Former foreign secretary Sujatha Singh took early retirement from service on Thursday as speculation swirled that she was removed from the country’s top diplomatic job because Prime Minister Narendra Modi was unhappy with her efforts to boost India’s global standing.
Singh, who was replaced late on Wednesday six months before her two-year tenure was to end, sent a farewell email to former colleagues in which she stressed the 'institutional strength” of the ministry of external affairs (MEA) and the importance of institutions over individuals.
India’s ambassador to the United States, S Jaishankar – who is credited with helping Modi turn around the relationship with the US after ties fell over the Devyani Khobragade arrest -- was appointed the new foreign secretary days before he was due to retire on January 31.
“It can never be about individuals. It has to be about institutions and how institutions interface and coordinate with each other," she said in the email, which diplomatic circles saw as a veiled reference to the relations between the PMO and MEA, where the former is understood to exercise dominance.
Singh said she had been privileged to serve the IFS for 38 years, a service she considered the best in terms of professionalism and competence. "What we do possess in the Ministry of External Affairs are great institutional strengths," she wrote.
She said this strength had enabled the MEA “to prepare, to organise, to deliver and to follow up, on what has perhaps been the most charged, and indeed the most successful, calendar of any new government's post election foreign engagements”.
Official sources said Singh should have read the writing on the wall earlier. South Block was abuzz on Thursday with speculation over why Singh fell out of favour. They said it began early on in her tenure as foreign secretary, as the prime minister was aware of the circumstances of her appointment. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh wanted to appoint S Jaishankar as foreign secretary but the party is understood to have intervened in favour of Singh, whose father is former IB chief T V Rajeshwar, considered close to the Gandhi family.
Sources also said the prime minister was not happy at the quality of advice from the foreign secretary. He found her lacking in her grasp of economic diplomacy. The PMO was reportedly unhappy about the lack of follow-up after Modi's successful engagement with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe.
"There wasn't any specific instance. It had been building up and she had become increasingly irrelevant. Everyone knew the PMO was calling the shots," said a diplomat.
Responding to a controversy about whether the external affairs minister knew about the decision to “curtail” Singh's term, Sushma Swaraj tweeted, “I was very much a part of the decision to appoint Dr Jaishankar as the foreign secretary.” She said she spoke to Singh personally and told her the government wanted to appoint S Jaishankar, and had to issue the orders of appointment before January 31 when he was due to retire.