All lined up Jaimini Bhagwati, Sujata Singh, S. Jaishankar and Sudhir Vyas are said to be in the reckoning for the fore
It’s A Sprint Diplomatique
Sujata Singh: Topper of the 1976 IFS batch; non-controversial, has strong political connections
Jaimini Bhagwati: Of the 1976 IFS batch; strong on economic issues; has served with the World Bank
S. Jaishankar: Of the 1977 IFS batch; impressed many with his effective handling of China affairs
Sudhir Vyas: Topped the 1977 IFS batch; has experience of S. Asia
The selection of bureaucrats for key positions seldom generates interest beyond the contenders and their family and friends. Not so when the foreign secretary is being chosen. For some years now, this South Block appointment has been watched with enthusiasm by those in the foreign policy establishment as well as others. Ranjan Mathai, the current incumbent, ends his tenure on July 31. Already, speculation, analysis—and some lobbying—has begun, with the aim of ensuring that a favourite gets the top post in the ministry of external affairs.
It is bruited in South Block circles that the three frontrunners are Sujata Singh, the ambassador to Germany; S. Jaishankar, the ambassador to China; and Jaimini Bhagwati, the Indian high commissioner in London. One other diplomat in the reckoning is Sudhir Vyas, secretary (west) at the MEA headquarters. Of course, the selection process will sieve a much bigger pool, comprising diplomats of the 1976 and 1977 batches of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS).
Sujata, the topper of the 1976 IFS batch, has garnered a wide range of experience and expertise, especially of western Europe. Bhagwati, of the same batch as Sujata’s, is said to have an edge because of his understanding of economics. Jaishankar, of the 1977 IFS batch, not only has experience of serving in neighbouring countries, he is considered strong on the West, particularly in dealing with the United States. Vyas topped the 1977 IFS batch. He has served in the neighbourhood—Pakistan and Bhutan—and is said to have the advantage of being posted at headquarters.
Most MEA-watchers believe that the next foreign secretary will be from the first three. For, besides their capabilities—something that is widely acknowledged—they also have the right political connections. Sujata’s father, T.V. Rajeshwar, is a former IB chief and has also served as governor of Uttar Pradesh. Her connection to the Congress leadership is well-known. Jaishankar is the son of the late K. Subrahmanyam, one of India’s foremost strategic thinkers, and is well cued in to key members of the ruling party. Bhagwati, who has served with the World Bank, is said to be close to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Much of the confusion and speculation surrounding the choice of the next foreign secretary stems from the government’s own policy, which many see as arbitrary and lacking in transparency. For choosing a foreign secretary, two key elements are said to be considered by the political leadership in general and the prime minister in particular: seniority and merit. Seniority is easily determined. Merit, however, is very difficult to even define, leave alone determine, especially in the context of diplomacy and its complexities. So the choice involves a lot of subjectivity.
As defined by procedure, the foreign secretary is chosen by a committee comprising the prime minister, the home minister and the foreign minister. But, MEA officials point out, a lot depends on the stature and heft of the foreign minister. An “assertive” foreign minister, they say, may have greater leverage that an “aspirational” minister, who would leave everything to the prime minister. Ultimately, of course, the prime minister’s choice prevails.