PMO-MEA relationship set to be realigned after years

  • Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 31, 2015 02:22 IST

As the controversy about S Jaishankar's appointment as foreign secretary dissipates, the Indian Foreign Service is looking forward to a realignment of the equation between the prime minister's office and the ministry of external affairs - with the latter reoccupying its space as the rightful custodian of foreign affairs.

Multiple officials and Indian diplomats HT spoke to felt that while the PMO would continue to have a strong voice on foreign policy, especially with an assertive PM like Narendra Modi, the fact that Jaishankar is trusted by the PM will mean greater autonomy for MEA after years.

A serving ambassador said, "Even under the UPA, the PMO - especially the National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon - was calling the shots. Many believed that it was a deliberate decision to have relatively weaker foreign secretaries so that this control would not weaken." The outcome was that ambassadors were almost directly reporting to the NSA on key matters, with cables copied to the FS, be it Ranjan Mathai or Nirupama Rao - but these officials had little policy-making role on key issues.

This pattern continued after May 2014. The NSA himself did not get too involved in the management of the ministry. But foreign secretary Sujatha Singh did not have the PM's confidence. And even external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj was not able to assert her authority, playing a secondary role to the PM.

So, the PM depended on Joint Secretary in the PMO from MEA, Jawed Ashraf, who provided key policy inputs and drafted most of the PM's big foreign policy speeches. For bilateral visits, the Joint Secretary in charge of the desk or the Ambassador concerned was consulted directly by the PMO, with the FS playing a very limited role.

Another senior official said, "The PM has shown great confidence in appointing a strong, perhaps the most outstanding officer of our generation, as FS now." He predicted that Jaishankar will be given a strong hand.

Jaishankar's views on key personnel appointments, the approach towards any emerging crisis, and overall direction of foreign policy will be critical, most officials felt.

This, another source said, is good for the morale of IFS officers as well as the ministry. "Singh spoke about institutional strength in her parting letter to us. Ironically, her exit has paved the way for the institution to regain its strength."

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