India's New Foreign Secretary Has Inherited a Structural Imbalance He Needs to Fix

It is up to Vijay Gokhale, who succeeds Jaishankar, to go back to tradition and impart stability to the external affairs ministry by pushing for formal structures.

India’s outgoing foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar (left), and his successor, Vijay keshav Gokhale (right). Credit: PTI

Diplomat S. Jaishankar – who retired on January 28 after a term extended to three years – was India’s longest serving foreign secretary in almost four decades. He has been succeeded by Vijay Keshav Gokhale.

He has enjoyed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trust and a good working relationship with external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and other sections of the political leadership. Had it been otherwise, he would not have been given a year’s extension after his normal two-year term came to an end.

As Jaishankar leaves South Block, it is a good time to reflect on the working of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) that made an impact on the formulation and conduct of foreign policy.

The working of MEA’s diplomatic leadership has witnessed significant changes in the past three years. The role of the foreign secretary has been vastly elevated. From traditionally being a ‘first among equals’, he became a ‘first without equals’. 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.

The foreign secretary personally handled all of Modi’s external engagements. These included countries and issues directly within the allotted work of another secretary. Not only was the foreign secretary present in Modi’s meetings with foreign leaders, he sometimes travelled to these countries in advance to prepare for the visits. The signals that went out to these countries and the international diplomatic community were obvious: on issues that India considered important, Jaishankar was the only diplomat of any consequence.

While the foreign secretary virtually became the foreign policy advisor to the prime minister, the two roles are not entirely compatible. The former should discharge an independent and politically neutral professional function. His term should not be dependent, in the normal course, on a change in political leadership. The latter performs a professional function, too, but becomes politically associated with the prime minister; hence, he must give up his job when a new prime minister assumes office. The proper location for a foreign policy advisor is in the prime minister’s office, not the MEA.

The MEA usually has three or four secretaries, including the foreign secretary. They are expected to work in a collegial manner with the foreign secretary. As India’s global status rises and its global engagements enlarge, there is a greater need to rely on collegial functioning and focus on a more stable allotment of work. For this purpose, there is a need to make all the secretaries heads of departments, with their work clearly defined in the government’s business rules in order to maintain stability.

Along with this, the MEA committee of secretaries should become a formal body with a small secretariat. The manner in which the MEA has functioned over the past three years has made the need for formal structures for the secretaries and their committee more urgent and imperative.

Sushma Swaraj has contributed to foreign policy-making without drawing attention to her efforts. Credit: PTI

Some may argue that bureaucratic structures must adapt to the prime minister’s persona and reflect his working methods. And that the focus should be on positive outcomes and not on processes. Modi’s many foreign policy successes show that the MEA professional team has delivered. Why should there be a comment leave alone an evaluation, then, on its professional structures?

There is a reason for this which I will explain.

Sushma Swaraj is a wise, articulate and experienced minister. She has contributed to foreign policy-making without drawing attention to her efforts. Some believe that she has confined her work to the concerns of Indian communities abroad and to visa issues. Perhaps she should have regular media interactions to articulate India’s positions on global issues and bilateral relationships as that too is the traditional role of a minister.

Prime Minister Modi’s active foreign policy has made a good impact across the world and has raised India’s profile. The presence of leaders of all the 10 ASEAN countries is the latest manifestation of good and imaginative foreign policy management. Earlier, the victory in the United Nations General Assembly against Britain for a seat in the International Court of Justice was pathbreaking. It was a collective effort where finally India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Syed Akbaruddin, held his nerve, advised against compromise, and carried the day. These are only two instances of successes; there are more.

However, some critical relationships have seen a less then desired result, for instance, Nepal. The Pakistan policy went through a series of twists. The concessions made in 2015 after the Ufa Joint Statement were simply wrong, but the manner in which some SAARC countries were mobilised in 2016 to postpone the Islamabad summit was an achievement. Even now the Pakistan policy does not have sufficient clarity. The record with China has been patchy. If the Doklam situation was dealt with very well, the Nuclear Suppliers Group matter was not. Naturally, India-Russia ties cannot be what they were during the Cold War, but Russia will remain important to India. At a time when Russia is actively seeking to make changes in its policies in India’s western neighbourhood, India will have to give it substantial attention.

All these relationships fall directly within the foreign secretary’s allotted work. The question is: did his involvement in directly handling the work as the prime minister’s virtual foreign policy advisor leave him enough time to pay sufficient attention to his direct MEA responsibilities?

It is certainly difficult for a foreign secretary to tell a prime minister that some work that he wants him to handle comes within the purview of another secretary. It is open to the foreign secretary to ask the prime minister or the external affairs minister to change a secretary if they are dissatisfied with his work. However, for the effective discharge of work, this is the approach that he must take. For, it is the primary role of the administrative head of a service or an institution to nurture it for the effective discharge of the responsibilities that may come in the future even as it handles the present.

Institutions are greater than individuals and ultimately, nations become great when great leaders build great institutions that continue to function, dynamically and with strength, after they are long gone.

Vijay Gokhale, who succeeds Jaishankar, is a diplomat of proven abilities. It is up to him now to consider if he wishes to go back to tradition and make the policy process more vigorous by imparting it stability through pushing for formal structures. It will not be easy for him. But it may be worthwhile, for it will leave an enduring legacy.

Vivek Katju is a retired Indian Foreign Service officer who has served as Indian ambassador to Afghanistan and Myanmar.