|S Jaishankar, Ashok Kantha
New Delhi, Sept. 16: Barely months into his new assignment almost a decade ago, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar had helped swivel the image of India-US relations from one of high tension in September 2004 to that of unprecedented public bonhomie between the countries’ leaders in July 2005.
His fellow 1977-batch career diplomat, Ashok Kantha, was at the same time helping India upgrade its relationship with China from a bilateral dispute resolution mechanism to a strategic partnership where the Asian giants could discuss the region together.
Now, years later, India’s foreign policy establishment has picked the batchmates as the country’s top diplomats in Washington and Beijing, sending an unambiguous signal that it wants to re-inject energy into its ties with the world’s two biggest economies.
Jaishankar, India’s ambassador to Beijing and son of the late strategic analyst K. Subrahmanyam, will take over as ambassador to the US from Nirupama Rao.
Kantha, the son-in-law of BJP leader Yashwant Sinha, will take Jaishankar’s place in Beijing.
They are unlikely to officially take charge in their new roles for at least another month. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has approved the appointments, will visit the US less than two weeks from now and will travel to China in late October, hoping for a final foreign policy hurrah before parliamentary elections in 2014.
The appointments before the Prime Minister’s visits are meant to let his hosts know that India has clear, proactive plans for ties with his hosts, senior officials here told The Telegraph.
“India means business, that’s the unspoken message behind these announcements,” an official who has previously worked in the Indian consulate in New York said.
“The Prime Minister wants his hosts in Washington and Beijing to know that we want to elevate our ties further; that though things are mostly fine, they could be better.”
Jaishankar offers a combination of fresh energy and a record of successful negotiations with the US. In September 2004, he was new in his role as joint secretary in charge of the Americas when the US passed sanctions against two Indian scientists for allegedly helping Iran in a nuclear weapons programme.
India rejected the charges, calling the evidence against the scientists baseless, but the US remained unconvinced and the standoff grabbed media headlines.
In a series of meetings with American embassy officials in New Delhi, Jaishankar pointed out that it would be hard for India to justify improving ties with the US while the sanctions stayed in place.
“We will keep getting hammered on this (till the decision is reversed),” an American embassy cable accessed by WikiLeaks purportedly quotes Jaishankar as telling then US state department assistant secretary for South Asia, Christina Rocca, on October 20, 2004.
The US indicated that it would reconsider the sanctions, setting up the famous July 2005 announcement of the Indo-US nuclear deal from the White House by Prime Minister Singh and then US President George W. Bush.
In 10 months, India had turned from the nation whose scientists allegedly helped Iran in nuclear technology into a nation the US specifically promised to exempt from domestic non-proliferation norms.
Jaishankar then helped negotiate the actual deal over the next year, bargaining hard for India but also earning respect from the Americans by end-2006, when he was appointed ambassador to Singapore.
“Near the end of his tour (as joint secretary in charge of the Americas), Jaishankar shows the mixture of impatience and insight that characterised his tenure and made him a valued interlocutor,” US embassy officials allegedly wrote in a cable to the state department on December 15, 2006, that was accessed by WikiLeaks.
Kantha was joint secretary in charge of East Asia from 2003 to 2007. The period started with China for the first time accepting Sikkim as a part of India in 2003, and endured the frequent hiccups that characterise ties between the neighbours to end with China emerging as India’s largest trading partner according to the Economic Survey for 2007-08.
“By announcing Kantha’s appointment alongside Jaishankar’s, we are sending a signal that we aren’t willing to allow any uncertainty over the envoy to Beijing — and that we value our relationships with Washington and Beijing equally,” a senior diplomat at the ministry of external affairs said.