New Delhi: The additional year foreign secretary S. Jaishankar has been given in the job marks the first time the external affairs ministry’s top diplomat has been allowed a lengthy extension over and above the fixed two year tenure that all top bureaucratic postings in the central government come with.
Jaishankar’s extension in service was approved by the cabinet’s appointments committee on January 23. It means that the 1977 batch Indian foreign service (IFS) officer will be in office till January 28, 2018, when he will be 63 years old.
As he is the senior-most diplomat, he has not superseded any other officials for the post since they are all from junior batches. But, his extended stay in the corner office in South Block means that any chance the 1980 IFS batch officers had to become foreign secretary – at least on paper – now stands extinguished.
This year, all the 1979 and 1980 IFS officers will reach their superannuation. The list includes Sujata Mehta, the MEA’s highly regarded secretary (West) (she retires in March 2017), India’s man in Kathmandu Ranjit Rae (February 2017), Anil Wadhwa (May 2017), Ajit Kumar (March 2017) and Gurjit Singh (March 2017). The last member of the 1980 batch to retire will be India’s ambassador to Washington, Navtej Sarna, in December 2017, a month before Jaishankar’s extended tenure ends.
Similarly, most of the 1981 batch officers will also retire this year – except for four who have the brightest chance of landing the top post in 2018 – unless Prime Minister Narendra Modi grants Jaishankar another extension. The remaining four in the 1981 batch will be Vijay Gokhale, Sujan Chinoy, Y.K. Sinha and Debraj Pradhan.
Gokhale, currently serving as the Indian envoy to China, has an outstanding reputation and a host of prestigious postings under his belt, which include being the head of the MEA’s East Asia desk and India’s ambassador to Germany. While Sinha has done a neighbourhood and P-5 ambassadorial stint, Chinoy, now in Tokyo, and Pradhan, in Oslo, have yet to serve as either. Then, there are also a couple of 1982 batch officers – Pankaj Saran and M.S. Puri – who would also be eligible.
Other than Gokhale, each of them would have been out of the reckoning if Jaishankar had not got an extension and another person appointed foreign secretary in his place – for a two year term.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s preference for Jaishankar – the two had interacted when the latter was India’s ambassador in China and Modi had visited Beijing as chief minister of Guajarat – was rather well known, which led to speculation about a possible change in the foreign secretary’s office when he first took over in May 2014. Sujatha Singh stayed on for eight months, before she resigned from service in January 2015 – when Modi made Jaishankar foreign secretary a few days before he was to superannuate.
Jaishankar, who was hired on a fixed two-year contract, began his tenure as foreign secretary with a SAARC yatra, which – by including Islamabad as one of the stops – marked the beginning of a renewed outreach effort towards Islamabad. The Pakistan story, not surprisingly, became more complicated with each month, with attacks in Gurdaspur, Uri and Pathankot setting the relationship back after each tentative step forward.
With the US, there was unprecedented closeness in ties, which may have triggered some expected and unexpected consequences in Beijing and Moscow.
In the last two years, Jaishankar faced the most flak when relations between Nepal and India were at rock-bottom over the promulgation of the new constitution. Jaishankar sat stoically in the officers’ enclosure as opposition members of parliament criticised his visit to Kathmandu just a few days before the constitution was approved by the parliament. Another low point in his tenure has been the fate of India’s membership application to the Nuclear Suppliers Group – Jaishankar himself led the charge for quick membership and allowed the media, and even Modi, to believe the deed was easy to accomplish – and the subsequent downturn in relations with China.
Despite that setback, Jaishankar remains Modi’s principal adviser on foreign policy and his extension is seen as confirmation of the trust that the prime minister has in him.
In early 2004, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was prime minister at the time, mooted the idea of an extension for foreign secretary Shashank. However, the IAS lobby is said to have raised all sorts of procedural objections and Vajpayee was forced to back down. Modi, evidently, enjoys much greater influence among the mandarins of Lutyens’ Delhi.