As US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman presses all the buttons to underline the special relationship with India and is followed this week by Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen attempting to do exactly the same, two seemingly unrelated questions are knocking against the shadows, behind the scenes.
The first question is: Who is going to be the next foreign secretary of India? The incumbent, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, will retire mid-2022 and names of possible successors are already doing the rounds.
The second question is: Who is Delhi’s most powerful foreign diplomat?
The next foreign secretary
The answer to the second is linked to India’s foreign policy priorities – the neighbourhood, US, France, Russia and the UK. There is the Quad coalition, which includes Australia and Japan. Certainly, China is in the doghouse since the incursions in Ladakh and the earlier face-off on Bhutan’s Doklam plateau in 2017.
But the US doesn’t have an ambassador yet and it’s not known when President Joe Biden’s pick, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, will find his way to New Delhi because of the bottleneck of appointments in the US Congress, which means he’s in indefinite “confirmation purgatory.”
That’s why the answer to the second question is linked to the first. Since the US remains India’s most influential tie, it follows that India’s ambassador to the US is always in the cynosure of Delhi’s eye. The current incumbent, Taranjit Sandhu, also a former high commissioner to Sri Lanka – which is slowly gravitating towards China – is an experienced hand. He has handled several VVIP visits with aplomb, the latest by PM Narendra Modi less than a fortnight ago, when he visited Washington DC to participate in the first Quad summit meeting as well as interact with Joe Biden.
Sandhu’s main competitor for the top job in South Block is said to be Vinay Kwatra, India’s ambassador to Nepal and a former ambassador to France.
Kwatra’s advantage is that he once translated, from English to Hindi and vice-versa, for Prime Minister Modi. He has also served in the PMO. Remember that the Nepal relationship is being deftly supervised by NSA Ajit Doval’s office, because of its sensitive and complicated nature.
Now Wendy Sherman’s visit, a follow-up of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip in late July, is intended to look at steps to reassure India that despite the manner in which the US abandoned Afghanistan – leaving Pakistan to feast on the spoils – it will support India’s democratic rise in the region.
But Sherman’s visit will be dogged by the Marc Rubio echo. At a US Congressional hearing on Afghanistan in mid-September, Rubio tore into the Biden administration.
“They (the Indians) have to be looking at this (US withdrawal) and saying if the US could have, you know, a third-rate power like Pakistan unravel its aims, what chance do they have of confronting China? So I think this leaves us in a terrible situation,” Rubio said.
India certainly adapted itself closely to US policy on Afghanistan, including supporting Ashraf Ghani in power, and watching as both Donald Trump and Biden sought Pakistan’s leverage with the Taliban. Sherman is visiting Pakistan after her Delhi-Mumbai leg, like other senior US officials have recently done, to reassert America’s interest in the region, despite the debacle of the withdrawal.
The powerful foreign diplomat
The answer to the “most foreign powerful diplomat” question is linked to the Danish PM’s visit later this week, with Denmark’s ambassador to India Freddy Svane successfully delinking the “Kim Davy affair” — when the Danish national air-dropped arms in West Bengal’s Purulia in 1995, leading India to demand his extradition in 2010, which was turned down by Denmark — with the rest of the relationship.
Frederiksen will spend the weekend in Delhi and Agra, the first head of government to visit India since the pandemic – soon after external affairs minister S. Jaishankar travelled to Copenhagen – promoting a “green partnership” that comes mere weeks before Modi will likely travel to Glasgow to participate in the COP26 climate change summit.
India’s signing the 2016 Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol in August means that India is finally agreeing to take on commitments to reduce greenhouse gases – even though it will get a few more years to reduce 80 per cent use of hydrofluorocarbons (by 2047), compared to China (by 2045) and the US, two of the world’s largest polluters.
Significantly, Modi’s government has found a way not to appear recalcitrant in front of the world community, even as it protects India’s interests — arguing that “development” and “progress” are directly proportional to expending energy and therefore, the release of pollutants.
Modi realised that climate change was a big part of the Biden administration’s agenda and that if he and India needed to stay relevant to the international conversation, then New Delhi would have to become less rigid and at least appear to seek a compromise.
This motif – compromise on international climate change demands, but protect national interest — is likely to underpin the talks between Modi and Frederiksen later this weekend. Denmark will likely crow that a tiny country has been able to get Modi around – and a large part of that credit must devolve to its ambassador in Delhi, Freddy Svane.
Svane is no ordinary European. As ambassador to India between 2010-2015, he realised that then chief minister of Gujarat, Modi, was no ordinary politician. So when the Danish company Roxul Rockwool Insulation decided to set up a plant at the Dahej special economic zone in May 2011, Svane saw the opportunity and landed up. Of course, he met Modi; and was enveloped in the famous Modi hug that was soon to become the CM-PM’s insignia.
Significantly, Svane became the first European diplomat to recommend his country break the European Union – and the US – ban that practically treated Modi as persona non grata, for his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. He continued to work closely with Modi’s closest bureaucrats in Gujarat, including Bharat Lal – now in charge of the government’s flagship “Nal Se Jal” project – to persuade the EU to come around.
Svane never looked back; he was sent to India as ambassador a couple of years ago again. He has ensured with the Frederiksen visit that both countries have moved on from the “Kim Davy” affair –– it will now be treated on a separate track from the rest of the relationship. Svane is proof that small countries can punch above their weight if they are on the right side of the government.
No prizes, therefore, for guessing the answer to the second question: Who is Delhi’s most powerful foreign diplomat?
This article previously described Wendy Sherman as US Secretary of State. We have corrected it to Deputy Secretary of State. The error is regretted.
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.