“Diplomats are useful in fair weather. As soon as it rains, they drown in every drop.”—Charles de Gaulle
Going by the diplomatic debility destabilising India at the moment, the father of modern France wasn’t far off the mark. If diplomacy is war by other means, South Asian diplomacy is chaos by all means. As Taliban, which glosses over its terror credentials and takes charge of Afghanistan, India is struggling to assemble its global diplomatic architecture to deal with the situation. Taliban and its armed cronies pose a major threat to India more than to any other country.
For the past decade, New Delhi gloated over Pakistan’s collapse with its corrupt elite and radical mullahs bringing the Islamic republic to edge of perdition. With its odious offspring fully in charge, the ISI finally has Afghanistan in its iron grip. And a terror habitat Pakistan now enjoys better clout with Russia, China and America. The US which claims to be India’s natural ally, left Afghanistan without a word. India spent over $2 billion to create infrastructure for 45 million Afghans. Now, with its geopolitical balance sheet having abruptly slipped into the red, India cannot take a clear stand. Will it talk to a government headed by a UN designated terrorist as PM? Can it ensure that Afghan territory wouldn’t be used by al Qaeda and its bloody brotherhood against Indians?
Betrayed by America, ignored by Russia and tormented by China, Indian diplomacy is facing the worst crises of its own creation. Indian diplomats have been endlessly jaw- jawing without result. The Modi government’s detractors are placing the blame on diplomat-turned-politician Subrahmanyam Jaishankar who lords over the Ministry of External Affairs.
It is for the first time that Indian foreign policy got continuity in terms of personality. Never before has anyone who joined the External Affairs Ministry as a young IFS officer ended up as a premier political paladin barring Jaishankar. Previously, Congress’ Natwar Singh was the only ex-diplomat who made it to the foreign ministry — but only after political baptism by fire. He joined as Minister of State first and then moved to other ministries and took up party responsibilities until moving to South Block. On the other hand, the 66-year-old Jaishankar rarely attends BJP political parleys. He is the first non-political individual in the all-powerful Cabinet Committee on Defence (CCD). The CCD, chaired by the PM, comprises the Home, Finance, Defence and External Affairs Ministers.
Shocking the entire political system, Jaishankar replaced Sushma Swaraj who had opted out from active politics due to illnesses. She appointed him the Foreign Secretary after removing Sujatha Singh. Though Sushma was physically short, she was one of India’s politically tallest ministers and politicians. With charm and elegance, she could disarm any opponent. During her tenure as Foreign Minister, Modi made his maximum trips abroad. Swaraj’s seat was always at the high table unlike Jaishankar whose only job seems to be passing the salt to his political masters. Sushma not only had Modi’s backing, but also enjoyed political legitimacy as a saffron star.
In a politically-infected bureaucracy, every babu has a choice — to be a Secretary or a secretary. Jaishankar, for one, is seen just as a former career diplomat and a political pygmy. His first job was as Deputy Secretary dealing with the Americans in the early ‘80s. Being the son of the illustrious Dr K Subrahmanyam, a favourite diplomat of the Congress regime, Jaishankar rarely had a Third World posting, After serving in various embassies including in the US, he became Joint Secretary, (America Division) in 2004. He was part of the team negotiating the nuclear deal with the US.
Ironically, it was vehemently opposed by the BJP. As High Commissioner to Singapore in 2007, he continued to lead the talks. Two years later, Manmohan Singh moved him to China as ambassador. Jaishankar was the first envoy to enjoy a record four-year term. Manmohan was so impressed by his diplomatic deftness that he was appointed the ambassador to America in 2013. Jaishankar ‘s political manoeuvring was so adept in building bridges that the Modi government called him back a few days before retirement and appointed him as Foreign Secretary in January 2015. Jaishankar was given a year’s extension in 2017.
His clout in the new regime was evident when he was allowed to join the Tatas by waiving off the necessary cooling period. Two months after superannuation, Jaishankar joined the corporate mammoth in 2018 as President, Global Corporate Affairs with the mandate that “he will be responsible for the Tata group’s global corporate affairs and international strategy development and Tata Sons’ international offices will report to him”. But it was just a parking space. In January 2019, he was conferred the Padma Shri. Six months later he became India’s first ex-IFS-turned Cabinet Minister since Independence and a Rajya Sabha member from Gujarat. As they say “in order to be a diplomat, one must speak many languages, including double speak”. Jaishankar speaks Hindi, Tamil, Russian, Chinese, English and now saffronese.
Our foreign minister is the typical poker-faced diplomat who rarely smiles during a public engagement. In 15 months in office, he has spent over 125-odd days abroad covering 49 nations except Myanmar—US, UK, Japan, France, China, Russia, Germany, Italy and UAE. A detailed analysis of his global itinerary reveals that his stops were mainly global think tanks and other talking shops. Jaishankar is perhaps one of the best orators who deliver high octane speeches without a smile.
During 2014-2019, India was playing the leading role in international affairs. Modiplomacy was the flavour of the season. Swaraj had always created the right narrative and environment for Modi to pioneer his international agenda. But during the past two years, India’s relationship with its neighbours has become less than cordial. Ever since Jaishankar forced the government to impose an economic blockade on Nepal, the Himalayan country has been glacial towards India. In spite of his long stay in Beijing, Jaishankar failed to deploy his contacts in favour of India. Despite the friendly equation between Modi and Xi, China is India’s most ferocious foe along with Pakistan.
Even the US, which is Jaishankar’s ideological model, is not particularly gung ho about India. During his first visit to America after Joe Biden took over, Jaishankar asserted, “The United States has not only an enormous ability to reinvent itself; it also has a great ability to assess its situation and re-strategise, in a way. And I do think today that when it comes to the big issues of our day …we have fundamental convergences. Convergences which are societal convergences, which are geopolitical. And I think the challenge before us is how to translate those convergences into actionable policies.”
But, the US did not even involve India in the Doha talks with the Taliban at the instance of Pakistan and China. By taking a strident pro-US posture, Jaishankar has, perhaps, unintentionally complicated and compromised India’s global image as a neutral nation. For the first time, India isn’t assured of support from any major block of small nations or the Big Five. Jaishankar has been trained as diplomat who thinks many times before saying nothing. His actions have painted India as a country without a defined foreign policy. Moreover, Jaishankar hasn’t given up his diplomatic demeanour.
Finally, it was left to National Security Advisor Ajit Doval to bring his counterparts from Russia, US and other countries to the discussion table and frame strategy for tackling the new normal. In addition, Modi appointed three Ministers of State. As someone wrote “diplomats were invented simply to waste time.” Modi has realised that he has no time to waste. Diplomacy cannot lead politics. The Jaishankar experiment has blunted India’s diplomatic sword tip. In the terror feast of Afghanistan, the foreign minister is the sous chef with a recipe for disaster. A genius superannuated babu in a mask of a politician can’t rise above his imbedded ‘Yes minister’ mindset. Only a politically savvy veteran can restore Modi’s global mojo.
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