Mr Indispensable: Why S Jaishankar got another year as foreign secretary
Broad ideological convergence, a risk-taking appetite, and smooth operational relationships make Jaishankar Modi’s favourite diplomat
As S Jaishankar gets ready for another year as the foreign secretary, it is time to understand what makes him so indispensable to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
He was brought in two years ago under unusual circumstances, a day before his retirement and after the dismissal of then foreign secretary Sujatha Singh.
This is not to say that Modi and his foreign secretary have always been right. There is adequate room to critique them on the shift towards US, on the escalating tensions with China, on the seeming contradictions with Pakistan, on the timing and sequence of policy moves towards neighbours like Nepal.
But also, this is not about the merits of the policy. It is about the fact that a Prime Minister has found a foreign secretary in tune with his vision and worldview, and his risk-taking appetite.
While foreign policy is dynamic, if one was to distill the FS’ first principles, based on his policy approach of the past two years, it would include the following elements.
For one, greater confidence in dealing with bigger powers -- particularly the US -- and moving out of the ‘non-aligned’ mindset.
Modi and the FS appear to believe that for too long, India has been held back in its engagement with US in particular because of ideological categories which are no longer relevant, because of fears which are no longer well-founded, and because of past mistrust which is now overwhelmed by strategic imperatives.
In itself, this is not a rupture. After 1991, India adapted itself to the post-Cold War world; it began a process of rapprochement that got a push under Vajpayee and Clinton; Manmohan Singh staked his government on the nuclear deal -- which represented a strategic breakthrough with the United States.
But in the final years of the UPA, there was a drift in ties with Washington; the nuclear deal was left hanging; mistrust grew and both sides felt let down for a variety of reasons.
Modi -- despite the shadow of the visa controversy -- wanted to set this right. This resulted in his first visit in September 2014 that set the stage for President Barack Obama’s visit to India as the chief guest on Republic Day.
The US dynamic has entered a new phase with the election of Donald Trump. There are serious questions about whether the strategic logic that underpinned the relationship would hold.
One assumes the PM felt that there could be no one more suited than Jaishankar who had earlier served as the Indian envoy in Washington. And given Jaishankar’s expertise on Russia, Modi may have felt that India should have someone who understands both countries.
The second broad principle of the Modi-Jaishankar school of thought is dropping what they consider has been India’s ‘inferiority complex’ vis-a-vis China.
They subscribe to the view that India and China have a relationship that encapsulates both cooperative and competitive elements, which explains the PM’s frequent meetings with the Chinese leadership and a push on the economic agenda as well as creating room for greater Chinese investment.
But they also seem to believe the tensions with China have been underplayed -- be it on the border question or the issue of global governance structures or the competing interests in the neighbourhood.
This was most visible in the debate over India’s proposed entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. There remains a well argued case in Indian strategic circles that investing so much diplomatic capital in entering the NSG -- when India already has a waiver -- was unnecessary. It showed India to be a failure; it also sharpened the rift with China, which took a public stance opposing India’s entry.
Many believed that since the FS had driven the initiative, he would have to pay a price. The extension shows that was a poor reading of the decision making processes and motives. Irrespective of whether the battle was worth it, what the incident reflected was that the PM is comfortable with taking risks and backed his top diplomat in this regard.
The third broad principle of the government is with regard to the country that takes up the most public attention -- Pakistan. And on this, both the political and diplomatic leadership have shifted.
One strong impulse -- of both the PM and FS -- has been not to be obsessed with Pakistan. The broad thinking is that India is in a different league; that this unhealthy obsession only holds it back; that the best approach is to ignore Pakistan, while laying out the redlines; and one should find ways to work within the region, without Pakistan, if necessary. This was most clearly reflected in India’s embrace of sub-regional mechanisms like BBIN and alternative regional organisations like BIMSTEC.
At the same time, we have also seen -- at the end of last year -- a policy focused almost exclusively on Pakistan when redlines have been crossed. After the Uri attacks, India used every platform possible to highlight Pakistan’s role in sponsoring terror and supporting radicalism in Kashmir -- from the UN to BRICS. It was also willing to push ahead with ‘surgical strikes’. This was a political call; the National Security Advisor has a key role in Pakistan policy. But the FS was on the same page, driven by the conviction that India had changed, that Indian responses had to change accordingly.
These shifts indicate a common understanding that all three -- PM, NSA and FS -- have on Pakistan.
For the PM, it is good news that that his two key advisors are broadly on the same page. Under UPA, we had a situation where either the two were at loggerheads or where the FS was entirely subservient to the NSA.
The dynamic is different now. Doval and Jaishankar have their share of differences on issues, but they have found a way to manage it without it becoming a public spectacle. Modi insists on coherence in government and something like the UPA drama -- where principal stakeholders ran different Pakistan policies -- would be anathema to him.
And finally, the government’s flagship policy -- Neighbourhood First -- comes from the PM’s strong conviction that these are India’s most important relationships.
This was most visible in the Nepal experience.
The PM invested enormous political energy in the relationship; his visits to Kathmandu were successful. But when there was a clear divergence in views on the Constitution -- the Nepali elite pushed through an exclusionary and discriminatory statute -- Delhi did not hesitate from expressing its views strongly.
As a hostile government led by KP Oli stepped up the offensive against India, and China offered it support, India worked quietly and stitched an alternative alliance to oust Oli.