Final hours of January 28 broke the news that kept the airwaves and online platforms busy for coming some hours, giving thus the major news story for January 29, i.e., today.
The news story was in making for quite some time with a Rediff story in December but was never near confirmation until this happened the last night.
And the timing was to blame for it.
A Foreign Secretary’s term is ‘curtailed with immediate effect’ just the next of Barack Obama leaving India after a successful visit by a government that is in a celebratory mood with the outcome of the visit!
So, there will be inside stories, extending what we have been reporting and writing so far based on sources-based information.
There were stories like the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was backing Sujatha Singh, a 1976 batch IFS officer, to let her complete her term that was till July 31, 2015, as per the terms of the service agreement. A Foreign Secretary of the Government of India has a fixed term of two years and she had taken charge on August 1, 2013 replacing the retiring FS Rajan Mathai then. While assuming the FS office, she was due to retire the next year and was given extension last year.
Interestingly, when the government was looking for the successor of Rajan Mathai, Dr. S. Jaishankar, a year junior to Sujatha Singh, a 1977 batch IFS officer, was prime minister Manmohan Singh’s first preference. But Dr. Singh had to relent as Congress was not willing to overlook seniority and favoured that the due administrative process be followed.
Probably, the reflections of the strong protests by the Foreign Service officers in the aftermath of a huge controversy that had erupted after Rajiv Gandhi had sacked the then FS A. P. Venkateswaran in February 1987 just after 10 months of assuming the charge was lingering in the minds of Congress strategists.
India Today magazine had written on it terming it ‘an avoidable blunder' – History will record it as Rajiv Gandhi’s most insensitive blunder, a public gaffe of such grave proportions that even his supporters were left stunned and speechless. The choice of venue: a nationally-televised press conference attended by representatives of the Indian and international media, apart from Venkateswaran himself. The timing: a period of increasing resentment in the bureaucracy against the prime minister’s petulant outbursts at high-ranking government officials. The target: the senior-most official in the Ministry of External Affairs and arguably the most efficient and dynamic incumbent the country has had.
Or the more recent 2006 controversy when Shivshankar Menon was appointed FS overlooking seniority of 15 IFS officers that had seen senior diplomats like Rajiv Sikri, Secretary (East), Veena Sikri, Rajiv Sikri’s wife and High Commissioner to Bangladesh and Ambassador to France, TCA Rangachari, resigning.
But why Manmohan Singh was favouring Mr. Jaishankar was based on merit only, something that can be said with Narendra Modi’s decision as well.
In July 2013, when the decision to appoint the next FS was in final stages, Sujatha Singh, daughter of former Intelligence Bureau director and former Governor T. V. Rajeshwar who was close to Sonia Gandhi, was Ambassador to Germany and S. Jaishankar, son of one of India’s foremost strategic affairs analysts, K Subrahmanyam, a former civil servant, was heading the Indian Embassy in China.
Apart from having spent a large time in Indian missions overseas, Mr. Jaishankar played key roles in negotiations on India-US Civil Nuclear Agreement and in defusing the India-China border stand-off of 2013. He got thumbs-up even from the Chinese – One Chinese official said Mr. Jaishankar had garnered a reputation for “straight talking”, particularly during often tense exchanges over issues over China’s visa policy or the boundary. During talks with visiting Defence Minister A.K. Antony, Defence Minister and PLA General Chang Wanquan broke from the script by singling out his role in helping defuse the Depsang stand-off, saying he spoke “like a soldier more than a diplomat,” according to one official who was in the room. (The Hindu, December 2013).
The report from The Hindu summed up how successful Mr. Jaishankar’s stint in China was – When S. Jaishankar steps down as India’s Ambassador to China on Saturday after a four-and- a-half year term, he will end his eventful tenure as the longest serving Indian envoy to the Middle Kingdom.
Also, Mr. S. Jaishankar’s more diversified overseas exposure with the block of counties that mattered more for India in the prevailing geopolitical circumstances coupled with his expertise in Nuclear Diplomacy (Mr. Jaishankar did his Ph.D. from JNU with specialization in Nuclear Diplomacy) that had its approval with framing of the Nuke Deal would have pushed Dr. Manmohan Singh to go for him at a time when India-US ties were on a downward slope and the stalled Nuke Deal was proving to be the stumbling block.
But then, Dr. Singh could not do it. And Narendra Modi has done it now - with favouring elements like these is no issue of seniority as Mr. Jaishankar is due to retire from IFS on January.
Mr. S. Jaishankar’s overseas exposure with P5 countries like Russia, the United States and China, his stints in Japan and Sri Lanka would certainly be having more takers like Mr. Modi than Mrs. Singh’s overseas exposure that includes West Germany, Ghana, France, Thailand, Italy, Austrlia and unified Germany. Even while in India, Mr. Jaishankar spent seven years with the Americas division of Ministry of External Affairs – as Under Secretary from 1981 to 1985 and as its head from 2004 to 2007, when the India-US Nuke deal was framed.
The conditions that made Dr. Singh to push for Mr. Jaishankar are even more relevant for India now with the current dispensation’s big move on diplomacy front presenting India on the world stage as a global power with equal status as the big powers. Right from the inauguration of his government, Mr. Modi has dictated the terms of Indian foreign policy. He is engaging with the SAARC countries and with the United States with similar sincerity and urgency and an administrator like Mr. Jaishankar can prove an efficient taskmaster.
Then, there are two successful bilateral Summit visits that have put the worsening India-US ties back on growth track – Mr. Modi’s visit to the US in September 2014 and Mr. Barack Obama’s to India in January 2015 – during Mr. Jaishankar’s term as the Indian Ambassador the US – to add to Mr. Modi’s decisions to bring him in. It was said Mr. Modi was quite impressed with Mr. Jaishankar the way he managed the PM's visit in September 2014.
Mr. S. Jaishankar is taking charge today. There is nothing wrong with his appointment and his suitability for the position.
But, the timing is certainly wrong, until ‘saying so’ is proven wrong by some inside story. Even if Mr. Jaishankar is to retire in two days and there can be an urgency to appoint him as the next FS before that date, it doesn’t justify the way Sujatha Singh was told to do, even if she had fallen out of favour and was kept out of important decisions like cancelling India-Pakistan FS talks in August last year. If the government was forced to take this step due to the reasons that it better knows (including Sujatha Singh’s refusal to demit the office), it could have done it earlier, avoiding adding the element of unceremonious exit that certainly looked bad in taste.
It’s an open day ahead today for developing news elements and conspiracy theories on the issue with varying insider accounts waiting to be laid down and thrown in public domain.
Will Sujatha Singh speak on her retirement?
Or will she speak out on ‘immediate curtailment of her tenure’ as the order of the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet says?
Or will she remain silent with a formal statement, as she was past her retirement age, and would not like to see the issue escalate in some big controversy?