Challenges Facing The New Foreign Secretary
India has a new foreign secretary in S Jaishankar. I am personally happy with the Modi government’s choice as the new head of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) is a product of the same university where I studied. Many of his friends, my seniors with whom I interact regularly, have great faith in his intellectual callibre and personal integrity. Besides, I have had the good fortune of knowing and working with his late father K Subrahmanyam, arguably, “the Guru” of India’s strategic thoughts. It is an open secret that former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was keen on appointing Jaishankar as the foreign secretary but had succumbed to the pressure of the Congress president Sonia Gandhi in conceding the post to Sujatha Singh, who, now has sought “early retirement” from the IFS.
Predictably, the Congress party, the country’s principal opposition party at the moment, has criticised the government’s decision. In my considered opinion, Jaishankar’s appointment should be viewed from two angles—procedural and substantial. Procedurally, the government of the day has got every right to choose its key officials. It may be noted in this context that the Congress-led government of Manmohan Singh had appointed in July 2004 Shyam Saran foreign secretary, superseding more than a dozen officers from two senior batches. The Singh government also appointed in September 2006 Shiv Shankar Menon foreign secretary, jumping over 16 seniors, several of whom resigned in protest.
In fact, Sujatha Singh is not the first government servant to have been disturbed after the last general elections that led to the formation of a new government led by Narendra Modi. It has changed the finance secretary and the head of the Special Protection Group (SPG) that looks after the security of the present and former Prime Ministers. Modi has already cut short the tenure of the head of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). In fact, there are strong merits in the criticisms over the manner these high officials, particularly the DRDO head, were treated as they did not have inkling whatsoever of the changes affecting them. There was definitely room for dealing with them gracefully; they could have been taken into confidence and told politely that the government, while appreciating their contributions, has some other ideas on the positions they held.
There are also merits in the criticisms of the Modi government’s benevolence to cabinet secretary (Head of Indian civil service) Ajit Kumar Seth, who has been on extensions, first for one year by the Mannmohan Singh government and then for two installments of six months each by the Modi government (he should have normally retired in 2013).
However, on this occasion, the whole matter has been handled gracefully, if external affairs minister (EAM) Sushma Swaraj (immediate boss of the foreign secretary) is to be believed. According to her, Sujatha Singh was told in advance that she would be replaced by Jaishankar soon after the visit of US President Obama’s India-visit. Normally, Jaishankar would have retired on January 31. His appointment as the foreign secretary had to be formalised before that date to enable him to prolong his service by two more years. It may be noted here that conventions/rules have been made that Chiefs of three armed services, cabinet secretary, defence secretary, foreign secretary, finance secretary and home secretary will have, once appointed during the service period (before the completion of 60 years of age), a minimum tenure of two years.
However, Sujatha Singh’s has become the first case of an official guaranteed of a two-year tenure being asked to leave earlier. Of course, it is a grey area whether this tenure is of a particular office or the service as a whole. In other words, could the government have given Singh another diplomatic assignment till her extended superannuation? But that question is irrelevant now that she has formally resigned from the service. In fact, Singh now says that soon after the decision to replace her, “I had sought actually to retire early after 38 years in service”. Besides, there are now some reports emanating from the government circles that suggest that the clause of the fixed tenure is only applicable as long as the officer is in service. But once the officer crosses the retirement age of 60 years then he or she enters into a contract with the government, which both sides can terminate at their own will. Though one does not know the authenticity of these reports, it seems that Sujatha Singh had turned 60 last year and was on contract thereafter.
Now, let me come to the more important or the substantial angle of viewing Jaishankar’s appointment. What does his appointment imply? And here, I am not going to focus on how he is going to implement Modi government’s foreign policies in priority areas such as foreign trade, foreign investments, energy security, climate change, Asia-pacific region and vis a vis priority- countries such as the United States, China, Japan, Australia and Russia. I think as the head of the IFS, Jaishankar has an equally, if not more, challenging job of fine-tuning Indian diplomatic service. It is undeniable that that apart from the continuing relevance of traditional diplomacy, which, in essence, deals with political and security interests of the country, economic diplomacy, environmental diplomacy, public diplomacy, increasing need of accountability of the Foreign Office to the Parliament and media are all equally significant in this age of globalisation.
