East policy through maritime security and collaboration with nations around Indian Ocean littoral and adopting a hawkish approach towards Pakistan has also been documented.

Two things, therefore, are clear. One, Jaishankar enjoys Modi’s trust and two, there is a dovetailing of vision between the two when it comes to shaping India’s destiny as a leading power and projection of that power in a bipolar Asia. In hindsight, this was perhaps the most obvious decision but one that not many had foreseen.

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Updated Date: May 31, 2019 21:09:43 IST