by Sandeep Dikshit

It was a balmy evening in Beijing when a group of Indian journalists were invited to the Indian embassy. S Jaishankar was then the resident envoy and invariably questions veered towards India’s huge deficit with China that had become a major eyesore in its economic story (the deficit has since risen by more than Rs 1.5 crore). “If business was so easy, all of you would have come here in your personal planes,” retorted Jaishankar.

This streak of realism has been a constant trait in the Jaishankar family. His father K Subrahmanyam emerged as one of the country’s top strategic thinkers in the post-Nehru era. Going against the grain, Subrahmanyam was early to spot the challenges of China’s growing nationalism and was an unabashed votary of the nuclear bomb as well as closer ties with the US, arguing that in post-1991 world of just one superpower, a closer relationship with Washington was necessary for the containment of China as well as permit the emergence of India as a world power.

For Jaishankar, the lineage can be both a blessing and a bother. Rather unfairly, he was dubbed “Mr America” by his batch mates for the unabashed promotion of intimate Indo-US ties by the circle of columnists, academics and journalists considered close to him and his father. That he fell short in transforming Sino-India economic ties as India’s longest serving ambassador in Beijing, they say, showed his inclination to play the containment game against China rather than shovel a path for enduring cooperation. When he was the Foreign Secretary, his preference for a “Hard State” approach was reflected in an unannounced economic blockade on tiny Nepal that depends on India for most of its trade. His critics point out that the end game of this coercion was the installation of a Communist government in Kathmandu that quickly signed on to China’s One Belt One Road project.

However, not all blame needs be laid on Jaishankar’s door. As a mere ambassador or Foreign Secretary, there is a limit on an individual’s capability to make a turnaround in international affairs. In a government that will be run on the presumption of complete meeting of minds and the certainty about the end goals at the apex level — PM Modi, Amit Shah, Ajit Doval, Rajnath Singh and Nirmala Sitharaman — Jaishankar, as one of the Cabinet ministers, will have no cause to complaint about inter-ministry inertia or competing political compulsions, as has happened in the past.

As Foreign Secretary and with the complete backing of the Modi-Doval duo, Jaishankar had worked out of the box. Working around the disadvantage of making postings only by seniority, he had plucked diplomats whom he thought had the right aptitude and placed them in crucial positions. When he was succeeded as Foreign Secretary by Vijay Gokhale, many of them were reverted. Now back as Gokhale’s boss, his deep familiarity with the men and women of the diplomatic corps could mean an uncalled for dual control over the foreign services. As a line diplomat, he, more than most of his predecessors as Foreign Ministers, knows where the shoe actually pinches because of the shortage of personnel in the foreign services. The first challenge for Jaishankar will be to keep the motivation high while making lateral inductions and placing right persons for the right jobs in a notoriously hide-bound bureaucratic structure.

Every Foreign Minister has his plate full of challenges. Jaishankar is no exception. China, Pakistan, Russia, the US, Iran, all need his attention. There are problems in ties with all of these. The expectation from Jaishankar is higher. From defence to foreign affairs, all ministries have been shortchanged on the issue of structural reforms for over a decade. This has left them unable to cope with the challenges of the future.

For this, Jaishankar needs a full complement of human resources at his disposal and complete backing in accomplishing the end goals. For instance, India’s generous assistance in the neighbourhood has to be effective and faster. Should there be an autonomous body like USAID or more sharper focus within the ministry itself? 

India’s maritime forays bring no economic dividend. Is it time to look at the deep sea marine economy to balance the books? India’s IT exports story is now two decades old and stagnating. 

How can India integrate itself into the global production change without giving up its opposition to China’s OBOR? Can major arms sellers be kept happy while India tries to localise some of their production? In the end, success is all about economics. A firm approach or an unyielding temperament can only bring temporary dividends such as ending the dispute with China over stapled visas.

Jaishankar had never taken to Twitter till this Saturday unlike his predecessor who had utilised the social with aplomb. However, his style will be quiet, unhurried and meticulous. But as he well knows, India cannot leverage the size of its population to clamber on the global stage. The changeover from being a “balancer” to a “leading power” entails developing adequate economic muscle. Jaishankar has his task cut out for him: finding more external avenues for India’s growth more than taming recalcitrant neighbours and a trapeze act between the superpowers.