New Delhi: The big surprise in the second Narendra Modi government sworn in Thursday evening is former foreign secretary Subramaniam Jaishankar, who retired from the Indian Foreign Service only last year to join Tata Trusts, and is now back in the corridors of power.
The astonishing return of Jaishankar is credited to his proximity to Prime Minister Modi, whom he nurtured and hand-held through the early days of his reign in Delhi. The PM was relatively new to the cut-and-thrust of international diplomacy, and Jaishankar guided him around the ropes.
He got a full three years to gain the PM’s trust, and become Modi’s eyes and ears in his dealings with the outside world.
Six months after Modi marched into Delhi, Jaishankar was chosen as foreign secretary in January 2015. His predecessor Sujata Singh was summarily asked to go, the move dividing the small Foreign Office down the middle. There was no looking back.
A long partnership
The importance of Jaishankar was clear right from the start. He had known Modi, the former Gujarat CM, when he was India’s ambassador to China and Modi would annually visit to attend the Chinese edition of the World Economic Forum.
But when Modi became PM, Jaishankar was India’s ambassador to the US. On Modi’s first trip to the US in 2014, it was Jaishankar and his deputy, Taranjit Sandhu (now India’s high commissioner to Sri Lanka, and currently accompanying Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena for Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in Delhi), who managed every small detail — from the crowds at Modi’s coming-out speech at Madison Square Garden in New York, to his meetings with various world leaders.
As foreign secretary, the PM began to trust Jaishankar to such an extent that external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj was often cut out of policy-making decisions and reduced to managing the travails of the NRI community or Indians in dire straits abroad on Twitter.
But not for one moment did Swaraj let her guard down or show that she was upset at the change in the power structure. She soon became the best-loved face of the Modi government, whether it was to smoothen out complicated visa or passport issues, including for inter-faith couples, or someone simply stuck in no-man’s land.
While Swaraj managed her political downgrading with the utmost dignity, Jaishankar’s star was looking up. Certainly, he is considered to be among the best and brightest in the foreign service, and he used his talents well.
Jaishankar’s inclusion ably rebuts the common accusation that team Modi has little recognisable talent.
Jaishankar speaks Russian fluently — he picked to specialise in it when he joined the IFS. He was closely involved in the negotiations of the India-US nuclear deal right from the start, 2005, when former prime minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress put several new and important touches on India’s deep-seated desire for international recognition as a major power. Jaishankar, as a middle-ranking joint secretary (in charge of the Americas division), helped make that happen.
When the Doklam crisis took place in July 2017 and Indian and Chinese troops were eyeball-to-eyeball in Bhutan, Jaishankar worked the back-channels in the US and in China (along with current foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale, then India’s ambassador to China) to broker an agreement to de-escalate.
What his inclusion means
Jaishankar’s presence in the Modi government today means two things: Whatever portfolio he holds, he will have a direct line to the prime minister. Whether or not he has another minister above him will hardly matter. The PM trusts Jaishankar and that trust will hold.
Second, Jaishankar will also moderate the immense power that National Security Advisor Ajit Doval has held these last five years. Doval, a former Intelligence Bureau chief, has been extremely influential in the first Modi government, whether it is regarding Modi’s foreign policy with Pakistan, China, Russia or the US.
As foreign secretary, Jaishankar often played along, especially on Modi’s tough anti-Pakistan line. He realised that this was the RSS’ and also the prime minister’s primary understanding of the nation next door. Pakistan was a favourite bête noire even if China was India’s primary challenge in more ways than one.
In his new role, Jaishankar will have the PM’s eyes and ears, along with Doval or whoever is the next NSA. This suits the PM perfectly, as he would want a second person to advise him about the right course of action.
Jaishankar was strongly rumoured to replace Doval when he retired from the foreign service last year, but he picked the Tata Trusts. A second chance to serve could not be ignored — not when the prime minister called and not when you realised you could have another opportunity to remake foreign policy.
This article has been updated to correct Taranjit Sandhu’s name.
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