NEW DELHI -- Barely 24 hours after President Obama concluded his three-day visit to New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi fired the foreign secretary, Ms. Sujatha Singh, and appointed India's ambassador to the U.S., Mr. S. Jaishankar, as her replacement. The change of guard at the highest level of the foreign service wasn't quite unexpected. In the elite clubs of the Indian capital, rumors to this effect had been making the rounds for several months.
Modi was said to have developed an allergy for Ms. Singh early in his tenure. She had got the job, or so he was convinced, partly because of the proximity of her father, a veteran police officer, to India's influential Gandhi family. The prime minister, who shunted out bureaucrats suspected of loyalty to the previous Congress-led governments soon after he assumed office, was thus all the more determined to see the back of Ms. Singh. Apparently her style of functioning and her lack of fluency in Hindi, a language in which he conducts all business, reportedly riled him to no end as well.
A different set of reasons accounts for Modi's choice of the new foreign secretary. These were entirely professional in nature. S. Jaishankar's career in the foreign service has been uniformly brilliant. During his postings in some of the world's leading capitals -- Moscow, Washington, Tokyo, Beijing, Singapore -- his performance was the envy of his peers. His scholarly bent of mind and mastery of Russian and Mandarin were assets that he deployed with much finesse.
As a mid-level diplomat he made a sterling contribution to the 2005 Indo-U.S. nuclear deal. And as the Indian envoy in Washington, he had a hat trick to his credit: quietly solving a hugely contentious issue of the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York, ensuring the success of Modi's visit to the United States in September last year and pulling off a veritable diplomatic coup in nudging Washington's officialdom to facilitate President Obama's latest trip to India. No other American president had visited India twice while in office and no American president had been the chief guest -- at the majestic and colourful Republic Day parade down the central avenue in Delhi. Jaishankar deservedly got the credit due to him. Modi, who favors low-profile and efficient bureaucrats, had found the man he could trust to achieve his foreign policy goals.
In any other context, a reshuffle of bureaucrats wouldn't have attracted much attention outside the in-bred circle of officialdom. But the significance of the sacking of Ms. Singh and the appointment of Jaishankar has far-reaching connotations that simply can't be ignored. In one sharp, indeed brutal, stroke Modi has re-affirmed his will to call every shot in shaping the future course of India's relations with the outside world. Jaishankar will be the prime minister's sounding board, his close confidant and his Man Friday rolled in one. It is he who will be primarily tasked to implement Modi's grand design to invigorate the economy, modernize the armed forces and extend the reach of India's soft power.
As it happens, the countries that matter most to this design are the very ones where Jaishankar has developed networks of influential contacts. That includes, in the first place, the United States. In less than a year that he has been in office, Modi has jettisoned the remnants of the ideological baggage that stymied India's diplomacy in the past and forgotten American slights to his person (the denial of a visa to visit to the U.S. after the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots) to engage with Washington.
It is his robust pragmatism -- a singular trait of the Gujarati people -- that led Modi to an overwhelming conclusion: India needs America's economic strength, military might and technological prowess to bolster her own economy and address her security interests and concerns. America, in turn, needs access to India's markets and to India's pool of skilled talent and, not least, to tap India's potential to ally with her to confront the major challenges of the century: outrageous economic and social inequalities, climate change, upsurge of religious extremism and terrorism, expansionist ambitions of certain powers and so on.
The outcome of President Obama's latest visit has provided salience to Modi's design. Both countries have overcome -- at the governmental level -- past hurdles to implement their nuclear deal, to end India's isolation from institutions and arrangements involved in dual use nuclear technology regimes, to shore up their defense cooperation to a vastly heightened level -- especially in maritime and cyber security, counter-terrorism and intelligence sharing -- to facilitate American investments in several sectors in India ranging from alternative sources of energy to building smart cities and, not least, to respond to the seminal challenge of the century: China's rise as an economic and military power.
In their statements in Delhi both Obama and Modi have implicitly criticized Beijing for its aggressive stand on its maritime disputes with neighboring countries. The talk of Asian democracies ganging up to counter this stand has predictably evoked churlish comments in China. But the import of such talk must not be exaggerated. Both America and India will continue to engage with China because the alternative -- confrontation -- is bound to prove counter-productive.
OLD CIVILIZATIONS, NEW REALITIES
The fact that India's foreign minister will travel to China this week -- where she will also meet her Russian counterpart -- and that Modi himself will visit China later this year sends a singular message: India will continue to deal with Beijing on her own terms. That means enhancing economic cooperation with hardly any holds barred but also drawing red lines where security interests are concerned. And that, Modi believes, is the bottom line of America's policy towards China as well.
What about "shared values" that Obama and Modi have flaunted? They help in dealing with a shabby world but only up to a point. The pragmatist in Modi knows that since India is China's neighbor, it is imperative to calm a neighbor's angst -- and the angst of distant neighbors -- rather than to merely revel in the effusive cordiality of a country located beyond the seven seas. The basic instincts of the two ancient civilizations might yet astound the world.