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Modi humbles two ladies with one sling

By M K Bhadrakumar
Last updated on: January 29, 2015 16:12 IST
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'Modi's long arm reached out to Madam Singh. It is not at all a pretty sight when a Colossus comes down so heavily in an patently unequal tussle -- and I am not speaking about gender equality alone.'

'A prime minister should not stoop so low to conquer. It is simply below the dignity of his high office,' says Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar.

There is an old saying, 'Bad workmen quarrel with their tools.' Quite obviously, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's unhappiness with the (former) Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh doesn't fall into this category.

Actually, nothing terrible has happened to Modi's foreign policies to demand such dramatic stocktaking as to sack an incumbent foreign secretary. For good or bad -- time will tell -- Modi has been a robust workman on the foreign policy front.

Modi is the monarch of all he surveys in foreign policies. He could pretty much do things as he wishes and neither his docile party men nor the Indian Parliament (or the foreign policy establishment) can apply brakes on him.

Suffice it to say, Modi is unstoppable and would have had no problems even if the next foreign secretary were to be duly appointed by the middle of the year. What is eight months in the life of the great Indian civilisation, after all?

But Modi's long arm nonetheless reached out to Madam Singh. It is not at all a pretty sight when a Colossus comes down so heavily in an patently unequal tussle -- and I am not speaking about gender equality alone.

A prime minister should not stoop so low to conquer. It is simply below the dignity of his high office.

Again, the appointment of Madam Singh's successor as foreign secretary has been done with appalling crudity. The incumbent foreign secretary was sacked on Wednesday and the successor ordered to take over when the sun rose the next day over Rajpath -- even before the successor decently wound up his previous assignment in America, 10,000 miles away.

There is no justification for such unseemly haste. It looks as if there has been a coup. What is the need for it? The question lingers: Why did Modi behave in such a brash way?

An answer will need to be sought from three perspectives. First, Modi is obviously obsessed with a single foreign service officer to such an extent that he wants him by his side at all hours. In a cadre of several hundred IFS officers, he won't settle for anyone else, apparently.

But then, why couldn't he elevate this charming officer who is due to retire from government service in another 72 hours and make him his foreign policy advisor?

Conceivably, Modi didn't want to exercise such an option that might have upset the national security advisor and created turf wars in his own kitchen garden.

Therefore, Modi reconciled the contradiction -- bring in his favourite, who will report to him directly.

The last is the key point here: Modi wants a foreign secretary who is completely beholden to him and will report to him directly. Put differently, he wants the External Affairs Ministry to be brought under his direct control and supervision.

Obviously, the MEA is being subjected to the highly centralised 'Modi way' of governance where the pivotal figures in the government are the secretaries and not his Cabinet ministers.

The media reports have largely echoed the Delhi grapevine that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj didn't favour this change and would rather have brought in a successor to Madam Singh eight months hence in the normal course.

Funnily, the grapevine is that Modi even reportedly tried to appease Madam Singh by sounding her out on a sinecure position (such as becoming a member of the Union Public Service Commission or some such thing). But, her DNA didn't permit her to oblige Modi.

What she overlooked was that Modi passionately wanted a particular officer who was due to retire on January 31 and she really had no choices but to quit her job. So, she preferred to walk into the sunset holding her head high.

Of course, Swaraj herself is dignity personified and will choose to focus on her forthcoming trip to China rather than agonise over Modi's whimsicality (which she must be familiar with anyway). But it leaves a bad taste in the mouth, all the same.

So much of broken china all around as if a bull has been in the shop overnight. All for what? Can't we do things at least with decorum?

For the new foreign secretary, too, this poses an ugly backdrop. The point is, there are at least two outstanding former colleagues whose legitimate career prospects he has (unwittingly) blocked, and he should have shown the courage to decline this gracious offer from a besotted prime minister.

Bureaucracy, after all, is not the end-all and be-all of life for an intellectual with such a brilliant mind as S Jaishankar.

Also read: The Jaishankar I know

Image: Former Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat.

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