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Fudge over a Foreign Secretary's Appointment

Updated on January 31, 2015

Outgoing Foreign Secretary addresses media on Modi-Obama meet

There has been a change of guard at the highest level in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs(MEA). A new Foreign Secretary (FS) has been inducted and the old one silently eased out. Dr.Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Ambassador at Washington, replaced Ms.Sujata Singh in a sudden development which came close on the heel of the US President's visit to India and caught practically everyone off guard. Even as Dr.Jaishankar's appointment to the high office was applauded and the man feted, the brusque ouster of Ms.Singh sent shockwaves down the ranks of the Foreign Office bureaucracy which had been lulled into a self-induced stupor of complacency, with the last such coup d'état having been staged as long ago as 1987 when a sanctimonious Rajiv Gandhi used his Prime Ministerial prerogative to sack the then Foreign Secretary A.P.Venkateswaran.

Silence over Decision

What added to the mystique was the absence of an official account of the run-up of events which led to the unceremonious ouster of Ms.Singh. There has, however, been no dearth of conjectures by foreign policy experts, journalists on the diplomatic beat and columnists of the calumny, spanning a wide spectrum of theories ranging from the sanitized and hence the most insipid, to a starchy platitude and the most specious. Here are some of the speculations and possible scenarios bandied about:

Dr. S Jaishankar, new Foreign Secretary
Dr. S Jaishankar, new Foreign Secretary

Right Man at the Right Place at the Right Time

Dr.Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, holder of a Ph.D on the spread of nuclear technology, was till recently India's Ambassador to the US and was in India in connection with the US President's visit. With a couple of days left before his retirement from the Foreign Service, he got a telephone call from the Prime Minister's Office, informing him of his new appointment. His elevation to the high office was not, however, an overnight development. His anointment as the next FS had been on the cards for some time.

PM Modi's Rock Star reception at Madison Square  Garden, NYC
PM Modi's Rock Star reception at Madison Square Garden, NYC

Successful Stint

A great deal of bonhomie and camaraderie was witnessed during PM Modi's one-to-one meeting and other interactions with President Obama. Notwithstanding the palpable personal bonding and chemistry between the two leaders, the lion's share of credit for the success of the visit was laid store by, Ambassador Jaishankar. He had been instrumental in selling the idea of a second visit to India by POTUS - Obama became the first to do so - despite the latter's busy schedule. Besides, the President's advisors, US State Department mandarins and the Secret Services honchos in charge of protecting the President, were all initially aghast at the very idea of the President undertaking a visit to play the chief guest of India's national day celebrations which involved his sitting in the open for two hours to witness a military parade. Their concerns had to be suitably addressed and the political, strategic and economic advantages likely to accrue to the US, highlighted, for allaying the apprehensions of the authorities and securing the concurrence of the President. Not a mean task for someone who had been barely a year old in Washington. Jaishankar, the new kid on the block, accomplished it.

Architect of Civil Nuclear Deal

Jaishankar dexterously played his role in the clinching of the India-US civil nuclear agreement right from the stage of negotiations to the removal of impediments in the successful operationalisation of the deal and earned the sobriquet of the architect of the agreement.

When Jaishankar had landed in Washington, he hit the ground running, amid the diplomatic imbroglio that had resulted from the sordid Devyani Kobragade domestic help episode. Notwithstanding the media hype and the pop patriotism and public outcry back home over the harsh and over-the-hill treatment meted out to the harried woman diplomat by the US legal and justice department authorities and accusations against Devyani that she had violated human rights norms flying thick and past, Jaishankar managed to turn the events around.

When PM Modi visited the US in September 2014 to address the UN General Assembly session, he was accorded a Rock Star treatment and reception by the Indian community in the US. Besides, he had a fruitful meeting with President Obama. When battles are won, the commanding officer gets the medals. Jaishankar had scored again.

