Can Foreign Secy Shringla ‘Help’ Make India $5 Trillion Economy?

What are the challenges ahead for India’s new foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla?

Published
Opinion
5 min read
Image of Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla used for representational purposes.
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Snapshot
  • During Harsh Shringla’s tenure, US trade with India grew more than 30 percent, based largely on an unprecedented import of oil and gas, and commercial aircraft dealings of some USD 39 billion
  • Shringla has none of the glamour that surrounded Jaishankar when he occupied the post. But he’s dogged, sound and most importantly perhaps, unemotional in his handling of potentially inflammatory issues
  • Shringla is far ahead of most in knowing what needs to get done, and quickly. It’s not identifying priorities that are going to be a problem

The much-awaited appointment is out. India’s Ambassador to the United States, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, is now the Foreign Secretary, at a time when the ship of the state is making its way through somewhat choppy waters, and India’s image as an island of stability has taken a beating.

Given that much of the international media sees the world through American eyes, no one knows this better than Shringla. His stint in Washington involved a heavy dose of fire fighting with, in the beginning, very little help from Delhi, and with issue after issue piling up on the trays as the new Modi government got into its act.

Much More to Shringla Than Just ‘Photo-Ops’

That first salvo was that of Article 370, which took much of the Indian bureaucracy by surprise. In Washington, a stream of negative commentaries that seemed to entirely base itself on the Pakistani perspective was dismaying, and many were quick to blame the Indian embassy for ‘failing to act’. That was predictable and unsurprising since few were privy to the fact that the ambassador was working at a frenetic pace, keeping the US policymakers informed, and the White House particularly in the picture.

The ambassador, like everyone else, was working with a blank slate, but he managed. As a result the official US reaction was muted and remains so to date.

Then came the Supreme Court-mandated National Register of Citizens (NRC), which nobody anywhere really understood very much, and still later the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that has since led to a series of protests across the country. All of this has been used balefully by the political opposition in the US, with the Kashmir issue seen through the human rights lens in the House, and the US Council on International Religious Freedoms making its displeasure clear on the issue of citizenship based on religion. That was blatant interference and Delhi had no compunctions about saying so.

Despite much of the media flare-up against India, the visit of Prime Minister Modi to the US went off without a hitch, with the Houston rally — where the Embassy and Consulate personnel worked at fever pitch — being seen as the cherry on top of a highly successful visit. No prime minister could fail to appreciate an ambassador who could manage to bring a US President on to the same stage despite such a criticism-fuelled backdrop. All of that attested to the ambassador’s quiet influence. But there’s much more to Shringla than a series of photo-ops.

India-US Trade Ties: Shringla Boosted it by 30%

During Shringla’s tenure, US trade with India grew more than 30 percent, based largely on an unprecedented import of oil and gas, and commercial aircraft dealings of some USD 39 billion. Only a few noticed that after more than a decade, India was again buying US defence equipment — even while it clung tenaciously to the Russians for air defence deals and cooperating heavily in terms of US Interests in the Indo-Pacific. Most recently, that was apparent in the ‘2+2’ dialogue in Washington in December this year. That joint statement says it all, particularly the signing of the Industrial Security Annex, which will facilitate defence industry collaboration through the secure transfer of key information and technology. That’s big.

In the future there is the possibility of collaboration on testing and certification in defence and aerospace sectors and establishment of Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facilities in India.

That’s even bigger if it goes through. Particularly apparent in the joint statement is also that Delhi continues to hedge on China, with Foreign Minister S Jaishankar observing in the press conference for the need of a “free, open, inclusive, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific based on the recognition of ASEAN centrality”. That’s the ‘Jaishankar Doctrine’ in full play, which centres around the fact that there are no permanent friends or enemies, only interests. A future Foreign Secretary is going to have to work around this reality, taking the advantage at one moment and digging in his heels in the next.

Shringla Needs to Set Sight on Economic Gain During Foreign Policy

Shringla has none of the glamour that surrounded Jaishankar when he occupied the post. But he’s dogged, sound and most importantly perhaps, unemotional in his handling of potentially inflammatory issues. He is not one for the passionate defence, but someone who will put up unbeatable facts that usually cuts the ground from under the opposition. As he takes up his post as foreign secretary, these are the qualities that will bolster India’s foreign policy agenda.

But a foreign secretary is no magician. He needs something to work with to work his craft.

In recent years, that something has been the strength of the Indian economy and not the undoubted charisma of the man heading the country.

As Shringla likes to point out, India took 60 years to become a trillion dollar economy, 12 years to become a 2 trillion one, and just 5 years to make it to a 3 trillion dollar economy. India’s economy is not hopping about quite so much now, and the new foreign secretary’s job will be to fulfil what Jaishankar has always emphasised, which is that the Ministry of External Affairs must set its sights on specific economic gains when conducting foreign policy. Housing projects in Sri Lanka and infrastructure in Mauritius are great examples of this policy at work, but there’s much more of that available out there. For instance, some fast footwork on Hambantota, as the new Sri Lankan government looks askance at New Delhi.

Road Ahead for Shringla

Shringla is far ahead of most in knowing what needs to get done, and quickly. It's not identifying priorities that are going to be a problem. It’s to get other government departments like commerce and finance to work as the fighting flank of the ministry, in reaching out towards that elusive goal of a 5 trillion dollar economy by 2025.

That will need rare ‘internal diplomacy’, not usually a requirement of the top man at the foreign affairs desk.

There’s a host of other challenges as well, like attracting talent into the ministry to quickly help identify the hundreds of opportunities available to an enterprising nation, rather than the usual and defensive ‘threat analyses’. For the foreign policy to lift itself into a new age, new ideas are vital. But in the end, it's all about its fast delivery at a Zomato pace, even while hanging on to those impeccable suits.

The challenge is ensuring that the back-end offices are in full support in peeling the potatoes and toasting the cheese. And he may yet get it done, with a little help from his boss. The (Jai)Shankar-Shringla team may prove to be the Stormtroopers of Indian Foreign policy if they can get their wheels in place. Meanwhile, watch this space.

(Dr Tara Kartha was Director, National Security Council Secretariat. She is now a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS. She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

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