Our high profile minister of external affairs, S. Jaishankar, who is vociferous both at home and abroad, appears to have landed up in a mess. Some of his recent remarks regarding both current and past events have stirred up a controversy. Not only Opposition parties, some members from his own former bureaucratic fraternity have also expressed reservations about his frequent comments.
The controversy centres around three issues: (i) Jaishankar’s outburst against the BBC documentary on Narendra Modi’s murderous role in the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, and his allegation that the BBC ignored the 1984 massacre of Sikhs under the Congress regime; (ii) his recent interview with an international news agency where he acknowledged that India was a smaller economy compared to China’s, and therefore could not afford to pick up a fight with it; and (iii) his speech at his book release function where he heaped gratitude upon Narendra Modi for making him a minister – the same Modi who was accused by his father the late K. Subrahmanyam, of `killing Dharma’ by unleashing the anti-Muslim genocide in Gujarat in 2002.
Let us examine one by one, Jaishankar’s utterances – the first ill-informed, the second a gaffe, and the third an example of groveling at the feet of his present employer. To take his knee-jerk response to the BBC two-part documentary ‘India: The Modi Question,’ during an interview with ANI (Asia News International) he denounced it as a conspiracy by the foreign media to shape “an extremist image of India … of the BJP, of the Prime Minister…” He then accused BBC of being partisan (against the BJP, and in favour of the Congress) – alleging that it had not made any documentary on the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 under the then Congress regime. Now, to remind our honourable Minister for External Affairs (who is expected to be well-informed), the BBC did broadcast in 2012 a film on that event entitled: `1984: A Sikh Story,’ which documented the storming of the Golden Temple and the genocidal violence against Sikhs in November that year. He can view it if he wants to.
Let me also remind Mr. Jaishankar that in November 1984, it was an ideologue of his `Sangh Parivar’ (to which he now belongs as a member of the Modi cabinet), the late Nana Deshmukh, who justified the massacre of Sikhs in a secret document (entitled `Moments of Soul Searching’ dated November 8, 1984) that was circulated among his followers. A few days later, it was leaked out and published in the November 25 issue of `Pratipaksh,’ the Hindi weekly edited then by the socialist leader George Fernandes (who in an ironical twist, was to join some years later the same Sangh Parivar-led Union cabinet as a minister !). Jaishankar can read that article of Nanaji Deshmukh’s , to find out how the leadership of his `Parivar’ (of which he is a recent member) supported the massacre at that time.
But what must have really embarrassed the Modi government, and particularly hurt the braggadocio of its army generals, is the gaffe that Mr. Jaishankar made when in an interview with the same ANI news agency on February 22, let fall the comment regarding China: “ Look, they (China) are bigger economy…what am I going to do ? As a smaller economy, I am going to pick up a fight with the bigger economy ? …It’s a question of common sense..”
Now, being well-acquainted with the ground level reality in global economy, Jaishankar knows well how asymmetrical are the economic relations between China and his country. In a carefree moment perhaps, he let out the secret. But now, it can be considered `politically incorrect’ by the ruling powers. Let us see how Modi responds to Jaishankar’s observations.
Jaishankar’s genuflection at the feet of Modi
On January 28, 2023, at a function in Pune to launch his book, Jaishankar heaped praises upon Narendra Modi stating: “I am not sure any Prime Minister other than Narendra Modi would have made me minister.” Greasing Modi’s feet further, he added: “I really also sometimes ask myself that if he was not the Prime Minister, would I have had the courage to enter politics..”
What sort of politics has Jaishankar entered under the patronage of his Prime Minister ? A politics of hatred and persecution of Muslims, suppression of dissent by intellectuals and students in universities, destruction of freedom of expression, incarceration of reporters who dare to investigate into crimes committed by the BJP’s followers, and throttling of the voices of Opposition parties even within the precincts of Parliament.
Jaishankar should remember the words of his father, the late K. Subrahmanyam, a civil servant like him, and a strategic affairs analyst, who in 2002 denounced the then Narendra Modi-led government of Gujarat, for its nefarious role in planning the massacre of Muslims in his state that year. He said: “Dharma was killed in Gujarat. Those who failed to protect innocent citizens are guilty of adharma. Rama..would have used his bow against `Asura’ rulers of Gujarat…” This quote which has been circulated recently on twitter should be embarrassing for Jaishankar.
