Sujatha Singh is the Indian Ambassador to Germany and the country’s senior-most diplomat. So ordinarily, there would have been no question as to who would succeed Ranjan Mathai as the next foreign secretary.
Except that S. Jaishankar, Indian envoy to China, who’s deft handling of the recent crisis caused by the intrusion of Chinese troops into Ladakh earned him much praise, was favored for the position by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, himself.
But Jaishankar’s success in dealing with the US appears to have become a liability for him. Having played a crucial role in the conclusion of the India-US nuclear deal, his perceived proximity to Washington DC has become a source of discomfort for the ruling Congress party.
Highly placed sources told StratPost that important leaders within the Congress party, including External Affairs Minister, Salman Khurshid, while conceding Jaishankar’s competence, have opposed his elevation as head of the Foreign Service, considering this image of affinity towards Washington DC.
Consequently, they have decided to rally behind Sujatha Singh, since not only was she the top IFS (Indian Foreign Service) officer, but also had no perception issues as to her ‘neutrality’.
And while a formal announcement is still to be made, there is now tacit agreement that she will be the next foreign secretary.
Jaishankar is an officer of the 1977 batch, while Singh is a batch senior to him. Only two women, Chokila Iyer and Nirupama Rao, have, so far, risen to become the top bureaucrat in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).
Singh is married to Sanjay Singh, who retired as Secretary (East) in the MEA a couple of months back. She is the daughter of former Director, Intelligence Bureau, TV Rajeswar, who also served as the Governor of Uttar Pradesh state and, in the 1980s, was considered close to the Gandhi family.
Sources also said the prospect of at least four senior officers threatening resignation over their unhappiness over Jaishankar superseding them, including Indian High Commissioner to the UK, Jamini Bhagwati, Secretary (West), Sudhir Vyas and Secretary (Public Diplomacy) Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, made the decision easier to make.
Jaishankar’s detractors reminded others how Indian envoys in France and Bangladesh had quit when current National Security Adviser (NSA) Shivshankar Menon was made the foreign secretary, superseding a dozen officers. The last two foreign secretaries, Nirupama Rao and Ranjan Mathai, were the senior-most in the service.
But sources emphasized that Jaishankar’s pro-US image hurt his chances the most. This argument gave the Congress party ammunition to shoot down Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s choice of Jaishankar as the next foreign secretary.
They said India could not afford to have a foreign secretary perceived to be close to the US at a time when it was building stronger relations with its immediate neighbors, countries in its extended neighborhood in West and Central Asia, and in Europe.
Jaishankar’s backers had pointed to Singh’s inexperience in handling relations with India’s neighbors. She has neither been posted to any of the neighboring capitals, nor been part of important desks dealing with with neighbors, barring a stint on the ‘Nepal desk’.
On the other hand, Jaishankar was Joint Secretary (Americas) and is currently India’s envoy to China. He speaks Russian.
Singh had served as India’s high commissioner in Australia at a difficult time in 2009-10, when hate crimes against Indians were on the increase. Singh, who speaks German, has been India’s envoy to Berlin at a time when Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Indian PM are working to forge closer Indo-German ties.
But sources said it is Sujatha Singh’s ‘neutrality’ that will likely win her the position of India’s next foreign secretary. “What many thought to be her weak point has become her strong point,” said a highly placed source.
It is customary to announce the name of the next foreign secretary a month before the expiry of the term of the current foreign secretary. Mathai completes his two-year term at the end of July.
Singh’s elevation will leave the PMO and MEA with another conundrum; that of Jaishankar’s next posting. He would be a good candidate as the next envoy to Washington DC, but that again may not be easy, with incumbent Nirupama Rao keen on an extension.