Diplomatic circles are wondering what Narendra Modi has in mind for one of his favourite officers, foreign secretary Jaishankar. The return of Vijay Gokhale from China, where he was ambassador, to the ministry of external affairs as secretary (economic relations) has signaled that a change of guard is likely next January when Jaishankar’s extended term as foreign secretary ends. Gokhale is tipped to be the next foreign secretary.

But MEA circles feel that Modi will not let go of Jaishankar even after he retires. Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval are the two people who drive Modi’s foreign policy, particularly with reference to China, the US and the neighbourhood.

The buzz is that Jaishankar will be accommodated in the PMO in some capacity. There was some talk that he could be made deputy NSA but those who know the dynamics between Jaishankar and Doval feel it’s unlikely. Jaishankar will find it difficult to work under Doval.

Some are still betting that Modi may ultimately choose to give Jaishankar another extension as foreign secretary. If he does, it will mess up the pecking order in the IFS and deny an opportunity to three batches to take a shot at the top job in the diplomatic service.

The biggest sufferer would be Gokhale, of course. He is waiting in the wings to become foreign secretary. He has an impeccable record and is an expert on China, a country that will prove to be India’s biggest foreign policy and strategic challenge in coming years.

So what next for Jaishankar? MEA circles are waiting with bated breath.

Pawar equation

NCP chief Sharad Pawar has had a change of heart about the Congress in Gujarat. After sending Praful Patel to set up a brand new NCP office in Ahmedabad and plan a solo campaign for the forthcoming elections, Pawar has decided that he wants to contest in alliance with the Congress.

Pawar has been in touch with Congress leader Ahmed Patel directly. He also ordered Praful to drop his prickly attitude towards the Congress and bury the hatchet with Ahmedbhai. A chastened Praful was forced to sit by Pawar’s side as the NCP boss praised Rahul Gandhi recently.

But while the NCP is trying desperately to cosy up to the Congress, the grand old party is in two minds about the proposed alliance. More than anything, Ahmed Patel blames Praful for denying him the votes of two NCP MLAs in the recent Rajya Sabha elections. Patel claims that Praful worked against him instead of honouring the alliance between the two parties. He won the election but scraped through with difficulty.

Trusted team

Slowly but surely, Modi is putting his trusted officers in key positions in the system. Hansmukh Adhia, a loyal aide from Gujarat, has been made finance secretary after less than three years of experience with fiscal and economic issues.

Now Rakesh Asthana, a Gujarat cadre IPS officer, has been promoted to the rank of Special director in the CBI to position him to take over a director of this all important investigative agency when incumbent Alok Verma finishes his two-year tenure in January 2019.

Asthana has been in the eye of a storm from the time he was moved from Gujarat to the CBI as additional director in late 2016. Till Verma was appointed as CBI chief, Asthana officiated as the director although he was a mere additional director and had virtually no experience of CBI work.

It was only when a petition was moved in the Supreme Court questioning the delay in appointing a full-time CBI chief that the government appointed Verma in January 2017.

Significantly, during the brief period when Asthana was officiating as the top man in the CBI, the agency arrested former air chief S P Tyagi for the controversial Agusta Westland helicopter deal. The arrest was questioned by many experts because the CBI had very little substantive evidence to incriminate this senior defence official.

Now Asthana’s promotion to the rank of special director has been challenged in the Supreme Court on grounds that his name figured in a diary connected to the Sterling Biotech scam in Gujarat. The government has taken shelter behind a SC ruling that the mere mention of a name in a diary does not count as evidence of wrongdoing unless there is substantive proof of guilt. It over ruled objections to Asthana’s promotion from the Enforcement Directorate which is probing the scam involving fraud and insider trading running into thousands of crores of rupees.

However, the Supreme Court has admitted the petition filed by leading activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan against Asthana’s promotion. All eyes are on the SC as the future of the next CBI director depends on its ruling.

Battle mode

The most unique element of the BJP election campaign in Gujarat is the manner in which party chief Amit Shah has turned himself into a pavement thumper. The BJP big boss is working like an ordinary party worker.
He is going door to door with folded hands to plead for votes. He is also pasting posters himself and personally supervising the hanging of banners and buntings in select constituencies.

The rival Congress camp gloats that it’s a sign of desperation. But BJP circles say the door-to-door campaign was planned a long time ago. They say the party workers have touched the villages and urban areas in all 47,000 polling booths of the state.

A second round of intensive personal outreach is planned. And if necessary, the party will do a third round. Shah and Modi are leaving no stone unturned to win this assembly poll in Gujarat because they know a loss will overturn all political calculations in the run up to the 2019 general election.