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Jaishankar Effect, Extended; By Shastri Ramachandaran

, dated February 6, 2017

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C3S Article no: 0009/2017

Courtesy: DNA India

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi exercising his prerogative, murmurs in the MEA do not really matter. 

Anticipating Prime Minister Narendra Modi can be frustrating because of his penchant for springing surprises. Combined with his mastery of event management, where even the routine is often projected as extraordinary, Modi always manages ‘impact’. Even when there is no element of surprise, everyone sits up to take note. So it was when it came to the one-year extension granted to Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar at the end of his two-year term on January 28. It was a no-brainer that Jaishankar would get extension. In fact, it would have been surprising had Modi not given him the expected extension. Yet the ‘event’ of Jaishankar’s extension created a buzz and had South Block watchers trying to decode the connect and the chemistry between Modi and Jaishankar, and what it has done and can do to foreign policy.

The buzz diverted attention from the murmurs in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). It also sidelined the predictable debate in the aftermath of such appointments on whether it is merit or seniority that should prevail. To take the latter first, the debate is no longer relevant; and, neither does it bring any new perspective to an old issue that has been done to death. When it comes to India’s top diplomat — who, doubtless, is the Foreign Secretary (and not the External Affairs Minister) as the Prime Minister is his own Foreign Minister — it is the Prime Minister’s prerogative to have a person of his choice for as long as it is reasonably permissible. And, if the rules require to be changed for granting an extension, then that would be done. It is best to accept this as the new normal, particularly because there is every chance of Jaishankar being given yet another extension — up to January 2019 when the current one ends in 2018.

Coming to the murmurs in the MEA, any departure from the tried and tested seniority rule invariably stirs resentment as others in line feel ‘cheated’ of what they see as their rightful chance. Yet only one of those in line can be appointed Foreign Secretary. This time five officers — Secretary (West) Sujata Mehta and ambassadors Ranjit Rae (Nepal), Anil Wadhwa (Italy), Gurjit Singh (Germany) and Navtej Sarna (US) — would be retiring this year without a shot at the top diplomatic job. It is a moot point whether any of them were even in the reckoning as the perceived front-runner was Ambassador to China Vijay Gokhale; and, as of today, he is one among four from the 1981 batch, who may be considered in January 2018 in the unlikely event of Jaishankar not getting another extension.

It may be recalled that Shivshankar Menon, when appointed Foreign Secretary in 2006, superseded four batches and 16 officers, three of whom took voluntary retirement. The big question though is what made Modi retain Jaishankar. There are a number of reasons, and not all can be listed here. The most important is that, despite being the face and voice of Modi’s foreign policy and dealing directly with the Prime Minister, he walked a fine line in maintaining relations with both External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval; and, he never let his differences with Doval become public.

Jaishankar ideated, articulated and implemented Modi’s foreign policy, never at any time exposing what his own inputs were. He is, perhaps, the most powerful Foreign Secretary in recent decades. Nevertheless, he carries his power lightly and does not let slip any sign of his influence over the Prime Minister in making policy. This saved him from becoming a flak-taker or scapegoat at any time, including when he ventured forth on high-risk missions in the neighbourhood. Be it China’s rebuff in Seoul (and, President Xi Jinping’s to Modi in Tashkent) on India’s bid for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, Kathmandu refusing to respect Jaishankar’s mission to defer promulgation of Nepal’s constitution, or Modi’s policy of Neigbours First coming unstuck — these are risks that Modi mandated Jaishankar to take. Therefore, it is inferred, the responsibility for the outcome is the Prime Minister’s and not Jaishankar’s. In the event, it is Jaishankar being held blameless and given credit for taking the risks the Prime Minister’s policy entailed that has earned him the deserved extension.

(The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator based in New Delhi. The views expressed are his own.)

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