Eram Agha

WHEN THE FOREIGN SECRETARY, Sujatha Singh, got a call from the external-affairs minister’s office in January 2015, she knew something was up. Sushma Swaraj wanted to set up a meeting for 2 pm on 28 January but would not say what the meeting was about.

This was unusual and enough to make Singh wary. When she went in, she tried to keep up appearances and began briefing the minister about the next day’s plan. But, before long, Swaraj conveyed the disappointing news. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wanted to replace her as foreign secretary, with Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. She would not serve a full two-year term, which was to end in six months.

When she described this sequence of events to the journalist Karan Thapar, Singh’s voice was heavy with emotion. The news of her curtailment had made headlines—it was a shocking and rare development in the history of the Indian Foreign Service. The only other time a foreign secretary had been unceremoniously replaced was in 1987. AP Venkateswaran had a reputation for being blunt and not being a pliant bureaucrat; he was known, for instance, to have differences with various officials, including the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi—on sending the Indian Peace Keeping Force into Sri Lanka. In a televised interview, Gandhi finally dropped a bomb: “Soon you will be talking to a new foreign secretary.” Venkateswaran resigned before he could be officially dismissed.

The news of Singh’s dismissal would not have been quite as surprising to her as it must have been for Venkateswaran. “There were bets being laid even before this government was sworn in that I will be one of the first secretaries to go,” she told Thapar. In December 2014, she said, a civil servant in the prime minister’s office had hinted at the possibility of another job for her. Singh had stated clearly that she was not interested in any other job. After she was intimated about Modi’s decision, Singh wrote a letter stating that she was seeking early retirement “as instructed by the Prime Minister.” She told Thapar that she soon received a call from the prime minister’s office, asking her to delete the reference to Modi’s instruction. She did not agree to this, because this was not a voluntary decision.

Speculations swirled in the media about why the prime minister wanted her out, including Modi’s unhappiness with the way she handled matters with Israel, her closeness with the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, and her working style. But the reasons for her enforced retirement were never made clear. What was clear, however, was that the prime minister was in a hurry to install Jaishankar in her stead.

Jaishankar was meant to retire on 31 January that year—the usual age of retirement for IFS officers is 60. Three days before his retirement, Modi gave his career a second wind. Jaishankar not only served the full term as foreign secretary, until 2017, but got a one-year extension. The union government had amended the service rules to include that “the central government may, if deemed necessary, give an extension in service for a further period not exceeding one year … to the foreign secretary.” After Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party returned to power with an overwhelming mandate, in May 2019, Jaishankar was appointed the minister of external affairs—the first time a foreign secretary has held the position—succeeding Swaraj. A little over a month later, he was elected to the Rajya Sabha on a BJP ticket from Gujarat. Jaishankar calls himself an “honorary Gujarati since 2019.”

There were good reasons for Modi to want to elevate Jaishankar to the crucial position of foreign secretary. BR Muthu Kumar, a former diplomat and Jaishankar’s roommate at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, told me that word had spread in diplomatic circles that Modi was unhappy at the list of names suggested to him as guests for Republic Day in 2015. He is said to have grumbled, “Koi khas mehman nahin hain?”—Is there no special guest? At the time, Jaishankar was the ambassador to the United States. According to the journalist Seema Sirohi, he went to the White House and tried to convince a senior advisor to Barack Obama that the US president’s visit would be a historic opportunity. He showed the advisor videos of the Republic Day parade on his phone. It worked out. “He read his mind and gave him Obama,” Kumar said. “Any PM would love to have him.” More than any other Indian prime minister, perhaps, it was a big deal for Modi to have the US president visit.

Relations with the US had been personally fraught. The United States had imposed a nine-year visa ban on Modi in 2005, the only time the country has ever done so, on grounds of “severe violations of religious freedom.” In 2002, when he was the chief minister of Gujarat, horrific communal violence had played out in which, even by conservative estimates, over a thousand people were killed—the majority of them Muslim. While the ban was lifted after Modi became prime minister, and he made several visits to the country, Obama’s attendance would be seen as further rehabilitation of his image on the international stage. Jaishankar’s ease with Americans and long association with the United States was an undoubted asset for Modi.

In his recently published book, the former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo makes clear his preference for Jaishankar over Swaraj as foreign minister. “In our first meeting, I was bemoaning in very diplomatic speak, that his predecessor had not been particularly helpful,” Pompeo writes. Jaishankar’s alleged response to this was far from diplomatic. “He said he could see why I had trouble with his predecessor, a goofball and a heartland political hack.” Jaishankar later told media that Pompeo was “disrespectful” towards Swaraj for calling her those words—even though the rest of the passage makes clear that it was he who had said them.

The mainstream media loves Jaishankar. He is glib, distinguished and seen as a straight shooter. He is typical of the dominant constituency within the foreign services—English-speaking, elite, upper-caste and male. As minister, he has adapted himself to what the Modi administration needs him to be. He makes all the right noises about nationalism, puts up a rousing defence of Indian civilisational values and fiercely shields the government from questions and criticism.

THE MINISTRY OF EXTERNAL AFFAIRS is notionally the government body responsible for executing the country’s foreign policy. It has historically always worked closely with the prime minister’s office and other ministries, such as defence and home affairs. It currently employs over eleven thousand people, and there are 202 missions and posts in countries all over the world. The foreign secretary is the most senior diplomat and administrative head of the ministry, and is supposed to be the principal advisor to the minister.

A country’s foreign policy has many facets, but one of its main imperatives is the preservation of the national interest in the global order. In this sense, as the former US vice-president Hubert H Humphrey said, “foreign policy is really domestic policy with its hat on.” The external-affairs minister, foreign secretary and the diplomatic corps convey the domestic ideas and priorities promoted by the government of the day.

Jaishankar had an illustrious career in the foreign services for over forty years. He served as an ambassador to the United States, China and the Czech Republic, and was appointed the high commissioner to Singapore. He was involved with the India–US nuclear deal in 2008 and is said to have played a significant role in defusing a conflict between India and China in 2017. “You see the career path, he was always given key postings,” Yogender Kumar, a former Indian ambassador to Tajikistan, Namibia and the Philippines, told me. “It is because of his abilities.” But, according to most others, he had some serious help along the way.

Several politicians and diplomats I interviewed said that, Jaishankar’s father, K Subrahmanyam, considered the doyen of international strategic affairs, particularly India’s nuclear strategy, greatly influenced his career. “It was all managed by his dad,” Bharat Karnad, who served with Subrahmanyam on the the National Security Council, told me. When I expressed scepticism about how much influence Subrahmanyam could have had over deciding which postings his son would get, Karnad replied, “Oh enormous influence! He was the institutional memory in the government of India … He was the defence production secretary. He was chairman of the joint intelligence committee. He was in all meetings. Jaishankar’s father had the ear of the external-affairs minister. He had the ear of the prime minister. He managed his career very well.”

Now, thanks to Modi, Jaishankar’s political star has risen, a fact he acknowledges. “To become foreign secretary was the limit of my ambition,” Jaishankar said at the launch of the Marathi edition of his book The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World. “I had never even dreamt of becoming a minister. I am not sure any other prime minister other than Narendra Modi would have made me minister. I also sometimes ask myself, if he had not been prime minister, would I have the courage to enter politics? I don’t know.”

