The abrupt removal of Sujatha Singh as foreign secretary triggered a war of words on Thursday as the Congress asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to explain the “summary” decision while the BJP said the government was within its rights to choose bureaucrats for important posts.
Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the 60-year-old ambassador to the US, took charge as foreign secretary on Thursday after the government told his predecessor to step down six months before time.
“My priorities are the government's priorities ... This is a big responsibility. I would say that I am very honoured that I have been assigned this responsibility,” said the 1977-batch IFS officer after taking charge at the South Block office.
Jaishankar, a 1977-batch IFS officer, is credited with helping turn around the relationship with the US after ties fell over the Khobragade arrest. He is also considered the architect of the 2008 Indo-US nuclear deal and the man behind the recent breakthrough on its operationalisation.
Proficient in Russian and Mandarin, he was the Indian envoy to China prior to his American assignment.
But the Congress saw a pattern in Singh’s removal because the Modi government has given marching orders to several top officials — such as Special Protection Group chief K Durga Prasad and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) director general Avinash Chander — since it came to power in May last year.
“The sudden and summary removal of the senior-most woman foreign service official by the Modi government raises serious questions on its intent and the administrative mechanism it is following,” said Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala.
He said Prime Minister Modi and foreign minister Sushma Swaraj owed an explanation to the nation because the action came “without reason” after US President Barack Obama’s “supposedly successful” visit.
Party colleague Manish Tewari asked if the action was “late retribution for her stand on the Devyani Khobragade affair”.
During Singh's tenure under the previous administration, India and the US were embroiled in a diplomatic row over the arrest of Khobragade, the deputy consul general in New York, in December 2013 on visa fraud charges. Ties hit their lowest level in a decade.
BJP spokesperson Nalin Kohli said the government acted well within its right to decide on the appointment of officials and denied any political motive.
He said it was not an unprecedented action because Congress governments in the past have done similar things.
In 1987, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi fired AP Venkateswaran for announcing a visit to Pakistan apparently without approval.
Since he swept to power, Modi has virtually taken over the reins of foreign policy, beginning with an unprecedented invitation to regional leaders to attend his inauguration and followed by high-profile meetings with the leaders of the US, China, Japan and Australia.
Since then, Modi has moved rapidly to repair ties with Washington. He went on a state visit last September, building a relationship with Obama and then hosting him as the guest of honour at this week's Republic Day Parade, the first US President to do so.
Jaishankar as ambassador to the US, since December 2013, is credited with playing a key role during Modi's visit to the US and President Obama's just-concluded Republic Day tour.
The government had time until January 31 to appoint him as the next foreign secretary, a post that gives him two more years in service. Had it been a day late, he would have turned 60 and retired.
It was not clear if Singh, who turned 60 last July, was given the option to quit and make way for Jaishankar.
Singh became the third woman foreign secretary when the Congress-led UPA government appointed her in August 2013. She was due to retire this July-end.
Former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah welcomed Jaishankar’s appointment, calling it an “excellent” decision on Twitter.