A political slugfest ensued today following the government’s sacking on foreign secretary Sujata Singh, as opposition Congress party alleged political motivations in the shuffling of decks at the top.
Singh has been replaced with S. Jaishankar, India’s ambassador to the U.S., who was set to retire on 31 January.
"The sudden and summary removal of the senior most woman foreign service official by Modi government raises serious questions on its intent and the administrative mechanism it is following," said Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala.
"It puts a serious question mark on the administrative consistency and efficacy of actions of the Prime Minister,” he said.
Surjewala pointed out other summary terminations under the Modi government including the removal of Special Protection Group chief and Defence Research and Development Organisation chief.
There is also growing speculation about the Modi government’s decision in the foreign service bureaucracy about the removal of Singh. Several Indian Foreign Service officials, who HuffPost India reached for comment, declined to speak on the subject. Others said that the government had broken no rules in making such a change, but found it “unusual” and “not in the natural course of things."
"This is a political decision and it should not be looked on the basis of rules and regulations,” said M.K. Bhadrakumar, who served as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey. “It is a highly controversial subject and I’m not comfortable commenting further. They have acted within the rules."
Another Foreign Secretary A. P. Venkateswaran was infamously sacked by by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at a press conference in 1987.
Jaishankar is one of India’s most highly regarded diplomats, having served as ambassador in China and Singapore, apart from the US. He is also fluent in Russian and is an expert in Central Asian affairs.
Neelam Deo, who served as India’s ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast, said that appointing Jaishankar immediately was also an administrative issue because he was set to retire in two days. Once retired, she said, he could not be appointed as foreign secretary.
Deo also said that Modi had a “good impression” of Jaishankar and shared a “good rapport” with him. “The relationship with the United States has been transformed and he needs someone in Delhi to steer that relationship with him.”
Congress leader Manish Tewari linked Singh’s removal to the U.S.-India diplomatic blowout, last year, involving IFS officer Devyani Khobragade.
Is sacking of Foreign Secretary late retribution for stand on the Devyani Khorbode affai ?Removal after Presidential visit mere coincidence?— Manish Tewari (@ManishTewari) January 29, 2015
Vivek Katju, who has served as India’s ambassador to Afghanistan, also said that the Modi government had “great confidence” in Jaishankar. “The decision to appoint secretaries are taken on the basis of confidence and trust,” he said.
Deo, director of Gateway House, a foreign policy think tank, noted that replacing Singh was “not in the normal course of things.” “But so many protocols have been broken by this government. This government has its own style of functioning,” she said. “A change in the system is not necessarily bad.”
While the news broke suddenly on Thursday, Deo said that rumours of Jaishankar’s appointment had been doing the rounds for several months. “I don’t even live in Delhi. Even I heard it in Mumbai,” she said.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj tweeted about the controversy on Thursday evening.
Then I spoke to Ms Sujatha Singh personally.— Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwaraj) January 29, 2015
I told her that the Government wanted to appoint Dr.Jaishankar as Foreign Secretary.— Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwaraj) January 29, 2015
Since Dr.Jaishankar was retiring on 31st January, we had to issue orders of his appointment before that date.— Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwaraj) January 29, 2015