Prime Minister Narendra Modi and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj are not known to be personally close. Modi scuttled anticipation of a chasm by handing the high-profile MEA portfolio to Swaraj — who was a genuine contender for the PM’s post owing to her credentials as a Supreme Court lawyer, a seven-time MP, and a brilliant orator who shone as Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha.
It remains to be seen how this relationship evolves and what it means for Indian foreign policy. The PMO has traditionally led on foreign affairs, relying on advisers often at the expense of the MEA. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had Brajesh Mishra as his foreign policy czar, while Manmohan Singh relied on national security advisers JN Dixit and Shivshankar Menon to implement policy priorities.
Modi is clearly interested in foreign affairs — setting out on visits to Bhutan, Japan, Brazil, the United States, Myanmar and Australia in the coming months — and will be keen on emerging as a figure of global significance in line with his ambitions for India.
It is not clear what resources he will draw on to catch up on world affairs. Plans to draft in S Jaishankar, India’s envoy in Washington, as foreign policy adviser in the PMO have been reportedly shelved for the moment.
Placing Jaishankar, a highly-rated diplomat, at the PMO will generate its own dynamics vis-à-vis the MEA. Equally, not having an even-handed figure like him also poses risks for Swaraj, especially if Modi-appoints hardliners at the PMO to advise him on foreign policy — as they can potentially take policy in a direction that the MEA is uncomfortable with. Swaraj’s isolation could be palpable if Modi does end up dealing directly with bureaucrats at ministries as intended.
Tripartite arrangements among the PM, his advisers and the MEA work if there is not only a clear demarcation of responsibility but also a measure of rapport between the PM and the minister. We may never know how the power equation was expressed between the two at the time of Cabinet formation.
Did Modi, in a victorious haze, deign to give Swaraj MEA, with the vibe that was as good as it gets for the vanquished? Or does Swaraj come into the government assured that she bargained for a senior Cabinet slot and sensing that Modi could not have dropped her without embarrassing himself?
The future may provide hints of their power balance. Swaraj is a rare political heavyweight at the MEA, in the league of Pranab Mukherjee. She will want a measure of policy autonomy consistent with her stature and may, in time, find it tough to acquiesce with a PMO that holds all the policy aces.
Such a situation can be personally degrading, make bureaucrats pick sides and confuse foreign interlocutors. The PM will be aware that a big mandate is no solvent of egos. He could, reassured by current dominance, move things along by pointedly reaffirming that Swaraj enjoys his confidence.
Playing fair arbiter in turf battles between the MEA, Home and Commerce is potentially an area to signal this, particularly since Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman have had differences, trading sharp tweets once on the campaign trail.
A measure of visible contact can also help to signal that there aren’t any cracks to exploit. Comparisons have been made between Swaraj and Hillary Clinton, both contenders for the top job who settled for the foreign affairs portfolio.
Clinton was stronger when she took over at State in 2009 than Swaraj is now, because she secured 18 million votes in the primaries besides the backing of powerful Clintonites in the Democratic Party (which Swaraj comparably lacks).
Obama, perhaps not unlike Modi, chose to bring an opponent into the Cabinet while building his ‘team of rivals’. Clinton reveals in a new memoir that in her first meeting with Obama after the 2008 election, they “stared at each other like two teenagers on an awkward first date”.
One way for them to move on from the past was to institute weekly meetings at the White House. We don’t know what the working protocols at South Block are yet, but many hope Modi and Swaraj have started on a clean slate.