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Why appointing a career diplomat as External Affairs Minister can yield rich dividends?


New Delhi, June 1: Retired from service as Foreign Secretary and now back in office as the External Affairs Minister (EAM) of India, Subramanyam Jaishankar, who has over three decades of diplomatic experience, can truly be an asset for Prime Minister Modi's government. Unlike political appointees for this coveted cabinet post who may require time to get familiar with foreign policy matters, Jaishankar will be at home.

Jaishankar's role as the Foreign Secretary was appreciated, and he played a key role in the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal and handling of the Doklam standoff. Now that he is back in the ministry with more power, a lot more would be expected from him.

Subramanyam Jaishankar

Given India's hostile neighbourhood and yearning to be among top economic and military powers in the world, New Delhi needs to be very astute in dealing with challenges of foreign policy.

The way Modi has been posturing India as a 'strong' country that would brook no intrusion to its sovereignty, foreign policy and dealing with other nations become extremely crucial. If a bold stance has to be taken, it must be ensured that it is not met with a resistance and that's where diplomats play a role. The geopolitical environment should be such that India's posturing is acceptable to superpowers.

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Jaishankar's appointment is a shift from tradition. There have been External Affairs Ministers who were from Foreign Service, but India has not had a foreign secretary who has been given the position of External Affairs Minister.

A political appointee as foreign minister may not be familiar with the nitty-gritties of diplomacy and geopolitics. They may have to be briefed extensively before any engagement with a foreign country. They may not be familiar with the working of Indian Missions abroad or the powers that an Indian embassy can exercise if an Indian citizen needs help. In case of Jaishankar, these can not be the impediments.

Some were initially apprehensive, reports also emerged that Jaishankar may not be given the ministry of external affairs as it would show a conflict, considering he had already served as part of the ministry for more than three decades. He would know personnel working there and that leaves a room for prejudice. But, PM Modi seems have seen a positive side in appointing him as the minister.

Jaishankar knows the 'game of diplomacy' well, and that is what seemed to have mattered for PM Modi.

Former diplomats and international affairs experts have in fact hailed Jaishankar's appointment as the Minister of External Affairs, saying he is entering the political arena with a wealth of diplomatic experience.

Vivek Katju, former secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, said Jaishankar has an "outstanding record" as a diplomat and he will prove to be "great assistance" to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he formulates his policy, as per a PTI report.

"He is a fine professional. Track records of India diplomats being good public men and good political personalities have been very good... Nonetheless, it is one thing to be professionally competent. But, when you enter a political arena, there is a new dimension.

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"Jaishankar would have to prove himself as a fine political figure. I think he will do that well," he said.

Jaishankar took charge of the External Affairs ministry on Friday, a rare instance of a career diplomat handling the key portfolio as minister. Considered an expert on China and the US, the new External Affairs minister's moves will be keenly watched to see whether he brings any changes in India's approach in dealing with a hostile Pakistan. The 1977-batch IFS officer was a surprise pick in the Modi Cabinet, whose members took oath on Thursday, and he will succeed Sushma Swaraj in the ministry, where he had served as a foreign secretary from 2015-2018.

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