In return, Jaishankar has served Modi well. Modi has been seeking prominence on the global stage, and Jaishankar is paving the way. He is helping Modi rebrand Indian foreign policy in Hindu nationalist terms. This is most evident in the language he uses to talk about diplomacy and about building an “Indian strategic culture.” In his book, and in various events and speeches, he has argued that most tenets of diplomacy can be found in ancient Hindu texts and epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The Hindu deities Krishna and Hanuman, he recently stated, were the world’s “greatest diplomats.” He routinely has unreserved praise for Modi. “Since 2014, Bharat and Bharat Niti”—Bharat policy—“has entered a new era, and you all know the reason why,” he said at the launch of the Gujarati edition of his book. There is a concerted effort in foreign-policy speak to demonstrate a break from the past. Words like non-alignment, associated with Nehru, are very rarely used. And when they are, it is with dismissiveness.

Many scholars of international relations have argued that, while the language of diplomacy might have changed, the foundational assumptions underpinning India’s foreign policy have not. “Modi and his political allies made a deliberate and concerted effort to displace inherited understanding of India’s policy in the world and how it ought to operate,” Ian Hall writes in his book Modi and the Reinvention of Indian Foreign Policy. “Modi’s government did less to change the direction of Indian foreign policy, its foundational assumptions and key practices, than might be suggested by all the drama and noise it generated.” In the past ten years, there is a greater investment by the government in think tanks, which, in turn, appears to be bolstering the establishment’s view of foreign policy. Jaishankar’s son is the executive director of one such think tank.

According to the former diplomat MK Bhadrakumar, Jaishankar is today a “towering figure in the ruling circles and among the ministers,” because his presence gives the current establishment a veneer of credibility. “He is part of a political party that is rather deficient in intellectual power,” Bhadrakumar told me. “Now, whether he has the same conviction in the party ideology himself cannot be said. His intellectual constructs keep shifting. They lack in consistency.” But intellectual conviction or what Jaishankar’s true ideological affinity might be as a minister is beside the point. Bhadrakumar pointed out Jaishankar’s good equation with the former prime minister Manmohan Singh as a case in point. “He is an extraordinarily intelligent man,” Bhadrakumar said. “He can decipher what is expected of him and can adapt himself repeatedly.”

More importantly, Jaishankar, first as foreign secretary and now as minister, has helped consolidate Modi’s hold over the operations of foreign policy. According to various diplomats I spoke to, the foreign ministry is doing very little foreign policy. Decision-making power on China lies with the China Study Group, an informal group of top officials that is usually headed by the foreign secretary but, for the past few years, has been convened and run by the national security advisor, Ajit Doval. India’s relations with Pakistan, Russia, Afghanistan and Myanmar are also mostly administered through the NSA.

Soon after making Jaishankar foreign minister, Modi upgraded the post of NSA to the rank of cabinet minister. Doval was reappointed to the position, this time in a class with members of the cabinet committee on security, which includes Jaishankar; the home minister, Amit Shah; the defence minister, Rajnath Singh; and the finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman. While Doval is working on Modi’s foreign-policy mandate behind the scenes, Jaishankar is the mouthpiece.

“Mr Jaishankar seems to be more of a courier person than policy-maker in India, leading the MEA to do the bidding of the PMO, where the main policies and operations are decided between Modi, Amit Shah and Doval,” Kanak Mani Dixit, a prominent Nepali writer and editor, told me. “This is how I see it in Kathmandu.”

“The picture one gets today is that MEA is transforming and functioning more like, say, the Chinese foreign ministry, where policies are imbued with the ruling party’s ideology,” Bhadrakumar said. “It is a subtle transformation, but how systemic it is remains to be seen. The point is, traditionally, the foreign-service cadre was invested with a high degree of professionalism.” In an article exploring how Indian diplomats are adjusting to an era of Hindu nationalism, Kira Huju, a fellow in international relations at the London School of Economics, argues that “career diplomats are caught in a double bind.” Hindu nationalism, she writes, “represents a rejection of much of the foundational dogma and diplomatic tradition that have defined the IFS since independence in 1947. Yet saffronization also promises its own kind of diplomatic elite circulation: the once dominant Anglophone class of diplomats is to be replaced by a new Indian elite invested in Hinduism, the Hindi language and a narrower sense of nationalistic pride.”

Foreign policy has always been a centralised operation with little parliamentary oversight, but it has never before been quite so partisan. “Foreign policy was always a shared idea that everybody contributed to,” Salman Khurshid, a former external-affairs minister, told me. “We used to have all-party consultations. Whether you finally agreed or not, it started with discussion—what we are doing with Pakistan, the nuclear deal, everything. There was consensus, or at least an attempt for consensus.” Under previous administrations, as Yashwant Sinha, another former external-affairs minister, pointed out to me, delegations would be made up of members from opposition parties. Narsimha Rao handpicked Atal Bihari Vajpayee to lead the Indian delegation to the Human Rights Council in 1994, and Indira Gandhi sent JP Narayan to plead India’s case during the East Bengal crisis. Modi did no such thing when the Russia–Ukraine crisis erupted.

“Foreign policy is being pursued from a national-security perspective,” PS Raghavan, a former diplomat and chairperson of the National Security Advisory Board, told me. I asked him who was more prominent in decision-making, Jaishankar or Doval. “Actually, one person takes the final decision,” he said. “It is neither a Jaishankar doctrine nor a Doval doctrine. It is the Modi doctrine.” But, according to Sinha, the presence of the NSA further erodes the independence of the foreign ministry. “Every prime minister in India is hands-on and directly guides foreign policy,” Sinha said. But, “now with the national security advisor attached to the prime minister’s office, it’s become even worse. The NSA is interfering in foreign policy.”

Jaishankar is an effective BJP spokesperson for India’s diplomatic affairs. He had his work cut out for him the moment he became minister. Since 2019, the Modi government has effected foundational shifts to the Constitution, such as the abrogation of Article 370, which gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which could potentially disenfranchise Muslims. These, along with various other economic and political issues, have received condemnation from all over the world. As a result, a considerable amount of energy is spent denouncing international reports that question the shrinking of democracy or raise questions about Modi’s past as interference in India’s “internal matters.” Over the past few years, India has “rejected” concerns raised by, among others, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom on the treatment of minorities in the country, the German foreign ministry on press freedom, a BBC documentary on Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat violence, the World Press Freedom Index that ranked India 150 out of 180 countries, the Global Hunger Index that put the country at 107 out of 121, the World Health Organization’s estimate of India’s COVID-19 death toll, the World Bank’s report on Human Capital Index that measured economies on various parameters including health and education, the Freedom House Index’s downgrading of India’s democratic status as “partly free” and V-Dem’s report that India was resembling an “electoral autocracy.”

The response, often coming from Jaishankar himself, has been spirited and predictable. In April 2022, in a meeting in which Jaishankar was present, Anthony Blinken, the US secretary of state, said, “We regularly engage with our Indian partners on these shared values [of human rights] and, to that end, we are monitoring some recent concerning developments in India including a rise in human-rights abuses by some government, police and prison officials.” Later, Jaishankar attributed the criticism to US lobbies and vote banks, and said that India, in turn, had concerns about human-rights abuses in the United States.

