Foreign Secretary Dr. S. Jaishankar (photo: The Hindu)
The government has upturned the normally staid ministry of external affairs by replacing Sujatha Singh about seven months before her tenure as foreign secretary was to end. Dr S. Jaishankar has been appointed the new foreign secretary, having impressed in his role in rebuilding India-U.S. ties as ambassador to the U.S.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had reportedly noticed Jaishankar's handling of his U.S. visit last September and was keen to retain him. With Jaishankar due to retire on January 31, the government had to move fast in the small window after President Barack Obama’s visit this week.
According to The Hindu, sources confirmed that after the notification Singh has put in her papers and sought voluntary retirement. It is unclear whether her sudden replacement will upset other bureaucrats in the ministry, as did the surprise appointment of Shivshankar Menon in 2006.
Prior to his assignment in Washington, Jaishankar was India’s longest serving ambassador to China, and was credited by former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh for his deft handling of tensions between New Delhi and Beijing over the LAC in 2013.
In addition, as Joint Secretary in-charge of the Americas from 2004 to 2007, Jaishankar was also one of the architects of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal that saw a “breakthrough” during Obama’s visit.
Interestingly, both Jaishankar and Sujatha Singh were in the running for foreign secretary when Singh won the post in 2013. Officials in the then PMO said that while Jaishankar was Dr. Singh’s choice, the prime minister was overruled at the time, primarily due to Ms. Singh’s seniority.
“It is good that merit and experience rather than just seniority is being considered in high-level appointments,” Sanjaya Baru, former media advisor to Dr. Singh, told The Hindu.
According to Baru, several joint secretary-level IFS officers had supported Jaishankar’s candidature in 2013. Their argument was simple: if seniority was made an iron rule, what incentive would there be for younger officers to perform?
"If only the seniority principle is followed I can tell you right now who will be the foreign secretary for the next two decades. I know I will not make it, so why should I work hard and prove my worth?" a bureaucrat in the ministry of external affairs reportedly told Baru at the time.
Two years later, the new government has indeed made a statement. Jaishankar’s appointment may set the trend for merit-based appointments of key bureaucrats, a long overdue move that could re-energise the bureaucracy.