Doval and Jaishankar’s tussle over India’s foreign policy

4 June 2019
The newly appointed external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has long differed with the NSA Ajit Doval on his approaches to foreign policy. Manvender Vashist / PTI

The newly reelected Narendra Modi government has reappointed Ajit Doval to his post of national security advisor. Doval’s rank will reportedly be upgraded from that of a minister of state to a cabinet minister. Last week, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who served as foreign secretary during Modi’s first tenure, and formerly as India’s ambassador to the US and to China, was appointed the union minister for external affairs. Jaishankar—once a contender for Doval’s job—has long differed with the NSA on his approaches to foreign policy.

In “Undercover,” the cover story of The Caravan’s September 2017 issue, Praveen Donthi reported that there had even been suggestions of friction between the two. “Doval is a policeman, with a very law-and-order approach, and doesn’t look at the long-term point of view,” a senior diplomatic correspondent told Donthi. Jaishankar “looks at things like a diplomat.” But, the correspondent continued, “The diplomats of other countries in our neighbourhood, including China, don’t really have any respect for Doval and Jaishankar as they are seen not as diplomats with a vision but as apparatchiks.”

In an interview in January 2014, when asked of his rumoured connections to the BJP, Doval responded, “I am not a member of any political party, have never been. I don’t think I’d like to accept any position in any government.”

After the BJP-led coalition won the general election a few months later, speculation about the NSA post settled on a handful of candidates: Kanwal Sibal, the former foreign secretary; Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s ambassador to the United States; Hardeep Singh Puri, formerly India’s representative to the United Nations; and Doval, acknowledged as the favourite.

A former IB chief told me that it came down to Doval and Puri, a friend of the soon-to-be cabinet minister Arun Jaitley. “Hardeep might have a better sense of humour and likes to laugh at himself,” he said. “I don’t think Doval likes to do that. Both have very strong lobbies in the newspapers too. If you are looking to impress and influence people, then Hardeep is the man. Doval is a doer.”

Doval assumed office in late May. Shishir Gupta, reporting the appointment, wrote, “Trusted by Sangh Parivar, finance minister Arun Jaitley and home minister Rajnath Singh, Doval has also worked behind the scenes for Modi and the BJP since his retirement from IB.” Swaminathan Gurumurthy tweeted that Doval “is the contemporary version of chatrapati shivaji and [Bhagat] Singh”—both beloved of Hindu nationalists.

The general consensus—among those in the government, think tanks and the media—is that Doval has a hold over the home ministry, defence ministry and the ministry of external affairs. Rajnath Singh, the home minister, has accepted a more limited role than his position traditionally accords. The defence ministry has lacked stable ministerial leadership, with two changes of minister already in Modi’s term. A high-ranking former cabinet bureaucrat told me that although “Sushma Swaraj is a competent person,” as the minister of external affairs she “has been made more or less a cipher.”

Doval’s power on questions of internal security is undisputed. But his influence on other aspects of Modi’s domestic policy might not be as great as media characterisations suggest. This July, the magazine Bureaucracy Today, popular among government administrators, conducted a survey to ask “Who is the most powerful bureaucrat in the Modi regime?” Over 80 percent of the 16,000 respondents—12,000 of them government employees—picked PK Mishra, Modi’s additional principal secretary. Less than a tenth of them picked Doval.

On foreign policy, a defining factor in Doval’s reach has been the equation between him and the foreign secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. As the ambassador to China and then the United States, Jaishankar received Modi on several official trips, including his first visit to the United States as prime minister. Modi removed the incumbent foreign secretary to make room for Jaishankar in January 2015, and granted him a year-long extension on his two-year term early this year. Numerous people familiar with the ministry of external affairs told me that Modi’s great confidence in Jaishankar makes him the most powerful foreign secretary in a long time. Some of Doval’s detractors told me Jaishankar might replace him as the NSA if Modi is re-elected in 2019.