Jaishankar frames most things as a “battle for narratives.” In a recent podcast interview with the journalist Smita Prakash, he said, “There will be narratives designed to damage us. We have to put out narratives designed to expose people.” His way of doing this leans heavily on whataboutism, deflection and shifting goalposts. When speaking about the number of COVID-19 deaths that took place in India, he asked if people had not died in other countries. When asked about the border crisis with China, he spoke about the 1962 Sino-Indian War, in which India lost territory under a Congress government. About the BBC documentary on Modi, he asked why one had not been made on the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom. (The BBC had, in fact, broadcast a documentary on the subject.) Calling it the “drip drip drip” of a bad-faith ideological agenda, Jaishankar suggested to Prakash that most questions put to the Modi government were politics by other means. “Sometime, politics of India does not originate in its borders, it comes from outside,” he said to Prakash. “Ideas come from outside, agenda comes from outside.”

“Jaishankar has a complex personality,” Bhadrakumar said. “He can outsmart you in a debate but then he forgets that he is no longer debating in JNU. You have to carry people along, especially foreigners. Again, diplomacy often means keeping the thought to yourself. Jaishankar has a propensity to market himself and gets carried away.”

This year is a crucial one for diplomacy. India has assumed the presidency of the G20—an intergovernmental platform consisting of 19 countries and the European Union. The presidency rotates every year among the member states, but the Modi government has promoted it as a “historic opportunity” for the country and allocated Rs 990 crore to it in the budget—outside the allocation for the ministry of external affairs. Meetings will be held across 56 locations in the country. The logo is the world resting inside a lotus—the BJP’s electoral symbol—with the message “vasudhaiva kutumbakam,” or the world is one family.

Jaishankar has been doing his part in talking it up. “I sometimes get the question, you can imagine from which quarters, saying, ‘Well, it was bound to come your way anyway, so what’s the big deal?’ It is a very big deal. Because, in our diplomatic history, we have never had this many powerful nations—the top 20 economies of the world, who among them today account for the bulk of the global GDP, to dominate world trade—their leaders, come to India.” Jaishankar said this was an opportunity for “marketing of India to the world.” It is also, as Sinha wrote in the Indian Express, another chance to showcase Modi to India in an election year.

WHEN INDIA GAINED ITS INDEPENDENCE, in 1947, the world was in a moment of flux. The Second World War had recently ended and, after the long upheaval, many countries were rebuilding from the ruin and devastation. The United Nations had been established to promote international peace and cooperation. In this new world order, the United States and the Soviet Union were emerging as power blocs and were engaged in a competition for global dominance, including through diplomacy, propaganda, space wars and the arms race. The Cold War would go on to shape global politics for much of the rest of the century.

As a fledgling country in a transforming world, India did not have prior scripts to rely on to forge international relations. The Indian government wanted to move away from relations as they were under the colonial system and not take sides in the Cold War. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru crafted a new direction, giving India its foundational principles of foreign policy.

At the United Nations General Assembly, in 1948, Nehru articulated his vision. “The world is something bigger than Europe, and you will not solve your problems by thinking that the problems of the world are mainly European problems,” he said. “There are vast tracts of the world which may not, in the past, for a few generations, have taken much part in world affairs. But they are awake, their people are moving and they have no intention whatever of being ignored or of being passed by.” He spoke about racial equality, India’s support for the struggle against imperial domination in other parts of the world, and prioritising hunger and the economic concerns of developing countries.

Nehru became one of the leading figures in developing a third way of engaging with the world through the Non-Aligned Movement. The NAM was guided by the principles of sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in domestic affairs, equality and peaceful coexistence. Often erroneously identified as passive or indifferent today, it allowed India to have a range of proactive and independent bilateral relations—“friendship with all countries,” as Nehru put it—as well as to advocate with them on human rights and democratic principles. He was hailed as a visionary for creating a foreign-policy framework that was imbued with moral imperatives but also realistically grounded in national interests. “Whatever policy we may lay down,” he had said in 1947, “the art of conducting the foreign affairs of a country lies in finding out what is most advantageous to the country.”

The foundations for the NAM were laid at the Bandung conference—a meeting of 29 African and Asian countries, many of them newly independent—in 1955. That year, Jaishankar was born to Subrahmanyam and Sulochna in Tamil Nadu. Subrahmanyam was at the start of his career, part of the administrative cadre of Madras. His later writings suggest that he saw the NAM as pragmatic. He argued that, far from being an ideology, the NAM was India’s grand strategy.

The Nehru government’s popularity eventually waned, particularly due to its China policy. India’s initial policy towards its neighbour was marked by a desire for friendship and cooperation, and to diplomatically drive the region’s security interests in the Cold War context. It became one of the first countries to recognise the communist government of the People’s Republic of China, with which it signed the Panchsheel Agreement in 1954. Nehru was criticised for recognising China’s suzerainty over Tibet, a buffer state between the two giants. The relationship became further distressed by the end of the decade. In 1956, the Tibetans launched an armed rebellion against China. There were clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers. China wanted to renegotiate the entire border and India gave asylum to Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, raising Chinese suspicions about India’s stance on Tibet. Things came to a head with India’s military defeat in the Sino-Indian war of 1962, which was seen as a national humiliation. Nehru’s detractors argued there were structural flaws in the NAM, since it became clear that there was no guarantee other countries would come to India’s aid during war.

A subsequent war with Pakistan in 1965—a year after Nehru died—made the demand for a security angle stronger. A think tank called the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, funded by the defence ministry, was set up as an autonomous body that year. Subrahmanyam, who had recently returned from a fellowship at London, became its director about three years later and held the position until 1975. Many tenets and early ideals of the NAM began to be revised in this period. India beefed up its military power and pushed a nuclear-weapons programme. In 1974, the Indira Gandhi government conducted a nuclear bomb test in Rajasthan. While it won her popularity domestically, it set off alarm bells in the international community. It led to US sanctions against India and the creation of the Nuclear Suppliers Group to check international nuclear proliferation.

In the meantime, India was also deepening relations with the Soviet Union, on which it could rely to get cheap military equipment. Jaishankar entered the IFS around this time, with an early posting in Moscow, between 1979 and 1981, followed by four years as the undersecretary for the Americas at the ministry of external affairs. “My generation and those before carried into our profession the heavy baggage of difficult experiences with the US, China and Pakistan,” he writes in his book. “The first half of my diplomatic career was dominated by two geopolitical realities: The Cold War and the rise of political Islam.”

Yogender Kumar, who was Jaishankar’s contemporary, remarked how it was so rare for a young diplomat to get stationed or have deep engagement with such politically important places. He told me Jaishankar had distinguished himself because of his intellect. He had a master’s degree in political science and a doctorate in international relations from JNU before he joined the IFS. “Right from the beginning, he was highly admired for his acumen,” Kumar said. “His reading of international affairs was very deep. Even before he went as a diplomat, he had a good idea about international relations, while others learnt on the job.” It was not unusual for “seniors to find somebody extraordinary in talent and start grooming them,” Kumar said, “but he got some key countries in crucial times.” Multiple people told me this was thanks to his father.

“Subrahmanyam was a principled man,” Karnad told me. He had demonstrated the capacity to resist political pressure, particularly when Indira Gandhi declared a draconian state of emergency across the country, between 1975 and 1977. “At the time of Emergency, Subbu was in Tamil Nadu,” Karnad said. “And, as Tamil Nadu home secretary, he refused to jail the people the Indian government had asked him to. He said he has no right to do that and got into their bad books.” In the podcast with Prakash, Jaishankar said that, once Indira Gandhi returned to power, in 1980, his father was removed as the secretary of defence production.

