WASHINGTON, D.C.— Former senior Bush and Obama administration officials and Indian American community leaders, who worked closely with India’s newly minted External Affairs Minister, Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, 64, in his earlier avatars as foreign secretary and India’s Ambassador to the U.S., in interviews with India Abroad, have hailed his appointment and lauded Prime Minister Narendra Modi for making such an impeccable choice.
Ashley Tellis, one of the country’s foremost strategic experts, who in an earlier incarnation at the State Department and National Security Council in the George W. Bush White House, was one of the protagonists who worked with his Indian counterparts that included Jaishankar in negotiating the landmark U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal, said, “Prime Minister
Modi has demonstrated once again that he has the capacity to pleasantly surprise!”
Tellis, currently the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace — a leading D.C. think tank, observed, “ By appointing Dr. Jaishankar, who is not a politician or even a member of the BJP, as External Affairs minister, he’s communicated clearly that managing foreign relations will remain a critical priority for India’s success.”
“Modi clearly wanted someone in the job whom he trusts and who will deliver— Jaishankar excels on both counts,” he said, and added, “He was the brightest star of the Indian Foreign Service in recent years and I am delighted that the Prime Minister has made such a bold choice in elevating him to the cabinet.”
Tellis argued that “India’s external challenges are daunting and the Prime Minister and his team will have their hands full dealing with them,” but reiterated, “The good news is that he now has someone who thinks strategically and is capable of managing a bureaucracy to deliver on what the Prime Minister needs.”
Nisha Desai Biswal, former Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs in the Obama administration said she was “thrilled” over Jaishankar’s appointment.
Now the president of the U.S.-India Business Council, Biswal said, “He is a seasoned and skilled diplomat whose experience as a global strategist has had a tremendous impact on India's foreign policy.’
“He commands great respect around the world and most particularly in the U.S. for his role in strengthening ties between our two countries,” she added, and predicted, “I am sure that US-India ties will be enhanced as a result of this appointment.”
Echoing similar sentiments, erstwhile U.S. Ambassador to India Richard Verma, said, "The appointment and elevation of Ambassador Jaishankar in the cabinet is an inspired choice and smart move."
Verma, who was the first ever Indian American Ambassador to India, who served in the second term of the Obama administration, said, "No one knows the U.S.-India relationship like he does — he's a problem solver.”
He also acknowledged that Jaishankar was “a no-nonsense and tough negotiator who will be looking out and fighting for India's interests, but will have the U.S. viewpoints firmly in mind.”
Consequently, Verma said, “It makes him the perfect negotiator. He also won't be afraid to dive deep into the details — this is how big problems get solved."
"On a personal level, I'm proud to call the new External Affairs Minister a friend,” he said. “We worked together on some big issues on defense, trade, energy and consular matters, and we were able to find win-win solutions.”
Verma added, “He treats people with respect. He is fair, deeply knowledgeable and a trusted partner. I'm really excited for himand congratulate Prime Minister Modi on this wise appointment.”
“It bodes well for the future trajectory of U.S.-India ties,” the former envoy declared.
Meanwhile, longtime community leader and activist, Dr. Bharat Barai, the driving force behind organizing the Madison Square Garden community event in New York in September 2014, when Modi visited the U.S. as Prime Minister for the first time since his election in May for a White House Summit with Obama, also spoke nostalgically of working in concert with Jaishankar—at the time India’s Ambassador to the U.S.— to make the event the grand success it was and attracted nearly 20,000 Indian Americans from across the country and gave Modi a rock-star welcome.
Barai, a Chicago-based physician, whose friendship with Modi goes back decades, and was personally requested by the Prime Minister to be the main coordinator of the MSG event, said, “It was just wonderful working with him (Jaishankar) and he was so extremely supportive and helpful, which went a long way in making the event the terrific success that it was.”
He said, “The honorable Prime Minister had made it clear that it was to be entirely a community event with all the responsibilities on the community, but Ambassador Jaishankar’s constant counsel and advise and always being there for us with whatever logistics and problems we has or ran into, was invaluable for our pulling off this first-ever international mega event for Prime Minister Modi.”
Barai said, “The community had experience in managing large events for a thousand or couple of thousands of people, but none of us had ever organized an event of this magnitude for a political dignitary, and even though Ambassador Jaishankar had no experience in arranging or managing such mega event either, he really rose to the occasion and was definitely one of the pillars of the event’s success.”
“We had several discussions. starting with committee formations, public events, raising finances, invitees and all the nitty gritty and he made it clear that this was entirely a community event and the Indian would not give a penny. But he was always so supportive and helpful in all of our detailed discussions and we always arrived at mutually agreeable solutions.”
Barai recalled at the time that “he clearly wanted to see that the event was a grand success. He had just arrived as the new ambassador to the U.S. and did not know the community that well--the strength of individual community leaders, etc., but he was such a quick study on how to get benefit of their skills for a successful event and to draw upon the wisdom, enthusiasm, voluntary spirit and generosity of the community.”
“We learnt how to work together for a common goal and in the end it was such and unforgettable and memorable event and such a feather in the cap of the community that did both India and the U.S. proud and gave the Prime Minister such a boost for his first meeting with President Obama,” he said.
Barai said that it was no secret that Jaishankar had “worked closely with Prime Minister Modi for the past few years and he had totally impressed the Prime Minister and although his appointment to a cabinet post was a pleasant surprise, he has all the gravitas for such a position,” and said the community looked forward to “working with him to continue strengthening the U.S.-India relationship and taking it to the next level because we have such good chemistry with him.”
During the run-up to the MSG event, Jaishankar told India Abroad in an exclusive interview that the community reception for the Prime Minister was an extremely important and significant event because to the Government of India it would not only showcase the diversity of India but the diversity of the Indian American diaspora.
He said, “Where that is concerned, it will be a very important event because we’ve not had a community event of that scale before.”
“And, what I’d like to emphasize is that this is truly a community event—we want the community to take leadership, we want the community to take ownership,” he added.
Jaishankar acknowledged that “the embassy will, of course, always be there in support of the community on this, as in any other activity. But at the end of the day, this has to be community led, community-owned event.”
The former career diplomat, who besides Washington, was also India’s envoy to Beijing and Singapore, returns to the MEA less than 16 months after his retirement as Foreign Secretary, and after a stint as president of Global Corporate Affairs for the Tata Group.
He was hardly a year into his assignment as Ambassador to the U.S., when Modi clearly impressed by his organizing skills during his first visit to the U.S. as Prime Minister and the meetings he had put together on the margins of Modi’s summit with Obama—including the preparatory briefings for that summit too-- appointed him foreign secretary, summarily replacing his predecessor Sujata Singh, who was given the heave-ho.
From then on, he was always by Modi’s side and remained a close and trusted confidante ofthe prime minister, and according to sources, even after he retired and joined Tata’s.
Jaishankar, is the son of the late K. Subrahmanyam, one of India's leading strategic analysts, who was a regular contributor to India Abroad and India Abroad News Service (IANS), now Indo-Asian News Service.
He is an alumnus of St. Stephen's College and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)from where he received an M.A. in political science and an M. Phil and P.hD in international relations.
Jaishankar is married to Kyoko Jaishankar and they have two sons and a daughter.In 2019, Jaishankar was conferred with the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award of the country.