S. Jaishankar: From Backroom to Corner Office, the Rise of Modi's Favourite Diplomat

Jaishankar is the first former foreign secretary to be given political control of the external affairs ministry.

New Delhi: For Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has been a golden child.

Just two days before he was due to retire in 2015, Jaishankar was appointed India’s foreign secretary. The phone call to the serving foreign secretary, Sujatha Singh, that her services were no longer required was made by Sushma Swaraj.

Four years later, Jaishankar has succeeded Swaraj at her ministerial post.

After posing for a few seconds before a phalanx of camerapersons waiting at the gate, he strode into South Block on Friday afternoon.

A career diplomat

Flanked by foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale, he sat at his new desk in room number 172 and signed the joining order. With that flourish, just 16 months after retiring as the head of the Indian Foreign Service, Jaishankar became India’s external affairs minister.

He is not the first career diplomat to become foreign minister – Natwar Singh has been a prior resident of the corner room in South Block. But Jaishankar is the first former foreign secretary to be given political control of the external affairs ministry.

Also read: Home for Amit Shah, Nirmala Sitharaman Gets Finance, Jaishankar to MEA

He is also probably the first bureaucrat who has become a cabinet minister so soon after retirement. Jaishankar’s superannuation had also been noteworthy as the government had waived conduct rules mandating a one year cooling off period to allow him to take up a job as president, global corporate affairs, in Tata Sons in April 2018. One year earlier, the Tata group had signed an agreement with the US weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin for the joint production of the F-16 fighter aircraft in India.

Choice welcomed

A former Indian ambassador, who preferred to remain anonymous, described Jaishankar as an “excellent choice” to helm the foreign ministry

“Finally, India is falling in with global trends of the foreign minister having strong domain knowledge from day one,” he said.

Another former ambassador, Gurjit Singh, who had served with the new minister in the Indian high commission in Colombo, welcomed his appointment as a “a bright out of the box idea, like Jaishankar himself brings to the table”.

“We need nimble-footed diplomacy and we have the most agile diplomat as our minister,” he stated.

A serving IFS officer who told The Wire that Jaishankar was an “inspired” choice pointed out that he had a large and loyal following among junior officers during his term as foreign secretary. Jaishankar was seen as going out of his way to promote relatively junior officers for important tasks.

While Swaraj had preferred to take a visible back seat, busying herself mostly with consular affairs, Jaishankar is likely to be more visible.

According to observers, his appointment will also likely change the internal dynamics within the ministry.

Till now, the external affairs minister has had largely a ceremonial role within, with the foreign secretary running the show inside the ministry.

This is likely to change.

“With Jaishankar, the break between the bureaucratic and political leadership in the MEA will be bridged,” said the IFS officer.

The eclipsing of the role of foreign secretary would likely be inevitable, just as the responsibilities of MEA secretaries have been chipped away slowly for several years already.

After Jaishankar retired, former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan and Myanmar Vivek Katju wrote that during his term, the role of the foreign secretary had been “vastly elevated”. “The position of the other secretaries – who should discharge their responsibilities independently and are directly responsible to the political leadership, including the prime minister – was eroded,” he noted.

Jaishankar’s path to the top

During his education at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jaishankar had been part of the ‘Free Thinkers’, which was not affiliated to any political party, but was a forum to debate all ideologies. Incidentally, his fellow JNU alumni and cabinet colleague, Nirmala Sitharaman had also been part of this grouping.

As the son of K. Subrahmanyam, the father of modern strategic thought in India, Jaishankar certainly has the right pedigree, but his career has demonstrated his own hewn path.

As MEA’s joint secretary for the Americas, he had been involved in the intensive negotiations for the India-US nuclear deal during the UPA government. In the initial months and years of talks following the broad-brush agreement of July 2005, when the US tried to claw back some of the concessions it had made and demand more from the Indian side, Jaishankar and the Department of Atomic Energy were frequently at loggerheads. Jaishankar, for example, believed the DAE’s insistence on keeping its fast-breeder reactor project out of the purview of international safeguards would be a deal-breaker. This and other divisions on the Indian side were finally bridged only when the national security adviser, M.K. Narayanan, backed the DAE’s position. 

