The success of President Barack Obama’s visit may have sealed ambassador S Jaishankar’s move to Delhi as the next foreign secretary , but the die was cast last September. And in more ways than one.
For one, he was largely, and directly, credited for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s four-day US trip — a rockstar stay in New York, and friendship with Obama in DC.
And, two, he would benefit indirectly from a perceived failure of others in charge of the messaging around the trip. It made him look best suited for the job of Modi’s top diplomat.
“The messaging was somewhat flawed,” said a source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It fell flat on many, and crucial, occasions.” And that irked the Prime Minister.
The most glaring of them was the news briefing following the all-important summit-level meet at the White House — the briefers came up awfully short.
There was no mention of the South China Sea para in the joint statement, for instance, as briefers peddled crowd-pleasing lines on Pakistan-terrorist havens and others.
That India and US had sought peaceful resolution of South China Sea disputes, which would dominate the narrative about the talks in coming days, was completely omitted. And that was not for lack of interest from reporters.
Take a look at this excerpt from the transcript of the briefing from the archives of the ministry of external affairs.
Q: “Could you tell us a little about the defence framework agreement; how forward-looking it is; and what are the new things that are likely to be there; and if there was any discussion on China?”
Official spokesperson: “You choose the first question and answer it.”
Joint secretary (Americas): “Since the defence framework agreement is under negotiation I cannot give you the details. But there is a commitment to extend it for another ten years and at least building upon that existing framework, going beyond.”
That’s it. Nothing more was heard on China after that. China wa s big deal then, even if it figured as a paragraph, growing into a separate, stand-alone communiqué in Obama’s India visit
The delegation was by then aware of the messaging problem and, to their credit, had attempted to fix it by deploying heavy-hitters such as Jaishankar, then Indian ambassador to US.
But the Prime Minister was also keen to have the ambassador by his side for the rest for the following fixtures, which included a formal lunch hosted by vice-president Joe Biden.
So joint secretary Americas Vikram Doraiswami was deputed to help with the briefing. But he read out the joint statement as a laundry list of everything discussed and agreed to.
“They should've identified the high points and hit them early and emphatically — which should have included South China Sea and Pakistan-based terrorism,” said a source.
This time around, for Obama’s visit, Indians were prepared, and fielded Jaishankar and disarmament joint secretary Amandeep Singh Gill, with the foreign secretary and others.