Role of bureaucrat-turned-politicians
But then, Jaishankar is following in the footsteps of those of his former colleagues in the administrative services who in the past decided to enter the political scene. They came to occupy important positions in the administrative structure in New Delhi – some even becoming ministers under various political regimes. We can name a few of these bureaucrats-turned politicians – IAS officers Yashwant Sinha and Ajit Jogi, IFS officers Natwar Singh, Mani Shankar Ayar and Meira Kumar (the latter to become the Lok Sabha Speaker). They left their individual marks on the political scene, some influencing the policies of the government – some being influenced by the ministers in their administrative operations.
Our present prime minister Narendra Modi appears to be on a shopping spree to get more and more bureaucrats – whether serving or retired – to fill up his cabinet. Apart from Jaishankar, he has recruited others like Hardeep Singh Puri, an ex-IFS former envoy to the UN, who is now the Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs; ex-IAS officer R. K. Singh who is in charge of the Ministry of Power and Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. But to top it all, Narendra Modi has appointed Ajit Doval, a former Intelligence Branch director as the National Security Advisor – and has given him the rank of a Union Minister !
Being a canny politician, Narendra Modi during his tenure as Gujarat’s chief minister, could gauge the psychology of the bureaucrats while interacting with them. After he became Prime Minister, Modi picked up those who suited his interests for inclusion in his secretariat in Delhi. One of the first was Jaishankar , who was appointed as foreign secretary in January , 2015 and served till January 2018. Soon after his retirement, he was nominated as a BJP MP in the Rajya Sabha in 2019. Within a few years, he graduated to the position of India’s foreign minister.
What prompts ex-bureaucrats to join politics ?
There is nothing wrong in the practice of retired (or resigned) bureaucrats joining some political party or other, according to their individual preferences. But their choices are often conditioned by their training as officials who are encouraged to think and operate in terms of promotion – upward mobility from a junior post to a senior post in the hierarchical order. During their careers, these bureaucrats have learnt to know that such promotions are quite often determined by local politicians and ministers who put pressure on the administrative selective system to promote those officers who have served their political interests. Thus, they have internalized a habit of obeying orders from political leaders when exercising their administrative power, in the course of which they quite often violate the rules that are mandated by their official manuals. For instance, there are reports of officers posted in certain politically divisive districts, turning a blind eye to allegations of corruption against ruling party politicians, but hauling up leaders and activists of Opposition parties on flimsy charges.
The few among their colleagues who dare to exercise their powers in conformity with the rules, and defy political orders from the top, are denied promotion or shunted out. Even worse, if these dissenters among their ranks, decide to resign and join human rights movements, or set up voluntary organizations to help the distressed, these ex- bureaucrats are persecuted by the state.
Punishment and Reward
The worst example of such punishment is the recent case of the persecution of Harsh Mander. He is an ex- IAS officer, with vast experiences as an administrator during his postings in different parts of India. But in 2002, during the anti-Muslim mayhem in Gujarat, when he found that even his own colleagues in the service remained mute spectators and failed to carry out their duties, he decided to resign. He then founded `Aman Biradari’, an NGO which has been campaigning for a secular, peaceful and just society all these years. He has been criticizing the Modi-led government. In retaliation, the Ministry of Home Affairs has recently ordered a CBI probe against his NGO – accusing it of violating FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act).
The lesson is very clear for IAS aspirants and officers. It is the Modi government’s carrot and stick policy to which they have to submit – a policy of reward and punishment. Those among them who clutch at the carrot, must carry out the dictates of the ruling party politicians in their respective areas of administration – so that post-retirement, they can climb up and enter the cabinet of ministers. Our present Foreign Minister is an outstanding example of such upward mobility. As for those officers who reject the offer of carrots, and after exiting the service, dare to oppose the oppressive policies of the government, they will have to face the stick. Harsh Mander is an outstanding example of such victimization.
Sumanta Banerjee is a political commentator and writer, is the author of In The Wake of Naxalbari’ (1980 and 2008); The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta (1989) and ‘Memoirs of Roads: Calcutta from Colonial Urbanization to Global Modernization.’ (2016).