Doval, who holds the rank of a minister of state, is officially a superior of Jaishankar’s, a ministry secretary. But while Doval is Modi’s NSA, “it is his lack of foreign policy experience and his inability to move beyond the ‘tactical’ that had created a void which Jaishankar will now fill,” the journalist Siddharth Varadarajan wrote at the time of the foreign secretary’s appointment. In government circles, Doval has been nicknamed the daroga, or station-house officer, of South Block—the premises of the ministry of external affairs and the prime minister’s office. Another nickname making the rounds is “National Security Advisor (Pakistan)”—an insinuation that Doval’s understanding of other countries is non-existent.

There have been occasional suggestions of friction between the NSA and the foreign secretary in the jostle for influence. However, a former official of the ministry of external affairs who knows Jaishankar well said that these were overblown. He summarised Jaishankar’s approach to his work as “You tell me a desired solution, I will try to find a way to get there.” That, he continued, allowed the foreign secretary and the NSA to establish “a good modus vivendi.”

But the former official did cite one point on which the two have differed. The government, he said, has started to directly sponsor think tanks, and Doval and Jaishankar disagreed on which ones should qualify for funds. “Doval and MJ Akbar believe only right-wing think tanks like the VIF and India Foundation should get the funding,” the former official said. “The foreign secretary thinks there should be a wide array. … But there is a broad agreement that the think tanks need to be cultivated.”

The journalist Uday Mahurkar, who is considered close to Modi, pointed to a division of turf between Doval and Jaishankar in a recent book on the prime minister’s administration. “The roadmap for Modi’s global initiatives was prepared by Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar,” he wrote, “with the national security focus coming from Ajit Doval in the case of countries in India’s immediate neighbourhood, particularly Pakistan.”

In its election manifesto for 2014, the BJP declared that the Congress-led government had “failed to establish enduring friendly and cooperative relations with India’s neighbours. India’s relations with traditional allies have turned cold. India and its neighbours have drifted apart. Instead of clarity, we see confusion. The absence of statecraft has never been felt so acutely as today.”

Indian policy on Pakistan under Modi has suffered for a lack of consistency. The government’s often contradictory moves have seemed motivated by the need of the hour rather than a coherent long-term strategy. In part, this could have to do with fluctuations in the division of responsibility.

A veteran diplomatic correspondent said that “initially, Modi trusted Jaishankar with Pakistan and Doval with China.” The correspondent pointed out the irony in this—Jaishankar is the better versed on China, having served as ambassador there, and Doval the better versed on Pakistan. “Doval was the special envoy to China. Jaishankar was sent on a visit to SAARC capitals, a thinly veiled cover for fresh talks with Pakistan, in March 2015. But by the end of 2015, when Modi’s approach to Pakistan had changed, Doval met the Pakistan NSA in Bangkok … and became the face of India’s Pakistan policy once again.”

Inconsistency has been a hallmark in the relationship with Nepal, too. Modi headed to Kathmandu in August 2014, a few months into his tenure as prime minister. There, he promised to increase development cooperation, and to put the “neighbourhood first.” But the goodwill this earned was soon squandered.

In September 2015, Nepal was on the verge of adopting a new constitution to cap an arduous transition away from civil war. But anger over some of its provisions had sparked protests, especially in the Madhes region along the southern border, and scores of demonstrators had died in the preceding months. India, long a supporter of the new charter’s creation, had issued notes of concern regarding the discontent, but nothing that had been interpreted in Kathmandu as suggesting a major change in the Indian stance. Two days before the constitution was to be signed, Jaishankar landed in Kathmandu to lobby for a postponement so that the concerns of people in the Madhes could be addressed.

Many Nepalis read this as India meddling in their affairs—a long-standing sore point. “It wasn’t just that the message that Jaishankar brought was ill-timed and inappropriate,” the Nepali journalist Ameet Dhakal wrote, “the brute way of its delivery was equally damning.” Dhakal likened Jaishankar’s demeanour to that of the British viceroy George Nathanial Curzon.

“As matters reached a head,” the journalist Jyoti Malhotra wrote, “Doval, who has been ‘handling’ Nepal at this time, was forced to cede ground to foreign secretary S Jaishankar.” An analyst familiar with the ministry of external affairs told me Doval had been reluctant to go to Kathmandu to deliver the message himself, and had left the job to Jaishankar.

