A case for the Doctor

A behind-the-scenes look at the new Foreign Secretary’s career shows he is not one to be swayed by public discourse, but is all for measured responses

Shortly before he left for Washington to assume responsibilities as Ambassador, Dr. S. Jaishankar appeared at a lunch thrown by a Delhi think-tank for him. Among the guests was Nancy Powell, then Delhi’s “ persona non grata number 1”, for her role in the Devyani Khobragade arrest affair, which had thrown India-U.S. ties into a tailspin. At the lunch the Khobragade incident, where the young diplomat had been arrested, handcuffed and reportedly strip-searched for a case of underpaying her domestic help in New York, was the only topic of discussion, and tempers were running high. Even seasoned diplomats and former Foreign Secretaries chose to show their anger over the incident involving an officer of their service by snubbing Ms. Powell. Some ignored or cold-shouldered her, others were heard saying, “We must do the same to them,” within her earshot. Into that thoroughly awkward affair walked in Mr. Jaishankar, who made a point of going over and speaking to Ms. Powell, who stood in a corner, before escorting her to lunch. When asked if the anger in the room, and the bristling public outside it were going to make his task in Washington in difficult, he dismissed the concerns with the wave of a hand. “This issue will blow over in no time at all,” he said.

Mr. Jaishankar proved to be correct. Within two weeks of that incident, he had persuaded the U.S. government to allow Ms. Khobragade to leave the country. Indian embassy officials recount a last minute hiccup, when Ms. Khobragade refused to leave at short notice, and eventually they missed the Air India flight that was to take her back. “Nothing doing,” the Indian Ambassador is reported to have replied, “Put her on another flight immediately.” The return of Ms Khobragade, whose humiliation by U.S. officials had been seen a national insult, effectively allowed those tempers to cool. It was also significant that Mr. Jaishankar’s smooth actions showed up Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh’s more clumsy management of the incident, both publicly and in dealings with Washington, given that Ms. Singh had pipped him to the post of Foreign Secretary just a few months before that.

For those looking to the U.S. incident for clues about the new Foreign Secretary, however, it is clear: Mr. Jaishankar isn’t given to being swayed by public discourse. Like a doctor, he will test the pulse of the problem, and then attempt to solve the problem analytically, first by relieving the symptoms. On the one hand that has meant that he is inured to high-pitched public narrative, on the other it may have meant a certain insensitivity to political expediencies for the government of the day.

It is that quality that saw him through his tenure as Ambassador to China, India’s longest serving envoy in Beijing from 2009-2014. The years were a tumultuous period for ties between the two countries, fuelled by the onslaught of television channels, who would often flash news of “Chinese incursions” in Ladakh, calling the issue of stapled visas to citizens of Jammu and Kashmir a “make or break” ( aar ya paar) moment with India’s northern neighbour. Eventually though, that period will also be remembered for the strides in India-China relationship, especially the Border Defence Cooperation agreement that brought incidents at the LAC down dramatically. In May 2013, after talks between the Chinese government and the Indian team led by Ambassador Jaishankar, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) agreed to withdraw from certain positions in Depsang after the Indian side made it clear they would cancel Premier Li Keqiang’s upcoming visit to India if the issue wasn’t resolved. In talks later with Defence Minister A.K. Antony, that The Hindu reported on, PLA General Chang Wanquan broke from the script by singling out the Ambassador’s role in helping defuse the Depsang stand-off, saying he spoke “like a soldier more than a diplomat”. The compliment was particularly welcome given the insinuations by the opposition against “India’s weak diplomacy” on China. Another case he helped handle in 2012 brought him into contact with Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was then Chief Minister of Gujarat seeking the release Gujarati businessmen jailed for 10 years for smuggling in Shenzhen. Their efforts at the time convinced Chinese authorities to reduce the charges against them, and atleast half of them returned to India after paying fines.

However, the insinuations that Mr. Jaishankar faced of “being soft” on China were mild compared to the accusations of a “sell-out” that he, along with the whole team negotiating the nuclear deal dealt with in the years 2004-2007, when he was Joint Secretary for the Americas. In many ways, the civilian nuclear deal was a task cut out for him. Dr. Jaishankar had received his PhD. in international relations focusing on nuclear diplomacy, and the subject ran in his blood, as they say, given his father K. Subrahmanyam was one of India’s foremost strategic analysts. (Interestingly, his son Dhruva now works at a Washington-based think-tank on similar issues, and often writes in Indian newspapers). As a result, he was instrumental in moving the deal over the many hurdles it faced both politically in India, and in negotiations with the U.S. In 2007, he was posted as Ambassador to Singapore, but for many months would travel to Delhi, and even Washington, to lead tricky negotiations. Diplomats at the time were aghast, as never before had an Ambassador on assignment elsewhere been called in to lead inter-ministerial meetings.

Despite the trust reposed in his abilities Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was unable to pick Mr. Jaishankar as Foreign Secretary in 2013. Sources in the then PMO confirmed that it was Congress president Sonia Gandhi who overruled the choice of Mr. Jaishankar in favour of Sujatha Singh because, some say, her father was former IB chief TV Rajeshwar and had known the Gandhi family personally. In 2006, Dr. Singh had faced a virtual revolt in the service over his choice of Shiv Shankar Menon as Foreign Secretary, and probably didn’t want to be accused of ignoring Ms. Singh’s seniority again seven years later. He sent Mr. Jaishankar to the U.S. as Ambassador instead, a post that has now led him back to the post of Foreign Secretary.

The irony for Mr. Jaishankar is that it is the successful talks on the nuclear deal, which was so pilloried by members of the government when they were in opposition, which has catapulted him to this position. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who led the Parliament protests against the deal, have been key to the agreement during U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit. “They thought they had killed the deal with the provisions they added to the CLND Liability law of 2010, and have now come full circle in removing those provisions,” smirked one Congressmen. For the new Foreign Secretary, it is a full circle in many other ways too.

The challenges ahead of Mr. Jaishankar are going to test each of the qualities he has demonstrated in these past years. A former Foreign Secretary listed his biggest challenge now as “walking the diplomatic tightrope between the U.S. and China, with Russia hovering over the relationship as well.” He may come up short on experience in dealing with the other challenge: that of the neighbourhood. Apart from a stint as advisor to the IPKF, Mr. Jaishankar has hardly ever dealt with neighbourhood issues, and whether it is about keeping promises made to Bangladesh, balancing China’s influence in Nepal and Sri Lanka, or restarting the cancelled dialogue with Pakistan, he will come up against strong public opinion. The process with Pakistan may particularly test his ability to deal with hyper-nationalist discourse both inside the government, as well as in the national media. It’s a discourse that also guides the strain in ties between India and the European Union over the case of the Italian marines at present.

Overcoming all those challenges, some would say, is a case for the doctor himself.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 9:21:33 AM |

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