New Delhi: A big chunk of the job of a foreign minister — or as India calls it, external affairs minister (EAM) — takes place overseas. Under normal circumstances, one can expect an EAM to travel abroad multiple times a year, interact with dignitaries in their own countries or at multilateral events on foreign shores, and further India’s interests.
Except that the last 18 months have been anything but ‘normal circumstances’. Since March 2020, the world has been gripped by the Covid-19 pandemic, and foreign travel has become highly restricted. But even the pandemic and travelling restrictions haven’t slowed down current External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.
Since the start of 2020, in 21 months, Jaishankar has visited 27 countries — only four of which were before India went into a strict lockdown in March 2020. Once that lockdown got over, in August last year, Jaishankar has been jet-setting across the globe again, even as newer variants of the coronavirus have continued to cause scares.
Diplomatic experts say face-to-face meetings are necessary for negotiations and signalling the importance of bilateral relationships. Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal told ThePrint: “A visit by a foreign minister has political significance in particular contexts, especially in a period of tensions or discussing pressing issues on which progress is desirable… Often such visits are in preparation for a visit by a head of state or government.”
Sibal said travelling to 27 countries in 21 months was not a lot. “We have had foreign ministers in the past who were distracted by domestic political preoccupations and had local constituencies to take care of,” he said.
Retired diplomat Vijay K. Nambiar called Jaishankar’s travel numbers “creditable”, but added that it was “borderline hazardous” in times of Covid. He added: “Trust between dignitaries stems from personal presence and chemistry. I think India may have placed extraordinary emphasis on this and politicians have gone to the extent of thinking that a high-level meeting will do more than concerted efforts at the official level would yield.”
Speaking of hazardous, Jaishankar arrived in the UK to attend the G7 Summit in May, after which two positive Covid cases were found in the Indian delegation. The foreign minister self-isolated and attended the meeting virtually, while still in London.
A former ambassador who did not wish to be identified said while the necessity of certain trips appears obvious in the face of the Ladakh crisis and the situation in Afghanistan, question-marks hang over Jaishankar’s visits to smaller countries like Georgia and Seychelles. The ambassador said there was speculation that Jaishankar travelled to Georgia — known to have a “difficult” situation with Russia — in the same way that Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov made a stopover in Pakistan after visiting India in April this year.
ThePrint traces Jaishankar’s flight path since the beginning of last year.
A week before India confirms its first case of Covid-19, Jaishankar travels to Niger where he inaugurates the Mahatma Gandhi International Convention Centre in Niamey. He calls his two-day trip, from 20-21 January, the “first-ever visit by an Indian foreign minister to the country”.
Jaishankar attends the Munich Security Conference, a week before former President Donald Trump’s maiden visit to India. He takes a jibe at Pakistan while discussing the Kashmir issue with an American senator.
The EAM lands in Belgium on 17 February for talks with European Union leaders, on his first visit to the EU headquarters. This comes amid concerns in the European Parliament about India’s controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Two days later, the WHO begins weekly member state briefings on Covid-19.
India goes into a nationwide lockdown on the night of 24 March, which is relaxed only in June. During this period, Jaishankar attends several key conferences virtually, like the annual BRICS summit in April and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) foreign ministers’ meet in May.
He also virtually attends the G20 meet and an informal SAARC meet in September 2020.
Before heading to Moscow for another SCO foreign ministers’ meet, Jaishankar makes a stopover in Tehran. Reports say this is so that India can ensure the Chabahar project doesn’t see any Chinese involvement.
On his maiden visit to Bahrain, Jaishankar thanks the country for taking “special care” of its Indian diaspora during the pandemic. He also interacts virtually with the Indian community there.
Jaishankar discusses advancement of strategic cooperation between India and the UAE in the post-Covid era with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
In the last leg of his three-nation tour, Jaishankar arrives in the Indian Ocean island nation of Seychelles and congratulates Indian-origin President Wavel Ramkalawan on his electoral victory. India vows to enhance bilateral ties with Seychelles in the post-Covid era.
