Rise Of Jaishankar, Who Maximised India & Modi’s Diplomatic Space
Modi’s trust in Jaishankar, a career diplomat, to help navigate the choppy waters of today’s rapidly changing world is well placed.
Modi’s trust in Jaishankar, a career diplomat, to help navigate the choppy waters of today’s rapidly changing world is well placed.(Photo: The Quint)

Rise Of Jaishankar, Who Maximised India & Modi’s Diplomatic Space

No one can argue with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s choice of Subrahmanyam Jaishankar as India’s new foreign minister. Not the Opposition, not the party faithful, not the bureaucracy and not the strategic community.

Modi’s trust in Jaishankar, a career diplomat, to help navigate the choppy waters of today’s rapidly changing world, is well placed. Congratulatory messages are flowing from around the world, and Washington especially is pleased at his appointment.

Jaishankar comes to the position equipped with deep domain knowledge, wide experience as India’s ambassador to key countries, sharp negotiating skills, and a firm belief in India’s rightful place in the world.

He also happens to have a sense of humour, a rarity among bureaucrats who believe in the dictum – the dour, the better.

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Those who have worked with him know that he is confident and not threatened by ideas. His door was open to juniors who had talent and chutzpah to come up with new ways to tackle old problems.

Those who have negotiated with S Jaishankar– the Americans in particular – know him to be tough, intelligent, crafty and quick. 

He fights tooth and nail for the maximum benefit of India. Ask any veteran of the nuclear deal, they can testify to his abilities. Some bear the scars from encounters of the Jaishankar kind.

Jaishankar’s Ability To Go Against Convention & To ‘Think Big’

But perhaps the most important quality that may have attracted Modi to him the first time the two interacted in Beijing, as chief minister of Gujarat and ambassador to China respectively, is Jaishankar’s ability to go beyond conventional wisdom and to think big.

Most of the Indian foreign service is too timid to break from the past – as is any bureaucracy, whether from an advanced country or a developing one. But Jaishankar, like his father and the father of Indian strategic thinking, K Subrahmanyam, is a realist who can change as the world changes.

Modi appointed Jaishankar as foreign secretary in 2015, removing Sujata Singh and going against the holy traditions of the foreign service. Manmohan Singh wanted to do the same but decided not to take on the bureaucracy.

Also Read : Jaishankar becomes first Foreign Secretary to be Foreign Minister

Jaishankar Helped Maximise Diplomatic Space for India

For Modi, going against the grain was normal. For him, talent and trust were key and Jaishankar fit the bill.

Looking at Jaishankar’s career, it could be argued that he has helped New Delhi shed some of the most pointless fears and suspicions about the United States and helped India reap some palpable benefits.

The nuclear deal, which broke the international structure to legitimize India’s status as a nuclear weapons power, was because of the US heft.

Whenever S Jaishankar worked as the point person for the “Americas” – be it the coordination of relief efforts for the 2004 tsunami when the Indian, US, Australian and Japanese navies cooperated in relief work for the first time, or doing the foot work for the Indo-US nuclear deal – he used the opportunities to maximise diplomatic space and options for India.

Jaishankar’s Hold On the Complex US-India Relationship

India’s new foreign minister has a realist’s view of both the US and China. As ambassador to both countries and as foreign secretary, Jaishankar deftly managed the intricacies of the two complex relationships.

As ambassador to the US, Jaishankar organised Modi’s first visit as prime minister, delivering a near-flawless series of events with picture-perfect moments.

He and his team working with BJP stalwarts devised a public spectacle at Madison Square Garden where Modi stood on stage surrounded by American senators and politicians as if in embrace of a man they had worked hard to shun and deny a visa in the wake of the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Also Read : S Jaishankar: From Top Diplomat to Modi’s Foreign Minister

Jaishankar the diplomat showed a keen grasp of the political and Modi was pleased. The designer summit had delivered the desired effect.

But Jaishankar’s skills will be tested now that the US under President Donald Trump has decided to confront China via an escalating trade war, blockades of Chinese companies and military shows of strength.

Using Trump As An Opportunity

The Americans will pressure India to make a choice and the Chinese will do the same in a different way. If Jaishankar’s own words at the 2019 Raisina Dialogue are a guide: “India should take a side – our side.”

While the strategic side of the India-US equation is doing well, the trade relationship has been extremely difficult under Trump who has taken the word “transactional” to a whole new level.

Jaishankar understands Trump, perhaps better than most others. It was he who urged people not to criticise but to “analyse him”. He looked at Trump’s disruptive policies as opportunities for India.

During the 2017 Doklam crisis with China, Jaishankar was the steady hand working behind the scenes to lower the heat. He helped work out a modus vivendi as the Chinese were unleashing the most vicious propaganda campaign against India. He also pushed hard for India’s membership in the elite Nuclear Suppliers’ Group while facing repeated setbacks because of China.

Challenges Ahead For Jaishankar

Closer home, the new foreign minister will have to find fresh momentum for India’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy. Pakistan has never and will never be easy to find accommodation with, and Nepal, where Jaishankar had tough and faltering moments in the past, is coming under China’s deep influence.

The Maldives and Sri Lanka present complex foreign policy challenges where the tactical must combine with the strategic to press advantage.

One can only hope that he gets full support from other ministries as he goes about implementing Modi’s vision of a strong India, aspiring to be a ‘leading power’ in the world.

(The writer is a senior Washington-based journalist. She can be reached at @seemasirohi.This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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