Sujatha Singh is the third senior official to have been dismissed since the National Democratic Alliance government came to power at the Centre.
The swiftness with which Sujatha Singh was dismissed from the post of foreign secretary, six months before the end of her term, has stunned the bureaucracy at Raisina Hill. The message from the Prime Minister's Office to bureaucrats is unambiguous -- shape up or ship out.
The decision to appoint a new foreign secretary, taken by the Cabinet's appointments committee (chaired by the prime minister), was made public late Wednesday night.
The possibility of Singh being dismissed and replaced by India's envoy to the United States S Jaishankar was speculated in senior bureaucratic circles for about a month. But few, including diplomats in the external affairs ministry, had anticipated the manner in which she was dismissed.
In a farewell email to colleagues on Wednesday, Singh said she had sought early retirement from the government. The foreign secretary was the main point of interface with the political leadership, she added. But "it can never be about individuals. It has to be about institutions and how institutions interface and coordinate with each other", she said.
Sources close to her said she believed she was removed from the post because she wasn't media-savvy.
Singh is the third senior official to have been dismissed since the National Democratic Alliance government came to power at the Centre. At the end of November, the government had sacked Special Protection Group chief K Durga Prasad, while Defence Research and Development Organisation's Avinash Chander was dismissed a fortnight ago. Also, mid- to senior-level bureaucratic reshuffles have been carried out, the most talked about being the transfer of Arvind Mayaram from the key post of finance secretary to the less-sought tourism ministry and eventually, to the minority affairs ministry.
Both Prasad and Chander were on extensions given by the NDA government. Chander had little clue of the government's decision until it was publicly announced. The defence ministry cut short his stint 16 months before the end of his term, with Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar saying the DRDO needed someone younger at the helm.
In another signal to the bureaucracy, the urban development ministry cancelled the Delhi Golf Club memberships of about two dozen serving and retired bureaucrats, after it was found they were accommodated "out of turn".
Government sources claim any fears within the bureaucracy of arbitrary or even planned purging of those appointed by the United Progressive Alliance government are unfounded. Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Nalin Kohli denied "any political motive" behind the decision to cut short Sujatha Singh's term. He said the government was within its right to change an officer, as previous governments had. "The government has its agenda and task cut out. Its work is there for the whole world to see. It has also been appreciated by many. The disconcert, if any, is within the Congress party," he said.
A source in the government cited the case of Cabinet Secretary Ajit Kumar Seth, who had served in that capacity under the UPA government, before being given an extension by the NDA government. The PMO, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, also had officers from the previous government, the source said, adding several departments were being managed by bureaucrats appointed by the UPA government.
As for Singh's removal, few tears are being shed at the external affairs ministry. The PMO had seldom kept Singh in the know of the goings-on; a change at the helm is good news for diplomats handling key desks. The case is far removed from the near-rebellion by Indian Foreign Service officers such as Veena Sikri who had quit the service when Shiv Shankar Menon was appointed foreign secretary in 2006, bypassing about a dozen officers senior to him.
The Congress has, however, questioned the decision to end Singh's term and demanded an explanation from the PM for the "summary" dismissal within a day of the conclusion of US President Barack Obama's visit.
Former Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah welcomed Jaishankar's appointment to the post of foreign secretary, terming him a "top-notch" bureaucrat. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj tweeted she was "very much part of the decision" to appoint Jaishankar, adding she "spoke to Sujatha Singh personally".
The new foreign secretary brings immense experience in affairs relating to China, Russia, the US and countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc. "He has a good understanding and balance between India's economic interests and security imperatives," said a former diplomat who worked closely with Jaishankar on the India-US nuclear deal. As joint secretary (Americas) from 2004 to 2007, Jaishankar was an integral part of the team that negotiated the India-US nuclear deal, the defence framework between the two countries and the 'Next Steps in Strategic Partnership', or NSSP, document.
Jaishankar took charge of the post on Thursday morning. On being asked about his appointment, he said such questions could wait for another day. "I know media is an important part of our foreign policy projection…I am sure we will have a lot to do with each other."