Jaishankar has the distinction of having been the longest serving Indian Ambassador to China. During his visit to China when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Mr.Modi had seen Ambassador Jaishankar in action. Jaishankar's wealth of experience in carrying out skilful negotiations with the Chinese and the US leaders and diplomatic corps has won him approbation and accolades.

All of the above course of events had contributed to the making of Jaishankar the obvious choice to succeed Sujatha Singh. With his imminent retirement round the corner, he was considered for appointment either as FS or as Foreign Policy Advisor of the PM. Eventually, he was chosen for the post of FS.

Sujatha Singh with Sushma Swaraj
Sujatha Singh with Sushma Swaraj

Struggle of Sujatha Singh

Things were, however, not so good for Ms.Singh. Even as Mr Modi became the PM and plunged headlong into the reorientation of India's foreign policy by tweaking the priorities, Ms Singh found the going tough as per the new Prime Minister's scheme of things. But for the support she got from External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, she would have got the marching orders even at that early stage.

Awry Go the Events

Dark clouds loomed large over the horizon for Ms.Singh, with subsequent events going awry. For instance, despite the success of the PM's visit to Japan and the clinching of big ticket infrastructure projects with substantial Japanese investments and collaboration, announced with much fanfare to the accompaniment of keen enthusiasm and a slew of assurances regarding full cooperation for speedy implementation, by Mr.Modi to his Japanese counterpart, the Prime Minister was reported to be unhappy about the slow pace of follow up action by the Ministry of External Affairs.

In the declaration of the BRICS Summit held last year in Brazil, there was a critical reference to Israel much to the chagrin of Mr.Modi who considers Israel a priority partner. To make matters worse, India voted against Israel in the United Nations Human Rights Council. A peeved Mr.Modi chose to meet the Israeli PM in New York on the sideline of the UNGA session, as a damage control exercise.

An issue which caused much consternation and a personal affront for Mr.Modi pertained to a proposed visit to India by the Danish Prime Minister to attend the Vibrant Gujarat Summit. The visit did not materialize because MEA refused to budge from its stand that no high-level contact was allowed unless Denmark resolved the legal wrangle over issue of Kim Davy, despite the fact that Modi had a personal interest in the Danes.

Mr.Modi was also unable to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel during his stop over in Germany en route to Brazil to attend the BRICS Summit as she was off to Brazil to watch her country's soccer team play the finals of the FIFA World Cup.

Pulling the Punches

The shortcomings and inadequacies on the part of the Ministry of External Affairs with Ms.Sujatha Singh as the Foreign Secretary led to the sad conclusion that Ms.Singh pulled her punches which did not exactly make her position any the secure when Dr.Jaishankar breezed in like a breath of fresh air and cleared the trust deficit between the PM and the FS. The rest is history.

Criticism by the Congress

The opposition Congress party has taken potshots at the government over the manner in which it handled the issue of the new Foreign Secretary's appointment. Deriding the 'whimsical ways' of the government, it went on to state that Ms.Singh's ouster was by way of a late retribution over the Devyani episode.

Sujatha Singh's interview on her removal

Sujatha Singh Slams Decision

It was now the turn of Ms.Sujatha Singh to fret and fume. In-between bouts of a royal scowl and a queen size frown, she is on the look out for an honourable exit. She had earlier turned down an offer for the Constitutional post of a Member in the Union Public Service Commission. Although she stated with a straight face that she had sought voluntary retirement, a safe transit to a cushy foreign assignment from the uneasy-lies-the-head-which-wears-the-crown post of Foreign Secretary would not, after all, be too inconvenient an option!

The ironic upshot of the sorry spectacle of Ms.Sujatha Singh losing her top job in the hierarchy of Indian bureaucracy is that it came pat on the departure of President Obama who was all praise for the scaling of heights by the Indian woman. But, then, the spat over the new Foreign Secretary's appointment was a matter of alogether a different nature - neither fish nor fowl!

© 2015 Kalyanaraman Raman


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