New foreign secy Vijay Gokhale likely to play no politics, work to a script

Illustration: Binay Sinha
In the intricate dance that is “postings” in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), Vijay Gokhale’s appointment as foreign secretary signals a new approach on the part of the government — be safe, don’t be sorry.

Gokhale, a competent and conscientious foreign service officer of the 1981 batch, whose last posting was as India’s ambassador in Beijing, is credited with a lot of behind-the-scenes moves to defuse the crisis in Sino-Indian relations caused by the Chinese intrusion into Doklam. This is in line with the kind of work his predecessor, S Jaishankar, did in handling the intrusion into Depsang in 2013, when the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was in power. Tensions on the undemarcated boundary weeks before Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India had escalated so much that the UPA government had had to send its emissary, Salman Khurshid, to Beijing to tell the Chinese that if the troops did not pull back, India would have to call off the trip. Jaishankar had to defuse that flare-up. That is key in a series of incidents that marks a bipartisan resolve of Indian governments — to be more assertive in handling China.

But much more than that, Gokhale’s two-year tenure will ensure lines of succession in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) are not disturbed — as theywere when Jaishankar got a two-year fixed term and a year’s extension after that.

The government followed the rule-book. It announced Gokhale’s name only after 1980-batch Navtej Sarna’s official retirement in November and his acceptance of a year’s extension as Ambassador to the US. Two others in the 1981 batch besides Gokhale who could have become foreign secretary were Yash Sinha, India’s current high commissioner in London; and Sujan Chinoy, India’s ambassador in Tokyo. Chinoy’s Twitter page describes him as Ambassador to Japan and Gujarati from Kathiawar. Gokhale (who speaks Mandarin) taught himself Sanskrit.  That may have helped. The government decided to honour tradition and appoint the senior-most as foreign secretary. That was Gokhale.

This hasn’t always happened. Supersession and violation of the seniority principle have roiled waters in South Block in the recent past. This time, the government was clearly not ready to take a risk.

The service is unanimous that Gokhale has large shoes to fill: Jaishankar’s, for one, whose intellectual agility and understanding of geopolitics made him a treat to work with, say his colleagues. But while Jaishankar had strong likes and dislikes, Gokhale is balanced, stable and not an empire builder. He is reticent, whereas Jaishankar was friendly and sociable. He is also hard-working and dedicated.

Gokhale has never served in the neighbourhood. There was a time when foreign service officers, no matter how brilliant, could not even hope to be considered for the post of foreign secretary if they had not served one tenure in a position that had something to do with Pakistan. Nor had Jaishankar, but as ambassador to the US, he’d had some dealings with India’s western neighbour. Most of Gokhale’s career has been spent in east Asia — Malaysia, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Vietnam. He has never been posted in the US though he has handled multilateral economic diplomacy. This means that when it comes to policy in the neighbourhood, he will be guided by the advice of his secretaries. Does that make him a weak foreign secretary? Not necessarily, just a more consultative one. It also means that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO)-foreign service interface will deepen.

There are some who view this requirement for a foreign secretary as a cliché. Times have changed, they argue, and the steering of Indian foreign policy (and the challenges to it) requires new perspectives. Gokhale’s skills will be on test within days of his being designated foreign secretary as heads of 10 Asean nations descend on India on the eve of Republic Day and hold a summit meeting. The outcome of the meeting will reflect new geo-political positioning.

The question is what the government will do to utilise the talents of Jaishankar. It seems unlikely that having been given a year’s extension, he will simply be allowed to ride away into the sunset. Although he was offered the post of foreign policy advisor, he is believed to have declined it. Past governments have had National Security Advisors (NSAs) with overlapping powers. The result? The prime minister became an arbiter in battles between the external affairs ministry and the NSA. As Principal Secretary to the PM and NSA, Brajesh Mishra occupied a unique political as well as bureaucratic position. NSA AK Doval is the equivalent. But many argue, there is room for another NSA-like figure to guide the PM. But equally, having an NSA from the foreign service will undoubtedly emasculate the foreign secretary. 

But Gokhale is likely to play no politics and work to a script, bringing calm waters to South Block.

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