Australian Outlook

In this section

Modi’s Unconventional Approach to Managing Foreign Affairs

05 Jun 2019
By Professor Purnendra Jain
Subrahmanyam Jaishankar at the European Business Summit, May 2019. Source: Flickr

Indian Prime Minister Modi’s unconventional appointment of a former career diplomat as foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, suggests India will have its most visible and active role in the global community yet.

In a surprise move, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has appointed a former top career diplomat, Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, as the minister of external affairs. He replaces Ms Sushma Swaraj, who served in this role from 2014 to 2019 in the first Modi government. Virtually no-one, either domestically or internationally, would argue against Modi’s choice.

Never before has a former career diplomat been appointed as India’s minister of external affairs, a position generally reserved for one of the most senior ruling party members, just as Swaraj was in Modi’s last cabinet. Yet to go against conventional wisdom and established traditions is one of Modi’s key political hallmarks.

With this unconventional move, Modi’s message to the world is to sit up and take notice of India.

Jaishankar did not contest the election nor does he hold a seat in either house of the Indian Parliament. To continue in this office, he will need to become a member of parliament within six months, as stipulated by Article 75(5) of the Constitution. He will also most likely be nominated as a member of the Rajya Sabha (upper house of the Indian Parliament).

Jaishankar did however serve as India’s foreign secretary for three of the five years during the first Modi government. Modi had appointed him foreign secretary in January 2015 while Jaishankar’s senior, Sujatha Singh, was still to complete her term as foreign secretary.

The prime minister seems to have great confidence and trust in Jaishankar. Modi had met Jaishankar before, including when he was Gujarat’s chief minister and Jaishankar was serving as India’s ambassador to China. When Jaishankar was India’s ambassador to the US, he must have also made a deep impression on Modi during his highly successful visit to America in September 2014.

Jaishankar joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1977, serving in some of the most influential diplomatic positions, including as ambassador to China and the United States. Upon retirement in January 2018, Jaishankar joined India’s leading business establishment, the Tata Group, as president of its global corporate affairs.

There was little prior indication that Modi was considering Jaishankar as minister of external affairs for his new cabinet. This news broke only a few hours before the new cabinet members were to take oath of office. It was completely unexpected, though it may be Modi’s master stroke and give India the best chance of reaching a higher level on the world stage.

Jaishankar is a strategic thinker with sharp negotiating skills. During his four-decade long diplomatic career, he was closely involved in key negotiations with important policy outcomes in India’s favour. He was as one of key architects of India’s nuclear deal with the United States in mid-2000s. He also handled highly sensitive diplomatic issues and military stand-offs between India and China, such as those related to the Line of Actual Control and, most recently, those related to the Doklam standoff at the tri-junction border area of India, Bhutan and China.

As India’s new foreign minister, Jaishankar faces major challenges relating to issues of bilateral trade and commerce, not least with the US, as well as relating to US views on global issues such as those connected to China and Iran. While India’s relations with China have improved recently, there are lingering and unresolved border disputes. India refuses to participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative and is highly suspicious of Beijing’s strategic plans in New Delhi’s backyard. To India’s irritation, China acts as a roadblock to India’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

But for Jaishankar such difficult diplomatic issues are not new and he is well equipped to stand up to those challenges and handle them with the diplomatic care they require. Jaishankar is not only a successful and highly regarded former diplomat and practitioner: he is armed with keen negotiating skills, a deep capacity for strategic thinking and a powerful ability as a public speaker.

On India’s foreign policy issues, Jaishankar has not only engaged the global diplomatic community and some of the top world leaders, he has also interacted closely with both domestic and international epistemic community through his speeches and addresses to think tanks and research institutes.

He was the key person behind the establishment in 2016 of the annual Raisina Dialogue, India’s first global forum. This allows academics, practitioners, business and political leaders from around the world to meet to discuss and debate issues of regional and global concern.

As India’s foreign secretary for three years under Modi, Jaishankar redefined and chartered a new course for foreign policy. Whether in his contribution to India’s emerging “multi-alignment” approach — which shifts away from its past “non-aligned” orientation — or to India’s pursuit of strategic autonomy, Jaishankar has already had a distinct impact on the development of the ideas and policies in India’s international relations. He has not hesitated to state that India today aspires to be “a leading power, rather than just a balancing power.”

With an exceptional diplomatic career and now as a new minister for external affairs, it is expected that Jaishankar will help to make New Delhi more visible and active as a member of the global community than ever, as it pursues its goal to be a leading power.

It’s time Canberra engaged a little more deeply with New Delhi, as India prepares for its next phase of foreign policy directions under a new minister of external affairs.

Purnendra Jain is a professor in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Adelaide. His research and teaching interests are focused on the politics and international relations of contemporary Asia. He currently serves as vice-president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (SA branch). He is the honorary head of research and academic development and advisory board member of Sage International Australia.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.