By 1991, the world was a very different place. The Cold War had ended, the Soviet Union had collapsed and global politics had moved away from its bipolarity to US dominance. India opened up its economy, heralding a new phase of rapid privatisation, and recalibrated foreign relations. The Narasimha Rao government sought new diplomatic partners in what it called India’s “Look East” policy. This was pursued by other governments as well. (The Modi administration renamed it the “Act East” policy in 2014.) Later, the IK Gujral government advocated for non-transactional relationships with neighbouring countries based on trust and mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty.

Politically, it was an era of coalition politics and the rise of regional parties. The Congress was losing its foremost position and the Hindu Right was rising as a political force throughout the decade, particularly after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. The BJP, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, formed the government three times in the decade.

The second and third term of the Vajpayee tenure saw tumultuous events. Within two months of the BJP coming to power, in 1998, India conducted nuclear tests, announcing to the world that it was a de facto nuclear state. Despite this causing considerable strain to relations with the United States, Vajpayee was able to pull off a much-publicised visit by President Bill Clinton. The hijacking of flight IC-814, in 1999, and the 2001 attack on the parliament building heightened the domestic conversation on terrorism and converged with the US war on terror.

After the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat, in 2002, Subrahmanyam wrote a scathing article titled, “Rama cannot be venerated by those who transgress Dharma by killing innocents.” He wrote, “Today’s ethics, formulated by the constitution, is secularism—that is the yuga dharma. Violators of it cannot be considered Hindus; they can only be looked upon as enemies of the Hindu way of life … Dharma was killed in Gujarat. The administrators who failed to protect the innocent citizens are guilty of adharma and if Rama had been alive he would have used his bow against the ‘asura’ rulers of Gujarat.”

WHEN NATWAR SINGH WAS APPOINTED the minister of external affairs in the Manmohan Singh government, in 2004, Subrahmanyam came to see him. At the time, Jaishankar was joint secretary for the Americas. Joint secretaries are responsible for heading a wing allocated to them, and are considered middle-level management in the ministry. “Please look after my son,” Natwar Singh recalled Subrahmanyam telling him. “You see, there are so many joint secretaries who just get lost in the crowd,” Singh told me. “He was in that kind of job. As ministers we deal with the foreign secretary more often.” He assured Subrahmanyam that Jaishankar would be taken care of. “Don’t worry!” Singh said he told him. “I knew his father well.”

The two terms of the Manmohan government saw a period of sustained economic growth and a push for deeper integration with the global economy. Singh emphasised the country’s economic and developmental priorities as the basis on which foreign relations would be conducted. The government signed several deals related to trade and investment with various countries, including Afghanistan, China and Australia. But the most historic deal was the Indo-US nuclear deal of 2008.

It was a watershed moment in India’s diplomatic relationships. In 2005, Manmohan Singh and the US president, George W Bush, signed an agreement in which India agreed to separate its civil and military facilities, and place its civil facilities under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards. It allowed India to import uranium from the United States and sign several civil nuclear cooperation agreements with other countries. Politically, the deal was vehemently opposed by the BJP and the Left, which withdrew its support from the government. Many saw it as a loss of strategic autonomy and an increased dependence on the United States on their terms.

In 2005, Manmohan Singh and the US president, George W Bush, signed an agreement in which India agreed to separate its civil and military facilities, and place its civil facilities under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards. JIM YOUNG / REUTERS

For Subrahmanyam, the deal was a symbol of India “opening up to the rest of the world.” For him, it was not simply a question of advancing the relationship between the two countries. “Through this deal,” he wrote in India Today, in December 2006, “the US leads the entire industrial world and some major developing countries to free India from the technology apartheid it has been subjected to over the last three decades.” Ashley Tellis, who was, at the time, a senior advisor to Nicholas Burns, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs, told me that Subrahmanyam “understood intuitively that the deal was an enormous opportunity for India to cross the NPT divide from being a target of global sanctions to becoming a part of ‘the nuclear haves.’”

The deal was a very important milestone in Jaishankar’s career. “At the level of diplomacy,” Tellis said, “both S Jaishankar and Shyam Saran were indispensable to negotiating the deal.” Saran was the foreign secretary and leading the negotiations with Burns. “Jaishankar, a PhD on the politics of nuclear proliferation from JNU, was the ‘facts man’ on the inside, and the ‘narrative man’ on the outside,” Sirohi writes in her book. “He gave ‘exclusive’ briefings to key reporters in Washington and Delhi, making each one feel only they had the story.” While Jaishankar’s contributions, by most accounts, were significant, it is an exaggeration to claim he was the “architect” of the deal, as the mainstream media often does. “He was an outstanding joint secretary,” Natwar Singh told me. “He was not a policymaker. There were people higher up doing it. Jaishankar was doing the groundwork, telling us about the important things that America is likely to raise, and preparing briefs.”

“Jaishankar was one of the players, certainly not the main,” TP Sreenivasan, the former governor for India of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told me. “His role was taking care of convincing Americans and moving forward … Having dealt with Americans that time, he knows he is a friend of America. It is an advantageous position—they understand him, and he understands them.”

The second term of the Manmohan Singh government coincided with a global recession. India remained relatively unscathed, and by then was recognised as a major economy, allowing the country to project itself as a significant player in international relations. After Obama became president of the United States, Singh was one of the first world leaders invited to visit him. “This visit will be the first state visit of the administration and will highlight the strong and growing strategic partnership between the United States and India, and the friendship between the American and Indian people,” the White House announced. Relations between the two countries were not quite so rosy, however. The United States was unhappy about India’s ties with Iran and Russia, and India was not thrilled about US support for Pakistan.

Through much of Singh’s second term, Jaishankar was posted as an ambassador to China, from 2009 to 2013. During this period, Modi made several visits to the country. According to Yashwant Sinha, this is where the two formed an association that proved to be mutually beneficial. “There are things diplomats do as an ambassador, but there is always a little extra that you can do,” Sinha said. “If you are worldly wise you will do that little extra in order to ingratiate yourself.”

A journalist working with an Indian news agency in Beijing during that period recalled that Jaishankar held an informal meeting of Indian journalists with Modi at his residence. Jaishankar helped Modi form important business associations. On his visit to China in November 2011, Modi promoted “Brand Gujarat” to prominent Chinese investors, calling on them to invest in power projects and infrastructure in the state. Modi invited them to participate in the Gujarat global investors’ summit that was to be held in 2013. Jaishankar, along with other embassy officials, accompanied him to these meetings.

The current president of the Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Pathik Patwari, told me how stories of Jaishankar in China percolated into the business community. “Jaishankar kept the two traditional rivals, India and China, on cordial terms,” Patwari said. “He was always warm, resourceful and available for industrialists who wanted to expand their trade with China.”

Modi and Jaishankar made an impression on each other, clearly winning each other’s trust.

Jaishankar later described his first meeting with Modi as “different and unusual,” remarking that the chief minister’s interest in India’s security and economic interests in relation to China, as well as his concern for three Gujarati citizens who had been imprisoned in the neighbouring country at the time, stood out for him. “And today, when I look at what is the difference he has made, he has really led a foreign policy which is much more security-focused, he has practiced diplomacy which is more development-focused. He has created people-centric policies in foreign policy.”

