The Jaishankar Effect: Upgrading Indian Foreign Policy Capacity for Global Ambitions


In a forward written by the ex- American Secretary of State (during the George HW Bush administration (Bush’41), for an ambassadorial memoir ), one can recall Ambassadors being bestowed with the epithet of the ‘Swiss Knife of Diplomacy’ — personnel who are part analyst, part diplomat and sometimes part spy. The Indian Union Cabinet Minister of External Affairs, Dr. S Jaishankar, a former ambassador to Beijing and Washington DC, has taken the part-politician dimension to a full-blown step when he was appointed as the Foreign Minister for the very ministry, he had served successfully for four decades. His final posting was as the Foreign Secretary from 2015 to 2018, under the revered patron-saint of the Indian diaspora, the Late Sushma Swaraj ji. 

Minister Jaishankar had read his MPhil and PhD in Jawaharlal Nehru University in International Relations and is sans any doubt the pre-eminent strategic thinker/practitioner of Indian Foreign Policy; keeping in to account his prolific intellectual engagements with the global policy community as a commentator. Dr. Jaishankar is the son of India’s foremost security thinker, the Late. K Subramanyam and the brother of noted medieval historian Prof. Sanjay Subramanyam. The doer-thinker duality and the seamless oratory of his persona emerges on the policy pulpits of the global capitals as a meta ambassador at large, bringing the Indian perspective on contentious issues such as the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir and the Balakot airstrikes. 

Historically, the Indian Foreign Ministry has been known as lukewarm in its stance regarding the nation’s Soft Power and has acquired a poor reputation for being understaffed. In the past, former UN Official, Writer and Politician Dr. Shashi Tharoor has often criticised the numerically insufficient foreign service, citing smaller countries such as Singapore and New Zealand as exemplary nations that have managed to hold onto a greater number of diplomats manning ones outposts abroad. While, this observation is empirically valid as written in Bajpai and Chong 2019, there has been a paradigm shift in the delivery approach which the Modi dispensation has brought on board.

“In 2016, there were only 770 IFS (A) executive level officers, against a sanctioned strength of 912 (Bagchi 2016b). India’s total diplomatic corps (consisting of anyone who is permitted to hold a diplomatic passport, including support staff and members of other services seconded to the Ministry), is around 2700 as against 1250 for South Korea, 800–850 for Singapore, 1300 for New Zealand, 900 for Italy, 2000 for Brazil, 4500 for China, and 5700 for Japan”

The shift in India’s diplomatic outreach overseas has been a game-changer under Prime Minister Modi, and with Dr Jaishankar steering the transition, the results are to be seen by all, especially in virgin domains like the diplomatic engagement with West Asia (GCC and Iran) and the management of India’s relationship with its immediate neighbours, stretching from  Bangladesh to Maldives. Modi ji was the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the UAE since 1981 in August 2015, and subsequently has been pivotal in championing the interests of the diaspora like the inauguration of a new temple in Abu Dhabi. Navdeep Singh Suri, the former Indian Ambassador to Abu Dhabi in an interview to Observer Research Foundation highlighted that the UAE is home to three million Indian expats, and is the source of a significant chunk of remittances that are sent back home; in line with supporting hundreds of thousands of families from Kerala to Punjab. 

India’s amplified coordination with the diaspora is a marker of the evolution in its foreign policy since the beginning of the Modi era in 2014. This endeavour has been helmed by Dr. Jaishankar and the late Sushma Swaraj ji. Even as the Chief Minister of Gujarat (from 2001 to 2014), Modi with his famed performance-focused ‘Gujarat Model of Governance’ act, had engaged China and East Asia as fountainheads of incoming investment by operating a quasi-sub national foreign policy, by setting up a state level investment promotion window, in line with Canadian provinces who have trade promotion offices in coordination with the sovereign diplomatic structures from Ottawa. 