After leading the Indian negotiating team for the separation plan and the 123 agreement, Jaishankar was posted as India’s high commissioner to Singapore in 2007. From there, he was appointed ambassador to China.

During his stay in Beijing, notable bilateral events included the suspension of military contacts over China’s refusal to give a visa to the Northern Command chief and the stand-off at Daulat Beg Oldi.

Manmohan Singh had apparently wanted Jaishankar to succeed Ranjan Mathai as foreign secretary but decided against it as this would have meant superseding several senior officers and bracing for consequent resignations. Under pressure from a party high command which had no desire to generate a new controversy for the already besieged UPA-2 government, the well-regarded Sujatha Singh was selected as foreign secretary for the customary two-year term in 2013 and Jaishankar appointed ambassador to the United States.

He arrived in Washington when relations were at their lowest point – an Indian diplomat had been strip-searched over a case of alleged violation of rights of her domestic help. He ended his tenure with the historic visit of President Barack Obama as the first ever chief guest from the US to the Indian Republic Day parade in January 2015.

Also read: As Amit Shah, S. Jaishankar Enter Cabinet, Modi Drops Suresh Prabhu, Maneka Gandhi

In between, cricket enthusiast Jaishankar had apparently earned Modi’s admiration for the prime minister’s high-profile trip to US in September 2014, which included a speech to the diaspora at the Madison Square Gardens.

NSG policy came a cropper

As foreign secretary, Jaishankar was known for his muscular policy vis-à-vis China. He shaped India’s position on the Belt and Road Initiative, which had led to the boycott of the flagship BRI summit in Beijing. In return, China proved to be an immovable obstacle for India’s aspiration to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, even though Jaishankar was himself camped in Seoul for the plenary meeting in 2016.

Jaishankar’s desire to push for quick NSG membership was the first major foreign policy failure of the Modi government. Apart from not yielding the desired result, it was also seen by many analysts as counter-productive as it enabled China to establish a parity of sorts between India – whose unique status had been recognised by the multinational body after a gruelling process of negotiations which culminated in 2008 – and Pakistan, long-recognised as a nuclear scofflaw for its role in proliferating sensitive know-how to countries like North Korea and Libya via the A.Q. Khan network.

The ASEAN-India commemorative summit, with the presence of leaders of all 10 ASEAN leaders at the Republic Day parade in 2018, was a major highlight of Jaishankar’s tenure as foreign secretary. But there was also dissatisfaction over the handling of the Nepal ‘blockade’, which inevitably led to rehauling India’s Madhes policy and accelerated the latent desire in Nepal for stronger economic ties with China.

The Doklam stand-off in 2017 was probably one of Jaishankar’s toughest challenges. It ended after 73 days, with the help of to-and-fro running of his successor as foreign secretary and then Indian envoy to China Vijay Gokhale.

The shock over the intensity and length of the Doklam crisis also led to Wuhan, when Indian and Chinese leaders agreed to a reset in ties in an informal summit in May 2018. By that time, Jaishankar may have retired but he was not forgotten: He was among the list of Padma Shri awardees in January this year.

Immediate challenges

As external affairs minister, Jaishankar’s immediate challenge would certainly be to deal with the trade dispute with US, with Washington set to soon end preferential trade treatment for India.

Jaishankar will also have to balance India’s energy security needs and its relations with US over the issue of purchasing oil from sanctions-hit Iran.

With the second avatar of the India-China informal summit to be hosted by India in a few months, Jaishankar will have to maintain the current positive momentum in bilateral ties. Similarly, Moscow would also have to another important pillar, with Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin having invested considerable diplomatic capital in their relationship. The Indian PM is slated to be the chief guest at Eastern Economic summit in Vladivostok in September.

Jaishankar had been foreign secretary when Modi and Nawaz Sharif met on the side-lines of the 2017 SCO summit in Ufa. But the ill-fated joint statement was never implemented, with the NSA-level talks in Delhi cancelled over Sartaj Aziz’s proposed meeting with Hurriyat leaders.

After his first bilateral tour to Maldives and Sri Lanka, Modi will likely come face-to-face with Imran Khan at Bishkek next week. It remains to be seen if it will turn out to be Ufa redux.