It is difficult to say whether Jaishankar saw a future prime minister in Modi, but “that is not important,” Sinha said. “He definitely saw him as a political leader of India and wanted to have bridges with him. And why not? When you are posted abroad, you get these opportunities in plenty. Important Indians come and you wine them, dine them and make friends.”

Muthu Kumar said that “Modi never forgot that ambassador who pushed Gujarat’s business delegation agenda.” Jaishankar’s help to Modi and Gujarat’s business community stood him in good stead. I asked Patwari how other diplomats have since compared to Jaishankar. “The elevation from the post of diplomat to minister of external affairs has all the answers to this question,” he said.

MODI CAME TO POWER, in 2014, on the back of an intense media campaign that promoted him as a vikas purush—development man. The effort was necessary to distract from his tainted past. Questions about the 2002 violence pursued him, and his deep ties with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh were constantly highlighted. The RSS is the BJP’s mother ship and is ideologically committed to Hindutva. Its ultimate goal has always been the creation of a Hindu Rashtra. The Modi government has advanced this goal faster than the RSS could have dreamed.

A key part of the Modi government’s efforts goes into perception management. At home, Modi exemplifies a muscular nationalism and Hindu pride. Abroad, Modi is an ambassador of vasudhaiva kutumbakam. The RSS and the BJP have long been engaged in a project of rewriting history. Part of this involves the consistent denigration of Nehru and the institutions associated with him, the takeover of universities by RSS sympathisers and the discrediting of prominent historians and intellectuals. At the same time, there is a concerted effort to revive and rehabilitate a pantheon of Hindutva leaders, such as the former RSS chiefs MS Golwalkar and KB Hedgewar, who had stated fascist leanings, and the progenitor of Hindutva, VD Savarkar. This project is enhanced by a constant emphasis on India’s glorious civilisational past, recast in Hindu nationalist overtones.

The BJP manifesto for the 2014 election had a brief section on its foreign-policy vision. It had vague generalities about India’s “soft power potential” and “ancient wisdom and heritage,” which the Modi government would eventually harness into its Hindu brand of foreign policy. “India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here,” the manifesto stated. Modi began a flurry of travels across the world and launched a high-decibel “Make in India” campaign to attract overseas investments. By adding Jaishankar to his foreign policy team in 2015, the Modi government’s rebranding exercise began in earnest.

After a national executive party meeting in 2015, the BJP put out its resolution on foreign policy: “Our national ambition is Bharat’s rise as a strong and respected world power.” It described the five pillars of its foreign policy outlook as panchamrit, or five foods—samman (honour), samvad (dialogue), samriddhi (prosperity), suraksha (security) and sanskriti evam sabhyata (culture and civilisation). Much of the resolution was about how foreign policy had already been transformed thanks to Modi.

Our foreign policy today reflects Bharat’s age-old cherished cultural and civilizational values in a more significant and profound manner than ever before. While our approach is determined by the imperatives of the globalised world, it is also rooted in our inheritance of a timeless tradition of intellectual and economic engagement through peaceful co-existence. Prime Minister has restored pride in Bharat’s civilisational identity and cultural traditions and drawn global attention to it in a manner that befits this oldest civilisation of the world.

“Hindu nationalist ideology has had a big impact on the way that India’s foreign policy is presented, especially to domestic audiences, but its influence on policy itself is much less,” Ian Hall told me. “We shouldn’t be surprised by that: Savarkar, Golwalkar, Upadhyaya, and the other major Hindu nationalist thinkers had little to say about foreign policy, beyond insisting India should build its power and promising India will one day fulfil its destiny as a vishva guru”—world leader.

In practical terms, most of the foreign-policy tenets under Modi are continuations from previous governments. But Jaishankar vigorously promotes the language Modi desires in making old concepts seem like new ideas. “What Dr Jaishankar is very good at doing is explaining this strategy using language that appeals to Hindu nationalists inside and outside India, as well as Indian nationalists more broadly, without unduly concerning India’s major partners in the West and in East Asia,” Hall said. “He does this by using concepts from the Mahabharata and other texts, weaving a Hindu nationalist narrative around what is essentially a pragmatic approach to foreign policy.”

Modi skipped the NAM summit in 2016 and 2019—becoming the first Indian prime minister to ever do so, apart from the caretaker prime minister Charan Singh in 1979—prompting questions in the media if this signalled a policy shift for India. “Long-held assumptions and alignments rooted in the legacies of colonialism and the ideology of the Cold War are making way for new configurations and partnerships,” Jaishankar said in 2019. But he argued that “India remains committed to the principles and objectives of the Non-Aligned Movement, including our long-standing solidarity and support for the Palestinian cause.”

While not exactly dismissing the NAM in his book, Jaishankar appears to suggest something was lost in pursuing it. “Geopolitics and balance of power are the underpinning of international relations,” he writes. “India itself has a tradition of Kautilyan politics that put a premium on them. If there are lessons from the near past, it is that these were not given the weightage that they deserved. The Bandung era of Afro Asian solidarity in the 1950s serves as a reminder of the costs of neglecting hard power. But more than lack of focus on capabilities, they reflect an underlying thinking. We have reached a league where the ability to protect our interests is an assumption, not just an option.”

Modi did attend a virtual NAM summit in 2020, but members of government think tanks warned against any optimistic reading of his support for any Nehruvian policy. “The idea that is driving a lot of foreign policy discussion is the sense of India as a leading power, in contrast to merely a balancing one, which in some ways was the logic of NAM, of being away from major power blocs,” Harsh Pant, the vice-president for studies and foreign policy at the Observer Research Foundation, told me. “The idea is to move beyond that balancing role and start projecting India as a leader that is capable and willing to provide solutions to critical global problems, be it in the realm of technology, climate, broader global governance and not merely saying its someone else’s problem.”

By the end of Modi’s first term, the prime minister was exerting more control over foreign policy and had a more focussed attention on conveying a certain image abroad. According to Sinha, Jaishankar had already started acting like a foreign minister instead of the foreign secretary. He recalled to me what he described as the “most tragic scene” at the induction of Modi’s cabinet in 2019. Sushma Swaraj had not contested the election, imagining that she would be elected to the Rajya Sabha. There was speculation on whether she would be inducted into the cabinet. On the day of the swearing in, she must have gone to the Rashtrapati Bhavan with some expectation. There was a place for seating cabinet ministers. “I am told she went in hoping someone will tell her to go take her place in the seating area but then, when she entered, she saw Jaishankar sitting,” Sinha said. “She understood and quietly took her seat.”

“It is both an advantage and disadvantage when a technocrat becomes the minister,” Sinha told me. “But policy requires political leadership, otherwise we can have the cabinet secretary as the PM of India.” He had himself resigned from the Indian Administrative Service, in 1984, to join active politics as a member of the Janata Party. Sinha went through the political mill, he said, “jisse dhakke khana kehte hai”—being put through the ringer. When he became minister, “I daresay I acquired some political will.” In comparison, he added, Jaishankar does not have that kind of background, having never gone through the “nitty-gritty of politics.” And, because of that, according to Sinha, when he parrots the BJP’s language, it does not “add to his credit … It looks like chaploosi”—flattery. “Coming from his mouth, the political language doesn’t sound credible.”

