Exclusive: S Jaishankar to be India’s next envoy to Washington

Washington: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a relationship in need of fixing, requires someone who can fix it.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has acknowledged that truth and assigned S Jaishankar to be India’s next ambassador to the United States, a man he thinks can stem the drift in Indo-US relations and inject new energy, FirstPost has learnt.

Jaishankar currently is India’s envoy to China, a post demanding exceptional navigational skills and an ability to read opacity without x-ray vision. While Washington can be obscenely transparent by comparison, navigation through its many corridors of power is no less difficult. Over the past two years, India has learnt that the hard way.

And the prime minister is finally responding to the need of the hour. Indo-US relations are mired in problems, preventing a rise to the next level. Solutions to persistent problems have evaded diplomats on both sides.

 Exclusive: S Jaishankar to be India’s next envoy to Washington

S Jaishankar.

Jaishankar is one of India’s brightest diplomats, known both for his formidable intellect – he has a Ph.D from JNU on the political consequences of the spread of nuclear technology – and his sharp wit. It is difficult to run rings around him. He is the son of the formidable late K. Subrahmanyam, father of Indian strategic thought.

We know the prime minister thinks very highly of Jaishankar and for good reason. The tenacious and savvy diplomat, along with a handful of others, helped him realize the Indo-US civil nuclear deal against the heaviest of odds.

We also know the prime minister actually wanted Jaishankar to be India’s foreign secretary. But a combination of rules of seniority, intrigue within the ministry and egos of other bright stars in Delhi came in the way. Not to be outdone, Congress Party stalwarts saw Jaishankar as “too pro-US” – whatever that means – and nixed the appointment.

These hunger games are now thankfully over and everybody has got the job they wanted, or almost everybody.

If all goes well, Jaishankar will arrive in Washington by December after he shepherds the prime minister’s visit to Beijing in October. The current Indian ambassador to the US, Nirupama Rao, will do the same for PM’s “official working visit” to Washington in late September after which she will depart.

Jaishankar knows the intricacies of Washington well having served in the crucial position of joint secretary Americas (2004-2007), from the time the audacious idea of a nuclear agreement was first entertained to the time it came close to realization. He helped the PM stay ahead of the game which was hugely complicated with almost every constituency – the scientists, the Left parties, the BJP, the permanent naysayers, the anti-Americans and even sections of the Congress Party – actively working against the nuclear agreement.

Timely interventions, strategic phone calls and keeping his American interlocutors engaged in the face of a thousand mutinies in Delhi was no easy job. It required chutzpah and Jaishankar had it in spades.

While the nuclear agreement was being negotiated, I recall an official saying the two sides spilt “a litre of blood” on every word and every comma in the two crucial paragraphs of the nuclear deal, which dealt with the obligations of both countries.

Few may be aware that Jaishankar negotiated nuclear agreements with the United States not once but twice. Before the nuclear deal, he was part of negotiations to find suppliers for the Tarapur plant.

But he will come to Washington at a difficult time. Both India and the Untied States have a complaint list – the American one is longer and more prickly. US businesses are up in arms about India’s economic and trade policies, which they claim have made the investment climate uncertain and discriminatory. The US Congress, egged on by large corporations, too has turned hostile. It wants to attach onerous conditions on H1-B and L-1 visas via the immigration reform bill to strangle Indian IT companies operating here.

Americans also see “bad faith” in India’s inability to fix the nuclear liability law to their satisfaction, which would allow US nuclear reactors to be sold to India – an outcome that was meant to be a by-product of the historic 2008 nuclear deal.

But, as always, there are two sides to the story. If India passed a law in the wake of Fukushima and Bhopal that US corporations found objectionable, the American side has created problems by re-opening again and again certain aspects of the nuclear issues considered settled.

In addition, the US side is unwilling to put a price on the reactor contract, keeping India hanging. One never hears about this from US analysts, so skillful is the information management in Washington.

Personnel changes in the State Department have added another layer of uncertainty to bilateral relations. The White House is focused elsewhere and President Barack Obama is not as engaged personally in India as his predecessor. As far as South Asia goes, it is mainly about Af-Pak and the return of US troops by 2014.

Clearly, Jaishankar has an enormous job ahead of him. It is a very different Washington he faces from the last time when the big idea of a nuclear deal helped galvanize different constituencies into a coherent force working to improve ties. Interestingly, his previous experience working with the US was with Republican administrations. This time he will interact with a Democratic administration, which may prove to be a challenge of a different kind.

But he brings ample and varied experience to the job – he has been India’s ambassador to China, Singapore and the Czech Republic. While in Singapore, he improved the island nation’s defence ties with India and helped organize the Malabar naval exercises in which the US, Japan, India and Singapore participated.

The most interesting was his battle to get reconstruction of Nalanda University in Bihar endorsed by the East Asia Summit as a cultural project. He was subtly sending a signal to China that India is where Buddhism was born. It was a contest over the “IPR of Buddhism,” in his memorable words.

Hopefully he settled the issue as ambassador to China - the country of his most recent experience -- where he has also dealt with Chinese muscle flexing via “incursions.” Adequately battle-hardened, he can now don the armor for Washington.

P.S. He can speak Russian, English, Tamil, Hindi, conversational Japanese, and a bit of Hungarian.

Updated Date: Aug 09, 2013 15:35:06 IST