On his first visit to Qatar, Jaishankar meets foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani. They discuss enhancing bilateral ties in areas of energy, trade, healthcare, defence and security.
While meeting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Jaishankar says India will give priority to Sri Lanka when supplying Covid-19 vaccines to other countries. They also discuss a proposed deal regarding Colombo port’s eastern container terminal. Trade unions of Rajapaksa’s own party vehemently oppose the deal.
After Maldives, Jaishankar visits another key maritime neighbour. While holding talks with Mauritius PM Pravind Jugnauth and foreign minister M. Alan Ganoo, he says India will be a ready partner in the island nation’s economic recovery.
Jaishankar visits Dhaka to lay the ground for PM Modi’s visit to the country ahead of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the liberation of Bangladesh, a month before the second Covid wave hits India. He meets Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina and foreign minister A.K. Abdul Momen, and reassures Dhaka on the Teesta water issue.
Jaishankar attends the Heart of Asia Conference from 29 March to 1 April to discuss the Afghanistan peace process.
Covid-19 cases surge as a deadly second wave sweeps over India. Speaking at a virtual session of the Raisina Dialogue in mid-April, Jaishankar stresses that the Quad is not an “Asian NATO”.
Jaishankar arrives in Abu Dhabi in late April, around the same time as his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi. The UAE seeks to play mediator amid tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad.
Jaishankar arrives in London to attend the G7 Foreign and Development Ministers Meeting, with India invited as a guest. Due to possible Covid exposure, however, he attends virtually. A month prior, UK Boris Johnson cancelled a planned visit to India as the second wave hit the country.
In late May, Jaishankar embarks on his first in-person visit to the US since the Joe Biden administration took over. The Quad, Covid vaccines and the Indo-Pacific are key points on the agenda.
On 10 June, Jaishankar arrives in Kuwait to strengthen ties in sectors like energy, trade, IT, investment and labour. He reportedly hands over a personal letter from PM Modi to the Emir, Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah.
Jaishankar and his counterpart Raychelle Omamo express the desire to expand bilateral cooperation and discuss the security situation in the Indo-Pacific region.
On his second Qatar visit within a week, Jaishankar meets his counterpart Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, who also serves as the Deputy Prime Minister.
In a diplomatic surprise, Jaishankar meets President-elect Ebrahim Raisi for the first time since the regime change in the country. He hands over a letter of congratulations from PM Modi.
Jaishankar meets his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov and discusses bilateral cooperation on space, nuclear, energy and defence sectors as well as global and regional issues like Afghanistan, Iran and Syria.
Jaishankar hands over a relic belonging to the Saint Queen Ketevan, a royal from the 17th century, to the Georgian government, during his two-day trip to the country.
From 13-14 July, Jaishankar attends meetings of the foreign ministers of the SCO and the SCO Contact Group on Afghanistan in Dushanbe.
On the SCO sidelines, Jaishankar meets then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, for the first time since the US announced withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.
Jaishankar attends the swearing-in ceremony of Iran’s new President Ebrahim Raisi.
Jaishankar arrives in New York to chair two high-level UN meetings under India’s current Security Council presidency. The situation in Afghanistan is discussed.
Jaishankar meets Slovenia PM Janez Jansa. They discuss enhancing bilateral ties as well as issues like Europe’s challenges, the Indo-Pacific and the Afghanistan situation. Slovenia currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU from July to December.
At a joint press conference with Croatian counterpart Gordan Grlic-Radman, Jaishankar says the two countries share common positions on the Indo-Pacific, the Afghanistan situation and issues like terrorism.
During his trip to Denmark, where he meets PM Mette Frederiksen, Jaishankar notes that the country can be helpful to India in the field of green strategic partnership.
Ahead of the SCO Summit, Jaishankar meets Tajikistan’s top leadership and discusses the situation in Afghanistan and its impact on regional security.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)
Also read: ‘A crowd is a crowd, is a crowd’ — Jaishankar mounts spirited defence of govt’s Covid management