Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, now India's external affairs minister, speaks during a press conference in New Delhi in 2016. Photo: AFP

The day after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ministers were sworn in on May 31, he made Dr Subramanyam Jaishankrar, the former foreign secretary, the new external affairs minister.

India’s international relationships were at their lowest point in the 72 years since independence, but a terrorist attack in Pulwama, Kashmir, which claimed the lives of 49 paratroopers serving with India’s Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), was effectively exploited by Modi in the general election, helping him to secure a second term.

Modi successfully used the attack to distract Indian voters’ attention from the worst unemployment in 45 years and five years of poor economic growth. Consequently, Modi and his Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament) election held in April and May in a landslide. The BJP won despite there being one foreign policy debacle after another in the neighborhood. The military standoff at Doklam with northern neighbor China put increasing strain on bilateral relations with the US at the time of voting.

Jaishankar is known to be highly knowledgeable and skillful and is a seasoned diplomat. He served as India’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2013 and was its ambassador to Washington from 2013 to early 2015. Modi appointed him as foreign secretary in 2015. Jaishankar was one of the key members of the team that defused tensions between India and China at the time of the Doklam crisis two years ago at the tri-junction between Bhutan, China, and India. As a career diplomat, he played a crucial role in several vital negotiations, and his ability was proven when he served as India’s joint secretary in negotiations for the Indo-US civil nuclear deal in 2008.

Three schools of thought – pro-US, pro-Russian, and pro-Chinese – are supposed to prevail in the Indian foreign policy establishment. Proponents of each school believe that Indian foreign policy can best be served if their respective inclination is followed. Jaishankar wrote an article titled “India and USA: New direction” in the limited-circulation Indian Foreign Policy: Challenges and Opportunities, published by the Indian Foreign Service Institute, Delhi, in 2007. In his article, he advocated a partnership between India and the US aimed at establishing democracy in China. Therefore, among the several vital actors in the Indian foreign policy establishment, Jaishankar strongly believes that the future of India will be best served if it is allied with the US.

By appointing Jaishankar as external affairs minister, Modi is trying to convey multiple messages to a range of Indian foreign policy stakeholders.

Modi was one of the few prime ministers in post-independence India to have little knowledge of foreign affairs when he was elected in 2014. Modi also looked impulsive and inexperienced in both global and South Asian regional matters in his first term. He depended heavily on his wily national security adviser, Ajit Doval. Doval, who has an intelligence background, has a penchant for using coercion to resolve problems in both domestic and external affairs, particularly in the neighborhood. However, in his second term, Modi decided to project himself as an experienced foreign policy prime minister.

By appointing Jaishankar as external affairs minister, Modi is trying to convey multiple messages to a range of Indian foreign policy stakeholders

Modi’s second term will be more tumultuous than his first on the foreign policy front. He has to deal with a raft of bilateral, regional and global issues, and some of the problems may be impossible to resolve.

Dealing with the US

Modi faces intense pressure from the US foreign policy establishment. Indo-US relations have been strained recently. The US is playing a great game with India on multiple fronts. First, it wants India to play a crucial role in regime change in Iran. India betrayed its old ally Iran when it succumbed to pressure and cooperated with Washington’s unilaterally imposed oil sanctions against the Islamic republic. This was a shift from its previous stance of only complying with United Nations sanctions.

Modi is being pressured by the US to support the “regime change”  plan hatched by the so-called “B4 Team.” The B4 team comprises John Bolton, the US national security adviser, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, Mohammad Bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, and Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE crown prince.

Similarly, under American pressure, India earlier this year joined a US-led naval exercise with Washington’s allies Japan and the Philippines in an area of the South China Sea where Manila is embroiled in a sovereignty dispute with China.

You might also like: A review of Modi’s election campaign

The US, Japan, and the Philippines are traditional allies united by defense pacts; however, India is not a part of any military alliance in the region. India has to deal with the Chinese reaction to this development in the South China Sea row.