A right-wing intellectual affiliated to an RSS backed think tank told me that Jaishankar’s social-media posturing is intently watched by his colleagues in the party. The intellectual told me that Jaishankar’s social-media is sometimes the subject of amusement among his peers, because it pits the ambitions of those who rise through the ranks in the party against outsiders who are inducted for being an “English speaking sartorial bureaucrat who can communicate India’s narrative to the world.” He does not think it can last long. “How far can he go from here?” he said. “Ek din inka bhi namaste ho jaega”—One day even he will be bid goodbye.

There are discussions, however, about Jaishankar’s ambitions and whether he can have a bigger political role in the future. “I was sitting somewhere, and a senior leader from RSS-BJP said, ‘Jaishankar could become the next big thing, he could be the prime minister,’” the right-wing intellectual recalled. The group fell silent when someone asked, “Why? He is an outsider.” To this, the response was: “This is what Jaishankar thinks of himself. Like Ajit Doval and Amit Shah influence Modi, Jaishankar has started to do that in the case of foreign policy.” For many, Jaishankar’s performance does not guarantee any prospect for the 2024 general election, but they can see his use to the Modi government. “Tamil Brahmins are everywhere and here, he has established proximity to Modi,” the right-wing intellectual said. “Keeping in mind the global audience, Jaishankar has everything to offer.”

Jaishankar did not respond to my interview requests as well as a list of questions.

MODI’S SECOND TERM presented dramatic challenges for Jaishankar. The revocation of Article 370 had shocked the world, including the United States. The Modi government had deployed tens of thousands of additional soldiers to an already heavily militarised region, imposed a communications blackout and put political leaders and several others under “preventive detention.” Prior arrangements had been made throughout Kashmir to quell protests. In December 2019, Pramila Jayapal, a US legislator of Indian origin, introduced a bipartisan resolution in the House of Representatives, urging the Indian government to adhere to international human-rights law and lift communication restrictions from the region.

The revocation of Article 370 had shocked the world. The Modi government had deployed tens of thousands of additional soldiers to an already heavily militarised region, imposed a communications blackout and put political leaders and several others under “preventive detention.” Prior arrangements had been made throughout Kashmir to quell protests.

The same month, Jaishankar visited the United States to participate in “2+2” dialogue with US officials. A meeting was set up to discuss the situation in Kashmir, which had several prominent congressional leaders, including Eliot L Engel, the chairperson of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul and Jayapal. According to a report in the Washington Post, Jaishankar demanded that the US lawmakers exclude Jayapal from the meeting—a demand they refused. Jaishankar cancelled the meeting, which Jayapal called a “missed opportunity.” In a media interaction, Jaishankar said, “I have an interest in meeting people who are objective and open to discussion but not the people who already made up their minds.” The strategy to shut out anyone who questions the government, while not very diplomatic, was consistent with India’s domestic policy under the Modi administration.

Pant, the ORF vice-president, interpreted this move as Jaishankar standing up to a big power. “This is not just about Jayapal, you have to see this in the larger picture,” he said. “A lot of time, the tone and tenor of Jaishankar’s responses have been forceful. He is pushing back, and partly because, as foreign minister, this is sending a political response. He has spoken on a range of episodes. There is a pushback from the Indian establishment on what are considered to be key issues concerning India.” He did not think this would jeopardise relations with the United States in any significant way. “Jayapal is not a politician who is deciding Indo-US relations,” Pant said. “Jaishankar is someone who knows America very well … At the official level, Indo-US relations continue to be strong.”

A few months before Jaishankar visited the United States, his son Dhruva became the executive director of ORF America. From 2016 to 2019, he was a fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at Brookings India in Delhi and the Brookings Institution in Washington. In an article for The Caravan, the independent journalist Urvashi Sarkar explored the conflict of interest. “There are strong suggestions that the ORF America director post was created for Dhruva,” she told me.

The role of government-funded think tanks in advocating the government’s foreign policy line has seen a notable increase in the past years. “‘Foreign’ think-tanks, like Carnegie and Brookings, both of which have opened offices in India and attracted large funding from Indian corporates, are no longer beyond the ‘lakshman rekha’ of foreign policy-making,” the journalist Jyoti Malhotra wrote in 2017. “A second takeaway from the MEA’s new think-tank policy is that the money will follow policy briefs that ‘are relevant to MEA policy-making.’”

Every year since its inception in 2016, the Raisina Dialogue, an annual conference on geopolitics, is hosted by ORF in partnership with the ministry of external affairs. The MEA allocated Rs 1 crore to ORF in 2019 and 2020 for the organisation of the conference. “It is very natural, as India rises in global hierarchy, and wields more power and influence in the world, it needs to communicate its ideas to the world,” Pant said about the annual conference. “Raisina as India’s premier geopolitical conference allows a diverse range of stakeholders to come together to deliberate on matters of common concern. It allows India to provide a platform for ideational back-and-forth, in the classic Indian tradition of samvad.”

Indeed, shaping narratives is now a key part of the foreign ministry’s work. It is not always an easy task when things are said for domestic play but raise hackles outside. After the revocation of Article 370, Amit Shah had declared in parliament that Aksai Chin—a region administered by China but claimed by India—was part of Jammu and Kashmir. Beijing warned New Delhi to be “cautious in its words and deed” and to “avoid taking actions that further complicate the border issue.” Jaishankar was sent to Beijing to mollify the Chinese. “There was no implication for the external boundaries of India or the Line of Actual Control with China,” he said. “India was not raising any additional territorial claims. The Chinese concerns in this regard were misplaced.” Jaishankar told the media that, when he was asked about the decision to revoke Article 370 and the increase in tensions with Pakistan, he told the Chinese, on both counts, that “this was an internal matter of India.”

The next year, a clash took place in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, leading to the death of Indian soldiers—a first since the 1962 Sino-Indian War. As a result of the Ladakh crisis and how the Modi government has chosen to manage it, India has ceded a significant amount of territory to China. The Caravan’s October 2022 cover story details how India has not been demanding the restoration of the status quo as it existed before the crisis. This presents a public-relations problem for Jaishankar. Disengagement is being promoted as the resolution of the problem, whereas that still means a gain for China as it would get to keep the grounds it has occupied. Jaishankar repeated this idea when the opposition questioned the government on its indifference to the Chinese incursions. “If we were indifferent to China, who sent the Indian Army to the border?” Jaishankar said. “If we were indifferent to China, then why are we pressuring China for de-escalation and disengagement today? Why are we saying publicly that our relations are not normal?”

Jaishankar and the Modi government claims it has been acting tough with China. At the same time, trade with China is booming. A year after the Ladakh crisis, trade between the two countries increased by over forty percent, reaching a high of $125.62 billion. In 2022, this figure went up to $135.98 billion. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, came to Delhi for the first time since the crisis in March 2022. Very unusually, the ministry of external affairs made no prior announcements. “For whatever reason, the Chinese did not want this set of visits which Mr Wang Yi did to be announced earlier,” Jaishankar later said. “So, since we did not have a mutual agreement, we did not make our announcement.” Yi met Doval, and Jaishankar after that, before leaving for Kathmandu. Doval is the special representative to settle border issues with China.

