The Hindu Explains: From Vijay Gokhle to Iran protests

Who is Vijay Gokhale, the China expert in the hot seat

Vijay Keshav Gokhale.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Vijay Gokhale, the man who will helm India’s diplomacy as Foreign Secretary for the next two years, is known for working “below the radar.” Thus, by the time his appointment was announced on January 1, he had already been at work, quietly, in South Block.

What is he working on?

As Secretary (Economic Relations) since October, Mr. Gokhale was at several important meetings and dealing with upcoming visits, like those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in mid-January, ASEAN leaders at the end of January, and King Abdullah II of Jordan thereafter. When India expressed its anger at the Palestinian envoy to Pakistan’s appearance at a public rally with Hafiz Saeed, it was Mr. Gokhale, whose portfolio includes West Asia and North Africa, who summoned the Palestinian Ambassador in New Delhi. Mr. Gokhale is understood to have conveyed the tough message in his characteristically understated, but effective, manner: within hours, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry announced that they had withdrawn their man in Islamabad and regretted his actions.

Is there a Doklam link?

Mr. Gokhale’s reputation for conducting negotiations in Beijing, in tandem with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar during the Doklam crisis last year, is also well known, and both Indian and Chinese leaders appreciated his role. Many of Mr. Gokhale’s predecessors have also been China experts: most notably Mr. Jaishankar, Shivshankar Menon and Shyam Saran, but few have the unifocal breadth and depth of his skills and experience in handling Beijing. He has had two “desk postings” in New Delhi, as Director (China and East Asia) in the Ministry of External Affairs, and then Joint Secretary (East Asia). The vast majority of his postings abroad have taken him to the east.

What are the challenges?

The experience will stand him in good stead, say most analysts, as at a time when relations with the other big powers, the U.S., Russia, Japan and the EU, are on a strong wicket, it is China that will remain the most unpredictable variable in the Foreign Secretary’s worksheet. The other big challenge will come from the subcontinent, where ties with India’s smaller neighbours have been under strain for various reasons. What is in common for them, however, is that China is now a factor in each of those countries, whether it is with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh or even Bhutan. With elections expected in most of the neighbourhood this year, Mr. Gokhale has his task cut out as India battles the perception that it is losing to China not just in terms of economic muscle, but also in political influence in the region. This may be a tougher task given that Mr. Gokhale lacks in experience in SAARC postings, once considered essential for the job.

The appointment of Mr. Gokhale, a 1981 batch officer, will not ruffle many feathers as he is the senior-most among his peers. He was in the same batch with India’s High Commissioner to the U.K. Y.K Sinha, and India’s Ambassador to Japan Sujan Chinoy. An interesting fact is that not only is he fluent in Mandarin Chinese, but when he was director of the Indian cultural centre in Taipei, Mr. Gokhale taught himself Sanskrit.

Mr. Gokhale is called a “traditionalist” by most colleagues, an officer who plays “by the rules” which would ensure a more “tried and tested” foreign policy rather than one that “thinks out of the box.” Those phrases, used for him by retired and serving foreign service officers indicate a closer personal alignment to India’s older positions as well, and it may not be entirely coincidental that India voted more firmly with the Palestinian cause at the UN General Assembly on the Jerusalem issue last month, than it has in previous votes since 2015. An officer who is known to shun the limelight, Mr. Gokhale could also restrict the more “personalised” policy projection that has marked Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s travels abroad in the last few years, say diplomats who have worked with him. Much will depend on how free a hand the Foreign Secretary is given, and how much of the Prime Minister’s ear he receives.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2022 4:36:05 AM |

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