On a trip to China, Modi ji had interacted with Ambassador Jaishankar, who had facilitated the visit flawlessly, which had caught Modi ji’s attention as it had been in line with the current PM’s governance lexicon. The common vision for a powerful India is the analytical bridge to understanding this robust partnership between Dr. Jaishankar and Modi ji. Dr. Jaishankar has been elected as a Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) from Gujarat State as well, which shows Prime Minister Modi ji’s trust in his credentials as an implementor of the Modi vision. Other Modi loyalists such as former Finance Minister the Late Mr. Arun Jaitley ji and Union Textiles Minister Smriti Irani ji (currently elected from the prestigious Amethi seat in Uttar Pradesh defeating Rahul Gandhi) were also Rajya Sabha members from Gujarat State. 

 The engagement with the United States has been elevated to newer heights, with close coordination with the White House, resulting in the ‘Howdy Modi’ presentation in Houston. Dr Jaishankar spoke at seven think-tanks in the maze of the DC policy architecture during his visit last year which has been dubbed as the ‘Full Jaishankar’ in the media, as it demonstrates India’s access to the power structures on Capitol Hill.   

New avenues of global trade engagement have opened up, including in Brazil which is a massive market ecosystem in itself, for raw material imports and product exports. There is a significant Goan diaspora in Brazil (unheard off in the mainstream media) due to the post-colonial Portuguese Lusophone global networks between Goa (Estade de Goa until 1961), Lisbon and Sao Paulo. Brazilian President Bolsanaro was the chief guest on India’s Republic Day. As a result of this strategic diplomatic coup, Indians now have Visa on Arrival Access in Brazil, a big win for tourists and traders alike. President Bolsanaro with his distinctive populist right-wing domestic politics should not hamper India’s strategic interests when India with its limited financial options must fend off China’s aggressive check-book diplomacy centric Belt and Road Initiative which is neo-colonial in form and substance, as debt is an instrument of foreign policy with Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka a case in point in our immediate maritime geography. 

Dr. Jaishankar realises the need for a creative diplomacy grounded in the politics of performance (and culture of self-audit) rather than dogma when he articulated his strategic thinking process at the Fourth Ramnath Goenka Lecture in November 2019, which is a masterclass on contemporary Indian Foreign Policy:

“Taking risks is inherent to the realization of ambitions. A nation that has the aspiration to become a leading power someday cannot continue with unsettled borders, an unintegrated region and under-exploited opportunities. Above all, it cannot be dogmatic in approaching a visibly changing global order. Napoleon once said that history is a version of past events that people have decided to agree upon. The world that awaits us not only calls for fresh thinking, but eventually, a new consensus at home as well. Putting dogmas behind us is a starting point for that journey.”

The above address confirmed India’s Foreign Policy shift in the public domain, from a balancing power to a ‘leading power’. However, there has been severe critique of this transformation by Foreign Policy Academics such as Aparna Pande, who wrote recently in The Wire, a left liberal digital media platform:

“Slower economic growth also means that the government lacks the resources to spend on military expansion and modernisation. At a time when China is expanding its military capabilities, and India’s friends would like New Delhi to play a bigger role internationally, India does not have the capacity or bandwidth to do so.”

The comparison to China, has been a staple obsession in the Indian imagination, however we would need to decouple India’s foreign policy objectives with China’s as it has different aspirations and objectives to India’s, starting with a bigger economy due to opening up of the economy in 1978, instead of 1992 following  the footsteps of the Singaporean developmental model. As the starting points are different, we need to formulate our own journey as a global power, being a fully functional multi-actor democracy instead of a one-party regime, which creates a different operational environment, with changing governments leading dynamic policy changes and associated fluctuations.

Upgrading Policy Capacity

India is currently opening 18 new embassies in Africa and has opened lines of credit for countries on the continent. The focus is currently on better delivery of development projects conceptualised by the ministry, by hiring technical experts. India has been successful in delivering infrastructure projects such as dams and roads in Afghanistan. The Ministry of External Affairs is augmenting its lean officer cadre with lateral entry contractual consultant track level appointments in areas such as Middle East, as a job posting recently brought to light. 