I asked the former deputy NSA Arvind Gupta whether, with the situation in China, the national-security element seemed to be getting stronger in Modi’s foreign policy. “When MEA coordinates, it has stronger diplomatic aspect,” Gupta said. “Today, security aspect has become much stronger. After Modi came to power, the National Security Council has become stronger.” He said the NSA now had as much decision-making power as the MEA. “There is no difference,” he said. “They complement each other. The ministry of defence, ministry of external affairs, NSA and home ministry are typical to India security, and are now very closely coordinated.” About Jaishankar, Gupta said, “He is present everywhere. He is engaging everywhere and he tweets himself. He is following what Mr Modi is doing.”

“There are differences of views” on foreign policy, PS Raghavan told me. “All views of Doval, Jaishankar and Modi come up but one view prevails—decided by the prime minister.” Raghavan described Doval and Jaishankar’s respective roles. “During the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, Doval’s role was to ensure that security prevailed,” he said, while Jaishankar’s role was to make sure that other countries recognise the “action as internal matter of India and do not interfere.”

On 10 February, almost a year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Doval met the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow, at a meeting of secretaries of security councils and NSAs. Putin is said to have cleared the room of delegates to discuss bilateral discussions with Doval. This was the first time Putin met an Indian political leader, apart from prime ministers. Since 2001, Putin has reportedly not met a single foreign minister. “The meeting demonstrates Doval’s high standing among national security professionals across the world and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s complete trust in his abilities,” Nitin A Gokhale, a strategic affairs analyst, writes. “It is no secret that the India-Russia relationship over the past few years is primarily driven by Doval and his good friend Nikolai Patrushev, Putin’s security czar.”

Meanwhile, Jaishankar was attending the World Hindi Conference in Fiji, co-hosted by the ministry of external affairs and the Fijian government. Jaishankar said the goal of the conference was to make Hindi a world language and a “Mahakumbh”—usually referring to a big religious gathering—for Hindi lovers.

BY FEBRUARY 2022, the signs of a drastic escalation of military conflict between Russia and Ukraine were all present. A few months earlier, satellite images had shown a massive build-up of Russian armed forces near the Ukraine border. Russia had demanded that the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation—a military alliance of 30 European and North American states—prevent Ukraine from ever joining NATO. The demand had been rejected as a “non-starter,” since the NATO has an open-door policy.

By 10 February, the United States had issued guidelines warning its citizens to leave the country without delay. President Joe Biden even stated in a pre-recorded interview to NBC that “American citizens should leave now.” On 15 February, the Indian embassy in Kyiv issued an advisory to its citizens, but not the highest-advisory level. “Indian citizens, particularly students, whose stay is not essential, may consider leaving temporarily,” it stated. The number of Indian students studying in Ukraine was estimated to be up to twenty thousand. By 20 February, the German foreign ministry had, like the United States, also escalated its security warning, stating that “German nationals are urgently requested to leave the country now.” Several other countries issued similar warnings.

KP Fabian, a former diplomat known for the evacuation in Qatar during the Kuwait crisis, told me that, in wartime, it cannot be left to people to make decisions about their safety themselves. “In a time of conflict, wording of the advisory has to be quite clear,” he said. “We can’t say ‘go and figure out.’ Just say it in plain English: ‘Leave as early as possible.’”

Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February. The war has had a devastating impact on the region, with hundreds of thousands dead. A 21-year-old medical student from Karnataka later died during shelling. Modi called the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, on 26 February to find safe passage for the students. While speaking in parliament, a little over a month later, Jaishankar described Modi’s intervention as adbhut—stunning. “He himself made a phone call. He spoke to the leaders of both the countries—Russia and Ukraine. There were two cities where our students were stuck. In those areas, he got the war stopped.” Other BJP leaders and sympathisers had made the claim the India had created a temporary ceasefire for evacuation. The ministry of external affairs had to later clarify that Modi did not indeed stop the war.

Responding to a fellow MP, Jaishankar said, “NK Premachandran contrasted our advisory with the advisory of the Western countries. Now, I would like the honourable member to appreciate that Western countries had a political approach and political agenda, their advisory did not have the same intent which was ours—the welfare for the community concern. There was political game which they were playing, and, in our case, nobody did evacuation before we did.” He did not explain what the political agenda might be in giving citizens a way out of an escalating conflict situation pre-emptively, nor how leaving the onus on citizens themselves to make uncertain decisions enabled their “welfare.” Instead, he doubled down and said, “I want to tell, if our advisory’s impact was nil, or not taken seriously, then how did four thousand citizens leave before the conflict? They left because they understood the importance of the advisory, they understood that. And we don’t issue an advisory every day, and when any embassy says leave, people believe.” He was talking about, at best, a fifth of the Indian population in Ukraine.

Instead of addressing questions about the serious lapses that took place in the evacuation process, Jaishankar fiercely defended Modi. “What was the impact of the PM speaking to the leaders of two countries?” he asked. Jaishankar said he was witness to the phone call made by Modi to the Russian president. “I was inside the room when he took up the issue with Putin saying that our students are in danger, there is firing happening. After that conversation, we got time to evacuate the students. Russians told us to go to places where there was no firing.”

On 28 February, Modi chaired a meeting in which it was decided that four ministers— Hardeep Puri, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Kiren Rijiju and VK Singh—would be sent to the countries surrounding Ukraine, where a number of Indian citizens were being routed. The mission was called Operation Ganga. It turned the crisis into a publicity stunt. Many observers also noted the operation was cleverly named to strike a chord with people in Uttar Pradesh, who were going to vote in the upcoming assembly election. “I don’t think it was a good idea to send our ministers to Ukraine,” Fabian said. “The ambassadors can handle the job. And, when the ministers go, the embassy, staff gets additional responsibility to look after the minister. I don’t think you get better cooperation just because you send the minister. That was done for headlines.” In parliament, Jaishankar praised these ministers for “halving his workload by visiting the regions.”

The Ukraine evacuation, once decided, proceeded according to plan. Several ministers welcomed the students when they landed with “Vande Mataram” and “Bharat Mata ki Jai.” Most students, traumatised by the war, did not pay them any attention. Jaishankar was not present in the welcome committee.

Tools from the “diplomatic arsenal” were not used, Fabian told me. “The decision was late,” he said. India should have asked students to leave much earlier. And it should have drawn from successful experience of evacuations of the past. “During the evacuation in Kuwait and Iraq we did not care much about publicity,” Fabian said. “We did not call it Operation Mesopotamia. It was all about doing our job. You do what is required.”

There are many logistics to take care of in such emergencies. The onus falls on embassies, which, in turn, need direct support from the ministry of external affairs. This includes arrangement of food and shelter for thousands of citizens seeking safety. Often, the embassy will need money when it runs out of resources. “In Ukraine, there was some help from one or two Indian companies, but this option was not pursued and not taken as a serious matter to be explored,” Fabian said. He said what was needed was “proactive diplomacy.”

What happened instead was proactive nationalism. Months after the evacuation, in October, Jaishankar brought foreign ambassadors to Vadodara for Navratri celebrations. “When our students were leaving Ukraine holding the national flag, these days people recognised the flag and were aware that Indian students are getting help,” he said at the event. “It is true some students from neighbouring countries also held our flag. Now think, they must have felt, ‘There is something in this country … because of their flag even we are benefiting.’”