There are some fundamental issues that the new foreign secretary has to deal with clarity. First, given India’s increasing global roles, it is unfathomable how the IFS, whose annual intake of fresh entry is limited to average 8-15 officers, with just a cadre-strength of about 600 officers, is manning around 162 Indian missions and posts abroad and the various posts in the Ministry of External Affairs(MEA) at home. The problem is further compounded by the fact that unlike in many other comparable countries, there are no provisions for lateral entry into the service from think tanks, academia and media. The working-pattern in the MEA continues to be based on territorial divisions (each division dealing with a cluster of countries belonging to a particular region), whereas advanced countries are opting for a thematic (issue-based) approach.
Secondly, many IFS officials are confused over their exact roles and deeply resentful of the growing encroachments in their domains by other ministries, particularly those pertaining to commerce, environment and energy, in seeking to pursue virtually independent external initiatives. Then, we have the growing phenomenon of many states, particularly in border areas, devising policies that have serious implications for the policies devised by the national government. Even within the national government, the MEA is losing sheen, with the real power gradually shifting to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), including that of the National Security Adviser (NSA), who is primarily accountable to the Prime Minister. Over the years, the NSA has become the czar of Indian foreign policy bureaucracy. My personal interactions with the senior officials of the MEA and retired Foreign Secretaries suggest that under the Manmohan Singh government, the base of Indian foreign policy-making became the narrowest ever, with everything being controlled by the NSA and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Given Modi’s perceived image of concentrating all the powers in his hands, it will be a tough challenge for Jaishankar to ensure that the IFS or for that matter the Foreign Office as a whole has a place of pre-eminence or relevance on core external issues facing the country.
Thirdly, there has been a huge problem of the foreign secretary facing a loyalty-test from his colleagues within the service. It may be noted that foreign secretary is not the only secretary-rank officer in the MEA. He is no doubt the “first- among- equals”, but then the fact remains that in the MEA there are three other secretaries, besides having about 30 Grade -I Ambassadors to various countries who, too, are of the secretary- rank. All of them being of the same rank and entitled to have direct access to the EAM, there are stories of frequent frictions among them. And that is all the more so, and here I am citing from the book penned by a veteran diplomat (Kishan S Rana, “Asian Diplomacy”), since the 1970s, with the rare exceptions, successive foreign secretaries have enhanced the oversight authority in their hands, denuding work from the other secretaries.
Cutting across territorial divisions, the foreign secretary is in charge of relations with all the major countries—the US, UK, Germany, France, Russia, Japan, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan. This means in practice that at least seven territorial division joint secretaries deal directly with him or her, while also working with other secretaries for some of the other countries in their divisions. All multilateral conferences are under foreign secretary’s direct charge. The foreign secretary is also responsible for media relations, public diplomacy, assistance programmes (a recent addition), consular work and coordination among the secretaries. Besides, the power of initiating the appointment of new ambassadors has always belonged to the foreign secretary, and it is his or her proposal that goes to the EAM.
In other words, while the foreign secretary has too much work, other secretaries have relatively lighter charges and are naturally resentful. As Rana writes, consequently, overall supervision in the MEA has suffered. “MEA has not learnt from its foreign counterparts that it is impossible to run a larger diplomatic network through one individual, especially if the political advice role is not partly delegated”.
Will Jaishankar do something to improve the quality of internal dialogue and collegiality of decision-making within the Foreign Office, particularly at a time when the IFS, as I have mentioned above, is struggling to keep its relevance as a service? His reputation is on test.
By Prakash Nanda