That S. Jaishankar would get an extension in service as Foreign Secretary was expected. It ruined the promotion prospects of half a dozen IFS officers. But its official announcement naturally did not reveal the full story. NSA Ajit Doval. who has had the main hand in installing persons in high posts, especially intelligence and investigative agencies — RAW, IB, CBI, because of his prior police career and presumed expertise in these fields, he has been on a slippery slope where foreign policy is concerned, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi consulting more with Jaishankar on external issues. A tug-of-war is thus on between NSA and FS for establishing proximity to the PM, because it is the perception of nearness to the centre of power which decides their individual clout and influence in the system at-large.
Jaishankar has been a favoured foreign service officer from the start, with good fortune to have K. Subrahmanyam, ex-IAS, the late strategist with whom many PMs in the past consulted, as father. An entirely self-taught person in terms of strategic matters, who initially gained a reputation at home and abroad for advocating the Bomb for India, Subrahmanyam coupled this, in his later years, to his reading of international affairs to institutionally root, to the great detriment to national interest, a view in government of a minimalist nuclear deterrence perspective to the extent of urging (along with the rest of the IDSA caboodle, including Air Cmde Jasjit Singh, et al) in the mid-1990s that the government, then under prime minister Deve Gowda, sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty before India even had a semblance of serviceable nuclear weapons. The insufficiently respected and regarded Deve Gowda had the common sense, the native cunning, and the political will to hold his ground, reject such myopic advice, and order the blocking of the CTBT in Geneva.
However, the US Government found Subrahmanyam’s “minimum deterrence” ideas endearing and his case for intimate relations with America based on conforming to Washington’s nonproliferation policy metrics particularly useful. This aside on Subrahmanyam’s policy tilt is not irrelevant to Jaishankar’s storied rise in the foreign service, which owes not little to the FS’ “career management” by his father.
Subrahmanyam arranged for choicest postings, including as first secretary in the Washington embassy in the mid-80s (which is when I, then also residing in that town, first made his acquaintance) after a stint in Moscow station. Jaishankar’s posting order to Prague as deputy chief of mission in 1996 was changed, for instance, at Subrahmanyam’s request, to DCM Tokyo. Then the Vajpayee regime initiated the US-leaning policy (eventuating in the Next Steps in the Strategic Partnership) pushed by Subrahmanyam, and importantly, seconded by NSA Brajesh Mishra — the NSSP being the precursor to the nuclear deal.
With Manmohan Singh as PM the policy of intimacy-building with the US gathered heft and momentum, with Subrahmanyam again helping secure for his son the prize post as Joint Secretary (Americas) — pulling him into the MEA from Prague, where now he was ambassador. As JS he was lead negotiator of the nuclear deal his father forcefully advocated. Its successful culmination, with promptings from the sidelines and media support generated by Subrahmanyham’s writings, raised Jaishankar’s profile, leading to the ambassadorship in China, despite having no knowledge of Mandarin, probably the first Indian plenipotentiary to be thus language-challenged. A US-loving Modi in 2014 sent him to Washington and annointed him FS in the nick of time before his retirement, ousting Sujatha Singh mid-tenure.
Now to revert to the beginning of this post: Modi’s dissatisfaction with Doval’s lack of foreign policy expertise and inability substantively and properly to follow up on the PM’s instincts and intuitions — on which the Indian foreign policy has always been run. The PM banks on Jaishankar to carry out his instructions. This foreign policy bypass has, for obvious reasons, created tension between Doval and Jaishankar. But this actually reflects a serious tussle for nearness to PM — the secret of Brajesh Mishra’s comprehensive power in the Vajpayee dispensation. While Modi would like to continue with these two horses drawing his chariot, it cannot be sustained. Whence, the extension to Jaishankar as a bridging action to a more enduring system.
But what’s such a system to be? A scheme of two NSAs — one for internal security, the other for external policies, has been mooted, but is inherently unstable and, perhaps, even unworkable, and something Doval is resisting. But he can resist only so long if Modi is intent on having it. The one year, in essence, gives both Doval and Jaishankar time to adjust to an equal standing in PMO or, contrarily, the opportunity to maneuver the other out of pole position. It will be interesting to see how this competition pans out, because, as insider accounts attest, these two are ruthless positional augmenters and bureaucratic in-fighters.
This still leaves a big hole where an expert with military competence and knowledge should be, because neither Doval nor Jaishankar has other than nodding acquaintance with matters military. And this could prove to be a liability, or not, if limping along on the great power path is considered par for the course.