A crown of political thorns

WITHIN THE FRAME: “Both former Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh and her replacement, S. Jaishankar, are extremely competent and both, having benefited from political patronage, must accept its shifting sands.” Picture shows them with Union External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi.   | Photo Credit: PTI

Every two years, sometimes more often, national media regales readers with stories on the making and unmaking of Foreign Secretaries. No other post, not even that of the Cabinet Secretary, attracts such national attention and interest. The post brings with it an aura of brilliance, political acceptability, high visibility and vulnerability. It is a position that legends are made on. But becoming Foreign Secretary and staying there for a full term is a Herculean task. There are also instances in which unsuspecting officers are plucked out of their comfortable perches in Beijing, Islamabad and Dublin and installed in the hot seat. Some are born Foreign Secretaries, some achieve the job and some have the job thrust upon them.

The glamour of being Foreign Secretary is not as real as it is made out to be. The pressures and tension emanating from above and below are such that the person can hardly savour either power or glory. As the interface between the bureaucracy and the politicians, he is buffeted by both constantly. The Foreign Service is highly competitive, if not combative. Its leader needs to have three pairs of hands, like gods and goddesses — one pair to implement orders from above, one to hold on to his/her chair and one to do work. Any slackening will bring instant retribution, often undeserved and unjust. Two years of such tension is the reward for brilliance, manipulation or chance — ways to secure the post. Former Foreign Secretaries are a happier lot than the incumbents.

The making and unmaking of Foreign Secretaries will continue to baffle the public and frustrate aspirants and incumbents, but the method in the madness will surface over the passage of time

Past appointments

Any analysis of past appointments will defy any theory about the selection of Foreign Secretaries. Seniority has been the decisive factor in the largest number of appointments. But there have always been ways to get around it by rearranging the jigsaw puzzle and placing senior people in attractive posts abroad. Merit, subjective at every stage, is a nebulous factor. The rank allotted by the Union Public Service Commission, by the most objective and diligent process, has been in play only in some cases. Instances of officers at the top swinging from one political ideology to another to earn merit are not rare. Good officers have fallen by the wayside and some have made it with poor credentials. But the past record of selection of Foreign Secretaries presents a picture of near-perfection in a majority of the cases. The percentage of aberrations is not higher than in the making of Prime Ministers or the selection of Nobel Peace Prize laureates.

Complex picture

The unmaking of Foreign Secretaries presents a more complex picture. The most celebrated case was the unprecedented sacking of a Foreign Secretary at a press conference by the Prime Minister. The last straw in that case was a factual issue regarding whether the Prime Minister would visit Pakistan or not. The Prime Minister not only contradicted the Foreign Secretary, but also promised the nation a new Foreign Secretary. But it was well known that the chemistry between Rajiv Gandhi and A.P. Venkateswaran was not the best even before the latter was appointed Foreign Secretary. He was appointed because of his reputation and popularity in the service itself. “Let us have a bash at it!” Rajiv Gandhi is supposed to have said, while handing him the post. Venkateswaran’s removal was a foregone conclusion, and the favourite of the Prime Minister was all set to take over, but the heat of the moment forced the Prime Minister to appoint the senior most officer in the service in his place. That was the only time the Foreign Service openly revolted against a decision of the Prime Minister.

The removal of Jagat Singh Mehta by Charan Singh involved issues of foreign policy rather than personal predilections. Jagat Mehta’s rise from High Commissioner in Tanzania to Foreign Secretary was meteoric, primarily because of Indira Gandhi who discovered his potential. But her successors and finally she herself felt that his vision was not in keeping with the dictates of the times. Jagat Mehta anticipated much of the evolution of Indian foreign policy, like the reduction of rigidity of our nuclear policy and engagement with the United States and China. He had nothing against the Soviet Union, but his stress on other relationships set the Kremlin on fire and the heat was felt in New Delhi when the Soviet lobby took up the cudgels against him. The fiasco in Lusaka involving his candidature for the post of Secretary General of the Commonwealth speeded up his removal, but it was done in a clandestine manner. He was repeatedly told that his letter of resignation was not accepted, but his successor Ram Sathe was informed of his new post through unconventional communication channels not accessible to the serving Foreign Secretary. Indira Gandhi herself cancelled a posting the previous government had promised him and he stayed on in the service as an officer on special duty, as a disciplined soldier, till he retired. His vindication came when Atal Bihari Vajpayee honoured him with a Padma Bhushan many years later.

The politically savvy and shrewd S.K. Singh fell victim to his own feeling of invincibility, which prompted him to make an enemy of Inder Kumar Gujral at a time when the latter’s rise was not anticipated by anyone. He tried to smooth ruffled feathers to work for the new dispensation, but he was quietly removed with the promise of a political appointment, which did not materialise till the Congress returned to power. Neither the climb to the precarious rock of bureaucratic heights nor the descent is an easy ride for anyone. The satisfaction and pride come only when the person gets back to earth unscathed and looks at the path traversed. The journey to the pinnacle of the Foreign Service has more than its share of storms and avalanches.

The most recent “curtailing” of a Foreign Secretary’s term and the appointment of another just two days before his retirement are illustrative of the mix of the many factors which lead to such decisions. Both of them are extremely competent and both, having benefited from political patronage, must accept its shifting sands. Bureaucrats, who get close to the political leadership, rise and fall with their mentors.

The added hazard is that the post of the Foreign Secretary is constantly under scrutiny because of his or her high profile and visibility. The making and unmaking of Foreign Secretaries will continue to baffle the public and frustrate aspirants and incumbents, but the method in the madness will surface over the passage of time.

(T.P. Sreenivasan is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA.)

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2021 12:17:07 PM |

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