As widely expected, celebrated career diplomat and former Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar on Friday got the coveted External Affairs Ministry portfolio, a position in which he will navigate the country’s foreign policy under the watchful eye of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
By appointing Jaishankar, his trusted aide, as the country’s top diplomat, Modi has clearly demonstrated his determination to put his own stamp of authority on the country’s foreign policy in a fast-changing global environment in which India’s role is increasing by leaps and bounds.
With his appointment, Jaishankar returns to the foreign office within less than one-and-half years in a new avatar. He retired from the IFS in January 2018 as Foreign Secretary after more than four decades of service.
With his appointment to the key position, Jaishankar, 64, becomes a member of the high-powered Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). Its other members are the Prime Minister, Home Minister, Defence Minister and Finance Minister.
Those close to Jaishankar say that he had no inkling until Thursday morning that he was being appointed a minister in the Modi Cabinet until he received a call for a meeting with the PM sometime in the afternoon. Modi personally told Jaishankar that he was appointing him as the External Affairs Minister.
Officials in the MEA agree that it would be easy for them to work with their new minister, given his vast experience and skills to negotiate with other countries on complex issues. Given his long innings in the MEA, Jaishankar knows virtually each and every official holding key position in the ministry. In fact, many of the officials in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and MEA dealing with sensitive issues were handpicked by him when he was the foreign secretary.
Vijay Gokhale, the current Foreign Secretary, has a good equation with Jaishankar.
Jaishankar and Gokhale had actually together conducted thorny negotiations with China to resolve the 72-day-long tense Sino-Indian military stand-off at Doklam in the summer of 2017. Gokhale was then the Indian Ambassador to China.
Jaishankar himself has been the longest serving Indian Ambassador to China. His term lasted nearly four and a half years. It was during his ambassadorship in Beijing that he came close to Modi, a frequent visitor to China as Gujarat Chief Minister. As the External Affairs Minister, Jaishankar will visit Beijing in August or September to hold a meeting of the high-level bilateral dialogue mechanism headed by him and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. The two will also prepare the ground for the informal summit between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in India sometime in October.
Jaishankar will also have to use all his persuasive skills with his American interlocutors on the ongoing tensions between India and the US over India’s oil imports from Iran. The US has refused to extend the waiver given to India to buy Iranian oil. This has seriously impacted India’s energy needs, given that the Iranian oil is cheaper than the one being imported from other nations.
On Pakistan, Jaishankar, like his ‘boss’ Modi, has held the view that India must not resume dialogue until the neighbouring country fulfils its commitment to stop cross-border terrorism. His advice to Modi on whether the latter should hold a bilateral meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan on the margins of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Bishkek in mid-June will be critical for the future course of Indo-Pak relations.