The NDA government has amended the rules to extend foreign secretary S Jaishankar’s tenure by a year, preventing officers from two batches of the Indian Foreign Service – 1979 and 1980 – from being considered for the top post.
This has also brought to the fore a perennial question on selecting the top diplomat: Should one go by the candidates’ seniority or their qualifications? The choice of foreign secretary has always been a political call.
Jaishankar, a 1977-batch officer, didn’t supersede anybody to bag the top job. However, the unexpected extension of his tenure will turn choosing his successor into a complex process, and crush the dreams of many officers who had been hoping to bag the plum post on the basis of seniority and key postings.
A clutch of officers who were likely to be considered for the post will retire this year. They are secretary (west) Sujata Mehta and the Indian ambassadors to Nepal (Ranjit Rae), Italy (Anil Wadhaw) and Germany (Gurjit Singh). Indian ambassador to the US Navtaj Sarna, a 1980-batch officer, will also retire in December this year.
So, technically, only four officers from the 1981 batch – including Indian ambassador to China Vijay Gokhale – can be considered for the post when Jaishankar retires in January 2018. If he gets another extension, these calculations will go awry too.
The service rules stipulated a two-year fixed term for foreign, defence and home secretaries, besides the CBI director. However, they have now been amended to include that “the central government may – if deemed necessary for public interest – give an extension in service for a further period not exceeding one year… to the foreign secretary.”
The last three foreign secretaries – Sujatha Singh, Ranjan Mathai and Nirupama Rao – were appointed on the basis of seniority. However, the principle was overturned while appointing both Shivshankar Menon and Shyam Saran to the post.
Menon’s appointment in 2006 sent tremors through the ministry of external affairs, given that he had superseded four batches and 16 officers to bag the post. Three such officers – very senior diplomats –opted for voluntary retirement.
The then government had also toyed with the idea of granting an extension to foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. However, it later decided against taking such a step and appointed Bhupatray Shashank in his place in November 2003.
When the time came for Shashank to retire after eight months, the Vajpayee government again considered extending his tenure before bringing in Shyam Saran as the new foreign secretary.