As Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, with his new colleagues, stepped down from the dais after being sworn-in as Cabinet minister, the first congratulations came from former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who had walked up to greet the Ministers.
The moment was, in a way, also an affirmation of Jaishankar’s work as Joint Secretary (America’s) under Singh’s leadership when he started negotiations on the India-US nuclear deal, laying the groundwork for the landmark treaty.
On Thursday, he became the first former Foreign Secretary to become a Cabinet minister.
Jaishankar, a career diplomat from the 1977 batch, was handpicked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the post of Foreign Secretary in January 2015 to replace Sujatha Singh, who was removed six months before her term ended.
It’s widely believed that Modi was impressed by Jaishankar during his first visit to the US as Prime Minister in September 2014 when he met President Barack Obama and addressed the Indian diaspora at the Madison Square Garden — an event that played out in this campaign as well to signal his “global appeal”.
After he became Foreign Secretary for a two-year term, Jaishankar shaped policies in line with Modi’s idea of an aspirational and assertive India — from the outreach to West Asian countries, including the UAE and Israel, to negotiations with Japan on the nuclear deal; from playing hardball with the Chinese on Doklam to the Belt and Road Initiative and Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Clearly, Jaishankar was in sync with Modi’s idea of leveraging India’s power to its advantage. Not surprisingly, he received a one-year extension as Foreign Secretary.
As part of Modi’s core team from 2015 to 2018, Jaishankar was also able to navigate an easy relationship with the heavyweight National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
By the time he left the foreign service in 2018 after serving as India’s envoy to China, US and Singapore, and holding a range of diplomatic postings over three decades, he had built a formidable reputation as a hard negotiator.
Jaishankar had also left his mark on Modi with crucial inputs to other ministries and departments during the Prime Minister’s review meetings on infrastructure projects under PRAGATI (Pro-Active Governance And Timely Implementation).
This January, the 64-year-old received the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in the country. Today, he is seen as someone who is politically savvy, skillful in managing big-power relationships and capable of managing a key, high-profile ministry.
Jaishankar, who has also served as press secretary to former President Shankar Dayal Sharma, is the son of one of India’s most reputed strategic thinkers K Subrahmanyam.
After leaving the government, the PhD holder from JNU, who speaks fluent Russian, joined the Tata Group as president, global corporate affairs. But many in the corridors of power knew that it was just a matter of time before he would be called back. It happened on Thursday — with Ratan Tata looking on.