Since the Russian invasion, hostility between Moscow and Washington has intensified. India has been under pressure from the West to break ties with Russia, putting the country in an awkward position. “We have defence relations with Russia, and our regional security interests also converge,” Pant said. “Russia is viewed by many in India as a nation that has stood by India during critical times.” Pant went on to argue that, after the Cold War, “India is diversifying its defence supplies, and its economic ties with Russia have not really grown despite best efforts.” In the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis, as most countries have stopped trading with Russia, India has increased its import of oil, fertilisers and fuel from the country. Between April and August 2022, India’s bilateral trade with Russia reached a record high of $18.2 billion, making it India’s seventh largest trading partner.

Since 2001, Putin has reportedly not met a single foreign minister but in February 2023 he met Ajit Doval, demonstrating the high degree of trust Modi puts in the NSA. ALEXEI

At the SCO Summit in Samarkand, in September, Modi told Putin that it was “not an era of war.” Putin responded that he understood India’s concerns but blamed Ukraine for the continuing crisis. The next month, in October, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning the Russian annexation of Ukraine. India abstained from the vote, along with China, Pakistan and 32 others. One hundred and forty-three countries voted in favour. By January this year, Russia became India’s fourth largest trading partner.

At the same time, Jaishankar has been persuading the United States of its position. According to Tellis, Jaishankar thinks both sides—India and the United States—are adjusting to the “pernicious realities of Russia’s war in Ukraine.” The United States, he told me, “understands that India’s relations with Russia have deep historic roots,” and “both sides are juggling with the tension between India’s close relations with Washington and Moscow. There won’t be a perfect equilibrium that can satisfy all. The West recognises the legacy of India–Russia relations—that India cannot jettison or reshape its ties overnight. It is a long process.” Tellis added that Jaishankar “has persuaded the US that India’s quest for strategic autonomy will not undermine American national interests. He has been able to conceptualise what autonomy means in ways that his American counterparts find persuasive.”

Despite the Modi government and pro-government think tanks distancing from the NAM, it is proving to be a useful tool to explain India’s position on most things. Jaishankar’s aim to make India the predominant voice for the Global South is also in line with independent India’s foreign-policy history. Salman Khurshid told me that it is easy to dismiss the NAM, since the context in which it arose is vastly different. “The balance that NAM supported, that balance has disappeared,” he said. “But, with the Russian Ukraine war, suddenly we felt that NAM is not such a bad idea, because we realised we can’t take sides in the world and we have to be equidistant from both sides.” In the September 2022 session of United Nations General Assembly, Jaishankar said that “India is on the side of peace and will remain firmly there. We are on the side that respects the UN Charter and its founding principles.”

The beginning of Jaishankar’s speech struck a more disconcerting note. He spoke of how India was in the process of “rejuvenating a society pillaged by centuries of foreign attacks and colonialism.” The reference to “foreign attacks” would be immediately picked up by the Modi government’s domestic constituency as referring to incursions by Mahmud of Ghazni and Mohammad Ghori—figures who have been resurrected to try and emphasise the terror of Muslim rulers and to show Muslim rule as an invasion of an essentially Hindu country.

Vivek Katju, a former foreign secretary, wrote in The Hindu that “this is perhaps the first time that the basic interpretation of Indian history of the current ruling dispensation has been projected in the UNGA, although in coded language.” He called it “a dangerous path to undertake for domestic controversies are best avoided when national positions which have to be, necessarily rooted in the Constitution, are authoritatively articulated abroad. As a former diplomat, Mr. Jaishankar would be well aware of the Indian diplomatic tradition which has always presented nationally unified positions abroad, particularly at the UN and in multilateral forums.”

Jaishankar further laid out five pledges that Modi made for Indian citizens, declaring that it could be extrapolated for the rest of the world. These included liberating “ourselves from a colonial mindset” and taking pride in “our rich civilisational heritage.” The charge of having a “colonial mindset” is in increasing circulation among the political class and is used against those who are constructed as English-speaking “anti-nationals,” who raise questions about the government. “We should feel proud of our heritage, our culture, our forefathers,” the former vice-president Venkaiah Naidu said in March 2022. “We must go back to our roots. We must give up our colonial mindset and teach our children to take pride in their Indian identity.” The same phrase was used by a foreign-ministry spokesperson this year in reference to the BBC documentary on Modi.

Katju was troubled by Jaishankar’s use of the phrase at the UN. “Words, phrases, arguments, exhortations are the tools of diplomacy,” Katju wrote. “They cannot and should not be abandoned to promote domestic ideologies in external settings. Strong statements of a nationalistic flavour may win brownie points and popularity at home—and sometimes they are undoubtedly needed for diplomatic purposes too; however, facts, reason and logic as guides should never be overlooked.”

Far from his days of diplomacy, Jaishankar’s posture is now deeply belligerent, and he seems always ready to raise the spectre of colonialism. When the US billionaire investor George Soros said this February that international investors’ faith had been shaken by reports of Gautam Adani’s wrongdoings and his closeness with Modi, Jaishankar accused him of scaremongering. Jaishankar said he was worried because India knew the dangers of “outside interference” in politics. His words for Soros were ad hominem: “I could take the view that the individual in question Mr Soros is an old, rich, opinionated person, sitting in New York, who still thinks that his views should determine how the entire world works. Now if I could stop at old, rich and opinionated, I would put it away. But he is old, rich, opinionated and dangerous.” Jaishankar called people like Soros dangerous because they invest resources in “shaping narratives.”

As India heads into the 2024 general election, the BJP is heavily invested in shaping a narrative of its own. With the G20 summit set to take place in September this year, the Modi government wants to showcase to India that, under the prime minister’s leadership, the country has arrived as a world leader. “Every prime minister realises [one] thing immediately,” Sinha said. “Foreign-policy successes will get him much more visibility in India than any other kind of activity. In that sense foreign policy in India has become an extension of its domestic policy, and it has not been in any time more pronounced than Mr Modi’s regime.”

Jaishankar, for his part, has understood his assignment and successfully cast a strident and righteous tone for an international audience while signposting the BJP’s mandate for his audience back home. Despite the new Hindu nationalist language, the basic form of conducting India’s international relations remains much the same. There are, however, changes to the content. “India now tilts towards the West far more than it did a decade ago and it is much more vocal in articulating its vision for a multipolar Indo-Pacific,” Hall told me. When Smita Prakash asked Jaishankar about India’s increased closeness to the West, he responded: “Yes, we have very good relations with the US, generally the West. I don’t think there is any reason to be defensive about it.”

Jaishankar’s path ahead as a politician is not clear. “He knows how to be in sync with the times,” Bhadrakumar told me. “He is not a career politician, which is also good in a way because he can perform like a trusted bureaucrat who can cater to the needs of the political leadership and deliver with efficiency.” An old friend and senior from his university days, Anand Kumar, has been watching Jaishankar’s transformation with interest. According to him, Jaishankar elevated the “dignity of office with the kind of experience he has.” But the transformation also worries Kumar. “He is part of the government that speaks the language of Hindutva and I pray he becomes a bad learner of that language,” Kumar said. “It will be a bad day if he becomes the victim of myopia. I want him to fail in that transformation.” Pushpesh Pant, a former professor of international relations in JNU who taught Jaishankar said there was the “factor of personal ambition” at play. “He is a sensible, secular and democratic man,” he told me. But, he added, “if you are at the pinnacle of your career, there may be a Faustian bargain to be made.”

Eram Agha is a reporting fellow at The Caravan.

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