23 January 2020 04:35 AM




Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj: moment in the sun without PM Modi

NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to ‘sack’ Sujatha Singh and replace her as foreign secretary with an all time favourite of both the Congress and the BJP governments S.Jaishankar has again flagged the importance, or otherwise of the Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj in the new dispensation.

Swaraj, once a feisty and vocal leader of the BJP who has held several important positions, is barely recognisable to the media fraternity in her silent, quiet, unsmiling avatar. She has curbed her impromptu side to parrot only policy briefs cleared reportedly by the Prime Ministers Office, as she stands on the sidelines during important visits like that of US President Barack Obama recently ignored by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

At the most Swaraj is part of advance parties visiting capitals across the globe to prepare for a visit by the PM to the respective countries, and has started avoiding the media preferring not to air her knowledge, or otherwise, on foreign policy issues. It is reported and confirmed by sources that Swaraj wanted Sujatha Singh to complete her term, with just over six months remaining, but was overruled by PM Modi who has never hit it off with the former foreign secretary appointed as per the senior most in the hierarchy by the Manmohan Singh government. Interestingly at that time too Singh was credited with toying with the idea of bringing in Jaishankar but given the spate of resignations this would trigger, the Congress leadership was against rocking the boat.

Jaishankar retires on January 31 and hence had to be appointed before the date and thereby get the two years under the rules in the new appointment as foreign secretary. Sujatha Singh is widely expected to resign.

Swaraj meanwhile is getting ready to visit China to attend the meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, China and India. Beijing has officially welcomed the visit as “important” although the buzz in the BJP camp is that she is being sent to face the Chinese flak arising from the visit of US President Barack Obama to India. The agreement between PM Modi and President Obama to intensify cooperation in the Pacific and Indian Ocean attracted critical comments from Beijing that has clearly seen this as interference in its maritime policy for the region.

The headlines during the US Presidents visit were hogged by PM Modi whose Office is the final word on foreign policy. MEA has been reduced to a clerical service for bandobust and basic notes, with decisions resting with the Prime Minister who has been aggressively driving India’s external affairs agenda. Clearly there is little space in this for Swaraj who is basically the telegram service announcing visits, and attending meetings such as that in Beijing without the authority to commit India to any proposal without specific clearance from the PM.

Significantly Swaraj, always outspoken, had her first brush with foreign policy in 2001 when she was the Minister for Information and Broadcasting in the Vajpayee government. At the Agra summit, in the absence of proper briefings by the Indian side, she created a storm when she came into the waiting area for the hungry media to say that terrorism, nuclear etc issues had been discussed but remained silent on Jammu and Kashmir. This had the Pakistani’s protesting the next day, and the charged atmosphere at the summit took a decided turn for the worse with the agreement between then Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf and PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee being aborted.

Swaraj has been a colourful personality in the BJP, always accessible to the media and giving good copy. She had threatened to shave her head if Congress president Sonia Gandhi won the elections against her from Karnataka. Even at the onset of this government she was actively supporting veteran L.K.Advani and protesting against the marginalisation of Jaswant Singh. She was active on Twitter having a view on all issues.

However, over the weeks Swaraj has become increasingly quiet. She rarely speaks about foreign policy, and even less about the BJP and the organisation. In meetings where PM Modi is present, and of course in charge, Swaraj becomes a pale shadow merging with the whitewash. Even at the press interaction addressed by PM Modi and President Obama, Swaraj came out of the talks with Ministers Piyush Goyal and Arun Jaitley and listened as they talked animatedly. She was silent most of the time, being part of the entourage and not ‘the’ Minister in charge of the visit.

Jaishankar, who is seen as a whiz kid in the Ministry of External Affairs, has had a direct line to the PMO in the two successive governments now. He was seen as the blue eyed boy of Manmohan Singh, and has clearly been recognised by PM Modi who will be working directly with him. Significantly Jaishankar’s name was floated last year as a possible Advisor on Foreign Policy in the PMO but was ruled out reportedly as the ‘chemistry’ between him and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was inadequate. Neither was quite prepared to work under the other, but with this appointment both continue to have a relatively free hand without treading on each others toes.

Jaishankar has impressed the governments in Delhi with his efficient handling of both China when he was posted there, and the US. He played a major role in getting the US-Indian civilian nuclear agreement signed under the Manmohan Singh government and is expected to iron out the issues now. Interestingly he was sent as the US ambassador in this latest stint after the nuclear agreement fell through and relations between the two countries were at near freeze point over the Devyani Khobragade affair, and is credited with doing a great deal to turn around the relations again. To a point where President Obama arrived in Delhi as the Chief Guest for the Republic Day parade.

With his appointment the Minister of External Affairs along with the Ministry will become more of an appendage to the PMO with the new foreign secretary expected to function as an advisor to PM Modi that will place him higher in the ‘unofficial’ hierarchy than the post he now holds. As a wag said, “we hope in the process Sushmaji does not disappear from view entirely” more so as decisions are now cleared by the PM and not by the Minister. Not even appointments with her recommendations for envoys to missions abroad cutting little ice in the PMO that takes its own decisions.