March 23, 2020
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The Chicken Neck Corridors

Sujatha Singh had it coming. Her removal is of a piece with Modidom wanting its own men.

The Chicken Neck Corridors
Mohd. Jaffer/Snapsindia
The Chicken Neck Corridors

Sacked On The Job

  • Jagat Mehta, who tried to push himself for the post of the Commonwealth secretary-general, was removed by Janata Party PM Charan Singh in 1979
  • A.P. Venkateswaran, critical of the decision to send IPKF to Sri Lanka, was removed by Congress PM Rajiv Gandhi in 1987
  • S.K.Singh, who differed with foreign minister Inder Kumar Gujral on policies, was removed by National Front PM V.P. Singh in 1990


Trained diplomats do seldom get rattled by dramatic events at home or elsewhere on the globe. And yet, foreign secretary Sujatha Singh’s unceremonious removal last week—days before senior Indian diplomats from around the world were to gather in the capital for their first scheduled meeting and engagement with Prime Minister Narendra Modi—has created a sense of disquiet among elite foreign service cadres. The unease deepened after the government followed that up a few days later with the sacking of home secretary Anil Goswami.

Though different reasons are cited for the two decisions, many diplomats read an ominous message behind them. Suja­tha, removed six months before her term was to end, was said to lack “personal che­mi­stry” with Modi. Goswami, on the other hand, was forced to accept voluntary retirement for his alleged att­empt to intervene in a CBI investigation against a politician embroiled in a scam. Most see these as part of the larger att­e­mpt by the Modi regime to reshape the bureaucr­acy’s top echelons by replacing heads and secretaries in key ministries and departments with officials of their cho­ice. Those replaced include finance secretary Arvind Mayaram, DRDO chief Avinash Chan­der and SPG head K. Durga Pra­sad.

Whether this is interpreted as a ‘perform or perish’ credo being enforced, or as a government winnowing out those it does not favour for reasons of policy preferences, fact is that a retuning of the top bureaucracy falls entirely within the realm of the government’s normal prero­gative. “No matter how sudden and abr­upt these changes look, the government is well within its right to remove secretaries of key ministries and replace them with bureaucrats of their choice,” says a retired government official.

To be sure, previous governments too often brought in their own people to head key ministries and departments to ensure their policies were implemented more effectively, aligned to their desired overall direction. For this reason, they also decided to give secretaries in key ministries a two-year tenure so that they could shape their respective minist­ries and steer policy more meaningfully. It’s the sudden spurt of top-level changes across important min­istries that has set a mini-debate simmering.

Anyone can bet that as senior Indian diplomats gather in Delhi on Friday for the five-day Indian Heads of Mission Conference, top of the menu of informal discussions on the sidelines would be Sujatha’s sacking and its likely impact on the foreign policy establishment. The full import of the new way of working on their own future would likely animate the talk in the corridors. “If the foreign secretary can be sacked so unceremoniously, how secure are other officers?” asks a concerned diplomat.

Sujatha with Sushma and V.K. Singh. (Photograph by Jitender Gupta)

Sujatha’s removal may well have been unceremonious but it was certainly not sudden. Informed diplomats say she herself knew something like this might happen from October, weeks after Modi’s visit to the US. S. Jaishankar, who repla­ced her as foreign secretary and was at the time India’s ambassador to Washing­ton, had always been a strong contender for the post. Playing a key role in ensuring Modi’s first visit to the US as India’s PM was a resounding success strengthened Jaishankar’s stock with Modi further. So it was a matter of time before he was brought in to replace Sujatha. It finally happened on Jan 29, three days before Jaishankar was to retire from service.

Traditionally, NSAs have been seasoned diplomats. Ajit Doval has a security and intelligence background. Hence Jaishankar.

Moreover, though the decision is unus­ual, Modi is not the first PM to sack his foreign secretary midway. This has happened at least thrice in the history of the Indian Foreign Service. Rajiv Gandhi, who had come to power on a mandate much more massive than Modi’s in 1984, sacked his foreign secretary A.P. Venkate­swaran on Jan 20, 1987, just 10 months after he had been at the job. That unceremonious removal became a much-talked-about incident but there was one occasion before this—when foreign secretary Jagat Mehta was removed by Charan Singh when he was Janata Party’s PM in 1979. Nor did the Venkateswaran kerfuffle prevent future occurrence. I.K. Gujral, as foreign minister in V.P. Singh’s Natio­nal Front government in 1989-90, removed S.K. Singh as foreign secretary before his tenure was over.

Sujatha Singh’s removal, the fourth such instance, comes after a 25-year gap and has, expectedly, set off some ripples. “Traditionally, the foreign secretary had been the PM’s principal foreign policy advisor and had always worked closely with the prime minister,” says a retired ambassador. This changed in the late ’90s when the government created the parallel post of the National Security Advisor in the wake of Pokhran-II, when it had to engage with the outside world in a more robust manner in the specialised realm of security policy. Since most NSAs since had also been seasoned and trained diplomats—many indeed having served as foreign secretary—over the years the foreign secretary’s post started losing some of its traditional importance. A parallel figure in the NSA, senior to the incumbent foreign secretary, and close to the PM, was bound to have that effect.

Under the Modi government, the app­ointment of Ajit Doval as NSA, a man with a security and intelligence background rather than one in diplomacy, created a new problem. Modi was keen to get Jai­shankar, a man he trusted and with whom he had a personal rapport, but could not bring him in a meaningful post unless he removed Sujatha. If he waited for her to complete her tenure, it would have created a fresh problem because Jaishankar would by then have retired and could not have been brought in as foreign secretary without upsetting a number of other officers in the service.

Moreover, unlike with A.B. Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh where there was continuity in foreign policy, under Modi, widely seen as an “activist prime minister”, a serious attempt is being made to make a fundamental shift. “There is a fundamental and qualitative change, a clear shift from a merely liberal approach to more pronounced right-wing polic­ies,” another senior Indian diplomat says.

For the next five days, much of this new vision and thrust will become evident when Modi meets and interacts with over 120 heads of mission and other diplomats at the newly built Jaw­aharlal Nehru Bhavan. While the conference is themed ‘Diplomacy for Development’, the underlying message is becoming exceedingly clear to most: those who do not perform and achieve desired results will be marginalised while those who can take up the challenge will be rewarded.

Perhaps the diplomats will find it easier to swallow the Gujarati and Andhra food at the conference than some of the una­mbiguous messaging directed at them. How well they manage to digest it will be an ongoing process of discovery.

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