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Hand Across The Seas

Search for a foreign policy advisor for the PM raises questions of fitness and intention

Hand Across The Seas
Jitender Gupta
Hand Across The Seas

Place For An Advisor?

  • S. Jaishankar is a batch junior to Sujatha Singh. A foreign advisor’s position puts him above the foreign secretary in rank.
  • But a deputy advisor’s post will make Jaishankar report to NSA Doval, and not directly to the PM
  • An advisor’s rank will also put Jaishankar on par with the NSA, leaving Doval with curtailed clout
  • A retired diplomat, senior to Sujatha, like Prabhat Shukla, may fit the bill to guide foreign policy


The search for an ‘advisor’ on foreign policy is proving to be a tricky exercise for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. After his decisive victory in the parliamentary elections, Modi did not waste much time in appointing former Intelligence Bureau chief Ajit Doval as his National Security Advisor (NSA). But Doval’s experience and expertise is widely seen to be in matters of internal security and sleuthing. The need arises, therefore, to look for someone who will be able to guide and advise the prime minister on issues pertaining to foreign policy and issues which have wider international ramifications.

Surprisingly, no name has yet been finalised for the proposed post, though the pool consisting of serving and retired diplomats who can be considered for such a job is quite wide. Some of the aspirants, who in the past months rarely missed any opportunity to run down the Manmohan Singh government to show their closeness to the BJP and Narendra Modi, have been disappointed. Smarting under Doval’s app­ointment as the NSA—a position which they had probably been eyeing for themselves—some of the contenders have gone into a deep sulk and embarked on extended foreign trips.

In this backdrop, the arrival in New Delhi of India’s ambassador to the United States, S. Jaishankar—said to be a frontrunner for the proposed advisor’s post—has created quite a stir among foreign policy denizens in South Block. Jaishankar is also scheduled to meet the prime minister in the coming days, adding to the buzz.

Some try to play down Jaishankar’s arrival as part of a “routine consultation” which has come into media focus because of the forthcoming summit in Washington DC between the Indian prime minister and US President Bar­ack Obama in September. But others point out that Jaishankar has been invited by Modi to discuss whether he can play the role of a foreign policy advisor.

Opinion among former diplomats and the Indian foreign policy establishment is divided on whether there can be any meaningful requirement for the post of an advisor on foreign policy for the prime minister, especially when he already has a foreign minister, a foreign secretary as well as an NSA.

Some sections say the NSA should have been chosen from a diplomatic background. They say that people from other services, like the police or intelligence, would have a tendency of looking at most developments merely through the security prism, whereas diplomats have the advantage of being able to look at the bigger picture. K.C. Singh, former secretary in the MEA, agrees. “The NSA balances diplomatic, intelligence and defence considerations to delineate options for matching means to ends, without directly dabbling in any of them,” he told Outlook. “While Indian diplomats, as ambassadors, oversee the other two (defence and intelligence) in sensitive countries, our defence and intelligence community gets little experience of high-level diplomacy.”

Photograph by Narendra Bisht

But irrespective of what knowledge and experience a diplomat or security wonk brings to the prime minister’s table as his advisor, the possibility of such an appointment has raised several questions, both on the functioning of the foreign ministry and on the future relations between the foreign minister and the prime minister.

There is no doubt that when Narendra Modi decided to appoint Sushma Swa­raj—one of his most vocal critics in the party—as the Union external affairs minister, it came as a surprise to both his detractors as well to his camp-followers. The high-profile portfolio not only gives Sushma the opportunity to engage with the outside world as the new government’s face, it also makes her a member of the elite decision-making body—the cabinet committee on security (CCS).

To some, the move was reminiscent of Barack Obama’s decision to appoint his arch-rival Hilary Clinton as secretary of state in the first term of his presidency. But as the dust settles down, questions are being raised on how important a role will Sushma be playing in formulating and articulating the BJP-led NDA coalition’s foreign policy.

Indian prime ministers have played an important role in formulating the country’s foreign policy. For much of the time, they have done so in consultation with the foreign minister. However, the extent of the dependence on and engagement with the foreign minister depended on who occupied the chair and the equation the incumbent had with the prime minister.

The question being asked is: Will advisors in the PMO ignore inputs that come from Sushma and her team?

After Indira Gandhi, Sushma is only the second woman to hold the foreign minister’s post. Though she is one of the seniormost leaders in the BJP—she was leader of the opposition in the last Lok Sabha—she has no prior experience or exposure in dealing with foreign policy issues. There is no doubt that the foreign secretary and the large number of experienced diplomats in South Block will assist her at crucial meetings and in formulating policies on key issues. But will the Prime Minister’s Office and his advisors dominate the scene and ignore inputs that come from the external affairs minister and her team?

“You need a team that works together, not against each other,” says former Indian diplomat Veena Sikri. Expressing cautious optimism, she said, “It is just the beginning, lets us see how it evolves.”

If Jaishankar were to be appointed in the prime minister’s team as foreign policy advisor, there might be a problem over what designation he may have. A deputy nat­ional security advisor’s post may be too little for the current incumbent in the Washing­ton embassy to give up for relocating to New Delhi. But if he is made an advisor, he would technically be brought above the foreign secretary, Suj­atha Singh, who is a batch senior to Jaishankar in the service. Moreover, it might be tough to decide if a senior politician like Yashwant Sinha or a career diplomat like Ranjit Rae (India’s current ambassador to Nepal), should replace Jaishankar as ambassador to the US.

Some in South Block point out that though Modi may need an advisor or a group of advisors to deal with key foreign policy issues and to engage with world players, Jaishankar may be asked to continue in Washington DC—at least till the forthcoming India-US summit for which Modi will travel to the US.

But whoever gets to don the coveted advisory cloak, there is little doubt that, as on domestic issues, Narendra Modi would like to put his personal stamp on foreign policy too. For all one knows, such an individual or team of experts, instead of being shapers of foreign policy, might be doing no more than help the new prime minister deliver his message to the outside world.

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