Foreign Policy Fiasco: Jaishankar as much responsible as the Prime Minister

Despite a group of diplomats defending the External Affairs Minister, he and the Prime Minister together are responsible for strained relations with allies, neighbours and super powers alike

Foreign Policy Fiasco: Jaishankar as much responsible as the Prime Minister

Ashis Ray

Some aspirants to the post of foreign secretary (FS) play the political game better than others. They persuade chief ministers and Union cabinet ministers to lobby for them. They engineer promotion of their eligibility on media. These are not illegitimate tactics in a rightful ambition to occupy the apex position as a career diplomat.

S. Jaishankar networked better than most of his competitors. He had an influential and well-connected father. These generated an impression that he was a cut above others. Thus, when Sujatha Singh was preferred over him by the Congress-led UPA government, this surprised many.

Singh’s limited stint as an ambassador in an important country – Germany – was certainly less impressive than Jaishankar’s track record as head of mission in Singapore, China and briefly in the United States. In other words, he had done the heavy lifting, but failed to secure his reward.

A year and a half into her two year term, though, Singh was uncere-moniously uprooted as Foreign Secretary. Her batchmate Jaishankar, who was less than a week away from retirement, was catapulted from Washington to South Block. This as per the rules automatically gave him a two-year stint from January 2015. He was subsequently--and unpopularly--granted a year’s extension.

Then, after a brief innings with the Tatas in the interim, Jaishankar returned. This time in the incarnation of External Affairs Minister (EAM). So, Jaishankar has now completed two years as the political master in the ministry.

Narendra Modi’s obsession with him is said to have roots in the two getting to know each other in China. Jaishankar was the Indian ambassador there when Modi visited as Gujarat’s chief minister. The latter was obviously impressed. Jaishankar probably sympathised with Modi’s world view; which suggests the diplomat either innately believed in a departure from India’s tried and tested foreign policy or was willing to submit to the RSS pracharak’s bidding.

Within months of him taking charge as EAM, reports emerged of him curtailing the incumbent Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s operations. Gokhale’s diplomacy as ambassador in Beijing had been critical in defusing the 2017 Sino-Indian military confrontation in Doklam. Indeed, as FS he initiated informal summits with Chinese President, Xi Jinping and Russian President, Vladimir Putin to create a better understanding with these two leaders, who were aggrieved by Modi’s tilt towards the United States. Since Gokhale’s completion of his tenure – and with Jaishankar firmly in the saddle as EAM -- relations with China have plummeted. The occupation of Indian territory in Ladakh, Doklam and Arunachal Pradesh occurred, with no sign of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) retreating as yet.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, India quite smoothly switched to multi-alignment. The successor state Russia’s outlook towards India was less enthusiastic; but an appreciable degree of mutual trust remained undisturbed. This, after Modi’s unconcealed lunge towards the US, has metamorphosed into more of a transactional relationship. In effect, a hitherto steadfast ally in the face of threats from the West, China and Pakistan, is veering in the direction of being even-handed towards Delhi and Islamabad.

Jaishankar’s just concluded trip to Washington underlined the heavy price India might have to pay for Modi’s electioneering for Donald Trump—which was an unimaginable wading into the internal politics of another country. Fundamentally, from an Indian perspective, the clinch didn’t translate into clout against China; and it upset a traditional ally like Russia.

Last week, Jaishankar arrived in the American capital just as his counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, was departing for the Middle East. A week elapsed before the latter granted an appointment. There was no meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris, who is of Indian origin, or a handshake with the President!

The US plainly regards Modi’s India to be a ready buyer of military hardware. Its desire is stability in Afghanistan, which it’s abandoning, thereby leaving it vulnerable to a Taliban comeback. It needs Pakistan’s cooperation to maintain a check on Afghan extremists. Pakistan will only extend this if the US provides a reassurance about quietening the Kashmir front. It’s unclear as to what value the US will offer India in return.

The historical special relationship with Nepal has crumbled to an unprecedented low. Dhaka has seen through Modi’s duality of rubbishing Bangladeshis and Muslims at home and at the same time asking Bangladesh to ignore this.

Further afield, embrace of a Zionist Israel has upset India’s age-old friends in West Asia. The understanding with Iran, which acted as a counterweight to forces inimical to India in the region, stands diluted. Besides, intimacy with rulers of Arab states who blatantly disrespect equality and freedom damages India’s democratic credentials. On May 29, a “Forum of Former Ambassadors of India” responding to censure of Modi, sprung to his defence. They were “concerned at the manner in which PM Modi’s external policies are being relentlessly criticised”.

According to them, he stood up to China. They compared the approach to the Ladakh crisis with the Manmohan Singh government’s handling of Depsang, forgetting this was a success, whereas Modi and Jaishankar have been a failure. Even if one accepts Xi’s assertiveness as a new dimension, Singh’s tackling of Chinese aggressiveness was a textbook example of containment.

They alleged “dialogue with Pakistan broke down under the previous government and the impasse continues”. Singh not merely kept a lid on Pakistani adventurism in Kashmir, but had General Pervez Musharraf hankering after him for a resolution. In contrast, diplomatic relations have been downsized, high commissioners have been withdrawn.

The gullibility of the group is testified by them being impressed by superficialities like the “Look East” policy becoming the “Act East” policy. They claimed the “Modi government has paid far more attention to its neighbours than the previous government”. But with what outcome? India has been rendered bereft of a reliable friend in the neighbourhood other than Bhutan.

Jaishankar cannot be absolved of responsibility. In five of the seven years Modi has been in power, Jaishankar has been his doppelganger – three as FS and two as EAM. He is inseparable from commissions and omissions during this period

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