Washington recently increased its pressure on India by revoking its Generalized System of Preference (GSP) status. It has also made it clear that India cannot cherrypick the best weapons systems from Russia and the US by imposing sanctions on Russian arms exporters. The Trump administration’s list of demands is quite long, so it is little wonder that it is impossible for India to meet them all.

Dealing with China

China sees Modi as a decisive leader and supported him by throwing him two pre-election lifelines. First, a day before the commencement of the Second Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing on April 25-27, China removed the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir in the north and Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast of India from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) map on its website. New Delhi has boycotted the forum since China launched the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which New Delhi says violates India’s territorial integrity.

Second, China reversed its decision to oppose the designation of Masood Azhar as a global sponsor of terror, which is an emotional issue for Indian voters. Azhar, the founder and leader of the Pakistani militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, has been active mainly in the Pakistani-administered part of Jammu and Kashmir.

Modi hinted that he was willing to resolve all outstanding issues with China. He appointed Jaishankar as foreign minister a day after Chinese President Xi Jinping chose China’s new envoy to India and made career diplomat Luo Zhaohui the vice foreign minister in charge of Asian affairs. Jaishankar and Luo are well acquainted.

Modi’s appointment of Jaishankar as external affairs minister is intended to enhance India’s status as a global player

Modi’s next informal summit with Xi is crucial for him. The date and venue are not yet finalized, but they will likely meet in India in October. During the summit, Modi and Xi will try to resolve outstanding issues with the aim of opening a new chapter in their relations. The resolution of the longstanding border dispute between the two countries, construction of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor, possible participation of India in the BRI, and relocating Chinese low-cost manufacturing plants in India are a few possible agenda items on the table for the informal summit.

India is no position to meet the US demand that it further open its market, so it must work with China, Russia and other countries to establish alternative financial transaction mechanisms and rules to offset the US sanctions on Iran.

Dealing with Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin also wanted Modi to be re-elected. Putin conferred “the Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, the highest civilian honor of the Russian Federation” on Modi on April 12, the eve of the Indian elections. Modi was honored for promoting the special and privileged strategic partnership between Russia and India, and improving relations between their nations.

Modi used it as an opportunity to promote himself as a global leader, which gave his campaign a much-needed boost. However, the US has been pushing India to purchase its Terminal High Altitude Defense System (THAAD) and the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC) missile defense system instead of the Russian S-400. The US systems are not only highly expensive but also less capable than the Russian S-400. In addition, the US wants India to endorse its sanctions against the Russian arms industry. Putin, meanwhile, wants India to continue purchasing Iranian oil.

India’s two ambitions

Modi’s appointment of Jaishankar as external affairs minister is intended to enhance India’s status as a global player. Despite the backing of the US and other Western countries, India last year failed to obtain membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the elite club of the nuclear technology trading countries because China opposed its inclusion. Second, Modi wants India to be part of the global governance architecture as it has been advocating for the reform and restructuring of the United Nations and is seeking permanent membership of the Security Council. Modi believes that Jaishankar’s knowledge, wisdom, and experience will help to advance India’s agenda.

Dealing with neighbors

Modi is trying to convey the message to India’s smaller neighbors that his administration will opt for diplomatic dialogue over intelligence-led “muscular” pressure.

In Modi’s first term, National Security Adviser Doval, a former head of India’s Intelligence Bureau, had considerable political, administrative, security, and diplomatic clout in the Prime Minister’s Office. Because of Doval’s hawkish approach in the neighborhood, however, India lost much of its influence in Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Although Modi kept Doval on as national security adviser, he is designated minister-of-state status, which is a lower rank than Jaishanker has been granted. In the first term, Doval was senior to Jaishankar.

Modi has indicated that he wants to hear more diverse views on Indian foreign policy and strategy in global, regional, neighborhood, and bilateral issues than in his first term.

Time will tell whether Jaishankar can successfully cope with Modi’s foreign-policy challenges by utilizing his knowledge, wisdom, experience, and personal and professional relationships with various counterparts.

Bhim Bhurtel teaches Development Economics and Global Political Economy in the Master's program at Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at

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