The Ministry of External Affairs with the private sector based think tank Observer Research Foundation hosts the annual jamboree known as the ‘The Raisina Dialogue’ (aka The Davos in Delhi) which is a soft power performance of the same magnitude (if not grander) as the Shangri La and the Manama Dialogues (along with The Doha Forum) punctuating the global policy events calendar. Dr. Jaishankar’s son Dhruva, is an established policy wonk in his own right and is affiliated with the Observer Research Foundation in Washington DC. 

The integration of private sector think-tanks in building the new foreign policy ecosystem in India is a page borrowed from the American Think Tank revolving door policy playbook. Private sector think tanks are entrepreneurial and dynamic, in comparison to the Sarkari way of doing business, which Dr. Jaishankar is attempting to disrupt/correct. The questions of ethics and conflict of interest will be around with any public-private partnership; however, the politics of performance takes precedence over dogmatic processes and standard operating procedure. Such hybrid models of governance were unthinkable even in the recent past, but with Modi ji very clear about binging in a culture of accountability in the civil service, the foreign service is an ideal starting point for administrative reforms to catapult Indian Diplomacy to the Digital era. 

As Dr. Jaishankar says in his address at the Ramnath Goenka Lecture, we must move on from dogmas to deliver the politics of performance in line in the Modi vision of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas’. There is a historic reform of the foreign policy apparatus under way with specialist roles such as digital and technology diplomacy team among others being formed in order to respond to the emergent issues of the day. Dr. Jaishankar is cognizant of the public facing nature of the ministry, engaging with social media in a digital native fashion.

The ‘Indo’ in the new geographical coinage ‘The Indo-Pacific’ will exert its rightful presence in the global community of sovereign participants, de-hyphenating its reductionist usage with its failed state category western neighbour and a hyper-nationalist ‘Middle Kingdom’ to its north. Dr. Jaishankar’s impact has been to restart a conversation towards a constructive politics of policy delivery, positioning India as a power in the ‘Future is Asian’ paradigm. An aggressive foreign policy is beneficial for pleasant optics for the domestic voter at the polling booth as well. 

Subject Matter Experts as Ministers backed by political will, have a capacity to catalyse change, and the Foreign Ministry will be a case study for the Modi Model of Governance in the decade ahead, including the Galwan Crisis and the Nepal Fiasco.

The War Clouds

The Galwan Crisis in the height of the global pandemic with a recession in tow, brings exceptional challenges for the steering of foreign policy through choppy waters. A normally pliant Nepal shot down an Indian soldier on the border and is acting belligerent under KP Oli’s Beijing directed leadership. The Chinese Ambassador to Kathmandu seems to be prancing around to get Nepal on her side. Bangladesh in this India-China stand-off is being aggressively wooed with tariff free exports on a range of exports. India’s stand post Galwan has been a soft stance, which has disappointed many die-hard Modi supporters, and a Tik Tok Ban does not count. USA has commented in India’s favour although the concrete steps still ought to be taken by us, including Dr Jaishankar. 

This crisis has shown the inertia in our foreign policy when it comes to handling our bigger neighbour. It is the biggest litmus test of the right-wing Hindu Nationalist dispensation post Balakot. China did not release casualty figures as in the 1962 war to save face, a very Chinese concept, where honour is placed at a greater pedestal than lives. As a democracy we honour and acknowledge our brave martyrs. Nepalese adventurism will be cut down to size as KP Oli is confronting issues within his own party and battling for political survival. Indian security establishment has a deep state approach in Nepal which will be harnessed to deliver a firm response. Bangladesh needs India for political stability as there is plenty of anti Awami League sentiment on the ground despite its booming neo-tiger economy. 

These unprecedented challenges hold extraordinary promise for radical reform or conversely a slide into middle power status instead of being a regional hegemon. China on the contrary is angling for global domination while India is too consumed in the banalities of every politics. 

Manishankar Prasad

Manishankar Prasad is an environmental engineer, sociologist, researcher and writer. He has studied at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has published across numerous national and international platforms such as the New Indian Express and the Huffington Post, been a panellist on Al Jazeera International and BBC World, and has been interviewed by Forbes and The Guardian.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.


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