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A Diplomat amongst Politicians

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Assessing the challenges before South Block’s new Czar

Ex- Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar’s appointment as the new External Affairs Minister has managed to turn more than just a few heads. The significance of the PM’s unexpected decision has not been lost to anyone. For a very long time, the Ministry of External Affairs was treated as a retirement home for political heavyweights, who were appointed to the position as a thank you for their services in the political world and not because of their competence in diplomacy or international relations. By choosing Ambassador Jaishankar for the job, the Prime Minister has signalled his intent to favour policy over politics.

Now when the new EAM seems to have dealt with all the congratulatory messages, perhaps it is time to set the wheels in motion for a tenure which promises lots of entertainment for the foreign policy enthusiasts, like me. From the U.S-China trade war, the Iranian Crisis to Brexit, South Block’s new Czar seems to have his plate full from the very beginning of his term.

The U.S-China trade war
Jaishankar’s appointment is also significant, because it comes at a time when the United States and China are locked in a bitter trade war. With threats of tariff increase and sanction flying openly from both sides, the implications on India could be heavy.

For starters, the current skirmish between the two heavyweights has raised the global financial temperature by manifolds. Already the domestic stock market is feeling the heat of this pointless showdown, with the Sensex and Nifty consistently showing an unpredictable trend.

Under Modi, India is also looking to dramatically expand its manufacturing sector to create the much needed jobs to lower distress among its youth. For that to happen, India needs investments from Chinese manufacturers, who specialise in job-intensive investment. Now, with Trump’s sanctions, Chinese companies may decide to funnel their investments away to a new market. And to ensure that the next destination of Chinese businesses is India, we need a pro-active government, led by an able South block.

A few years ago when asked in a conclave on whose side India should be in should there be a conflict between U.S and China? Jaishankar had famously replied, “India should pick a side, its own side.” This signals a right attitude for a man tasked with solving this enigmatic issue. Looking at his track record with China (resolution of the Doklam Crisis) and the United States (Jaishankar spearheaded the negotiations on the Nuclear treaty between India and U.S), it seems like the new EAM is chosen particularly with this issue in mind.

Iran and the Middle East
Being a developing economy, which guzzles oil like a hungry infant, India needs Iran and due to the sanctions imposed upon it, which has effectively destroyed its economy, Iran needs India. Because of the presence of government control over the oil production and the willingness to do business in rupee, Iran has emerged as a reliable source to fulfil India’s energy needs. The port of Chahbahar in Iran which India is developing is also strategically indispensable to us as it provides an alternative route to connect India and Afghanistan by bypassing the ever mischievous Pakistan.
On the other hand stands the United States, whom India cannot afford upsetting. From blacklisting of Jaish-e-Mohammed to the placement of Pakistan on the FATF grey list, the sole superpower’s extraordinary influence has opened one too many doors for India.

This has placed New Delhi in a dilemma, as it cannot afford to irk either Tehran or Washington. EAM Jaishankar has to use all the experience that he has accumulated over the past forty years, to navigate India through this complex situation.

Brexit and the changing global order
As India closes towards becoming a truly globalised economy, countries in the west are one by one closing their doors. It all started when the Britishers made their intentions clear with Brexit, telling the world that they wish to separate from the EU and want control over their border and this event in turn had a domino effect on the western world, with countries electing populist nationalist leaders, one by one, who in turn advocate a stronger protectionist policy for their country.

This could scuttle India’s vision of becoming an export powerhouse (see: make in India). Here, we need a person who can skillfully negotiate trade concessions with these financially hostile countries and provide India with an opportunity to fulfill its goals.

For years India was accused by its neighbour to possess a big brotherly attitude. A departure from this outlook was seen in the first term of the Modi government, when the Prime Minister chose Bhutan as the destination for his maiden foreign visit. Even in Modi 2.0, the PM’s choice was Maldives an important neighbour from a strategic viewpoint. Over the last five years, India has effectively isolated Pakistan by scuttling SAARC in favour of BIMSTEC, extended multibillion dollar loans to countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to curb the menace of the ‘string of pearl’ and has somehow managed to be on the good books of all its neighbours.

The only thing left for the new EAM to do is to take the already great relationships to even new heights and cement India’s position as the true leader of its backyard.

Over the years Dr. Jaishankar has proved his mettle with the Indian Foreign Service, dexterously solving complicated issues like the Civil Nuclear deal and the Doklam Standoff; hence the expectation from him in this job rises even more. Would he be able to replicate his success in this new avatar? Only time will tell.

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