The choice of retired foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar as External Affairs Minister clearly shows the importance given to foreign policy by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
A career diplomat with over 40 years of inside knowledge in international affairs will be sorely needed to take on some of the challenges that India faces in its neighbourhood and in relationship with big powers like the United States and Russia.
Subrahmanyam Jaishankar reportedly played a key role in advising Modi when he was Gujarat chief minister and prior to visiting China on an official visit. The personal rapport that they struck resulted in Jaishankar being preferred for the foreign secretary’s position when Modi 1.0 came to power in 2014.
The new incumbent was always on hand advising the Modi government on ways to deal with China during the Dokalam crisis and vis-a-vis Pakistan.
Battling Iran oil crisis
India now is facing the tough task on how to handle the US-Iran imbroglio, in which New Delhi is caught in a cleft stick. Already under the pressure of US President Donald Trump, India has all but shut oil imports from Iran.
Previous external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj brought some time saying the new government would take a call on Trump’s insistence that India end its oil imports from Iran. Now that the time has come for the government to take a call, it will require all of Jaishankar’s ingenuity to handle the issue.
China has defied the US diktat and is going ahead with its oil imports from Iran. Turkey has stopped under protest and India has so far not resisted. But the new government will have to spell out its stance soon.
Relationship with Pakistan
The other key issue is Pakistan. After the low ebb in relationship with Islamabad following the Pathankot, Uri and Pulwama terror strikes followed by the Balakot air strikes by India on Pakistan, Modi’s counterpart Imran Khan has extended an olive branch. Whether New Delhi will accept it or react with disdain is another crucial call that Subrahmanyam Jaishankar will have to steer.
Another ballooning problem for India is the United States’ threat to remove India from its preferential trade category. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar will have to coordinate with the Finance, Commerce and other relevant ministries to ease several issues that threaten to strain New Delhi’s relationship with Washington.
Given that none of these are simplistic, uni-linear issues, the new Modi government will require much more diplomacy to sort out the tangles without compromising Indian interests.
Other issues include Afghanistan, where the Taliban is back in the reckoning and is part of a channel two peace talks at the insistence of the US government. For India, which is a crucial player in Afghanistan, it is necessary that it does not lose its leeway on the issue. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar will again be called upon to deal with it.
Plate full for Jaishankar
Thus, one thing is fairly clear. The plate is full for Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. It will not be a cakewalk like 2014 when, as foreign secretary, all he had to initially do was to organise the myriad trips of Modi abroad, including the well-publicised visit to the US and the return visit of the then American president Barack Obama to India.