The constitution was adopted as scheduled, with India and Nepal feeling mutually snubbed. The countries’ relationship has remained strained since. The signing of the constitution was soon followed by a devastating blockade of the two countries’ border as India and a new Nepali government clashed over suggested amendments to the document, and over increased Chinese investment in Nepal. As anger against India multiplied, China’s popularity shot up.

Doval’s main examination as a diplomat on the global stage has been his handling of China. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, visited India in September 2014, stirring hopes of progress on long-standing disputes over the two countries’ border. When the time came to talk, Modi appointed Doval his special envoy on the issue over Jaishankar. A former official at the ministry of external affairs and a former RAW officer told me that Doval specifically asked for the job.

A round of talks in 2015 yielded little substance. Another round followed in mid April 2016. Prior to this, China had blocked Indian efforts at the UN to have Masood Azhar—released by India to end the IC 814 hijacking, suspected of orchestrating the Pathankot attack and now living in Pakistan—internationally recognised as a terrorist. Doval raised this issue with his Chinese counterpart.

Days later, India granted a visa for Dolkun Isa, an exiled leader of the Uighur ethnic group wanted by China, to attend a conference in Dharamshala. China pointed out that Isa was listed as a wanted fugitive by Interpol, and reminded India of its resulting obligations. The ministry of external affairs cancelled the visa.

“Dolkun Isa episode is a self-inflicted humiliation. Mercifully, wiser heads prevailed, not prickly & immature new warriors of our diplomacy,” Shekhar Gupta tweeted. A veteran diplomatic correspondent told me that the impetuous issuance of Isa’s visa and its later withdrawal showed a disharmony between Jaishankar’s and Doval’s approaches.

Rajesh Rajagopalan, a professor of international relations, wrote, “It is unclear how India expects putting Masood Azhar on a UN terror list will stop his depredations … the amount of diplomatic effort that India expends on these ventures is much too disproportionate to any likely benefits.”

In August 2016, The Telegraph reported, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi has handed foreign secretary S. Jaishankar charge of India’s diplomacy with China and Pakistan, ending the near-complete control that national security adviser Ajit Doval held over New Delhi’s two toughest relationships. … Jaishankar will from now on hold regular talks with his Chinese counterpart … to manage a tricky bilateral relationship threatened by a series of spats in recent months.”

“Doval’s wings have been clipped on China because Jaishankar has been roped in,” an analyst who worked with Doval at the VIF told me. “Because the things are far more complicated, it requires delicate diplomacy. With Pakistan there is mostly terrorism.”

But Doval remained Modi’s special envoy for border talks. This June, China attempted to extend a road into Doklam, an area that it claims at the trijunction of the Indian, Chinese and Bhutanese borders. India, in keeping with existing treaty agreements with Bhutan and its own strategic calculations, defended the Bhutanese claim. Indian soldiers entered the territory to confront Chinese troops, and a standoff ensued. Just before Doval visited China during the incident, the Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Chinese government, carried an editorial titled “Doval visit won’t sway China over border standoff,” which said the NSA “is believed to be one of the main schemers behind the current border standoff.” After months of stalemate, in late August both sides agreed to disengage.

A flurry of articles put the resolution down to Doval taking a tough stand. In a piece titled “How Doval and team navigated the Doklam stand-off,” Zee News reported, “As diplomatic talks progressed, it was clear New Delhi was negotiating from a position of strength with Army Chief Bipin Rawat ‘extremely confident of ensuring maximum damage.’”

Meanwhile, R Prasannan, a veteran journalist on defence and foreign affairs, wrote,

Clearly, Modi had been led up the mountain path by his strategic managers. First, they failed to read the Chinese mind, which had been made up to slight India. The Chinese had notified their intent to build a road to Doklam, but our diplomats did nothing to dissuade them. When the Chinese came in, India used the military first and diplomacy last. It should have been the other way around. … Throughout the crisis, Bhutan didn’t utter a word. After it was diffused, there was just a “phew” statement. No “Thank You, India”. Pray, why the silence?


During the standoff, Tsering Shakya, a historian of the Himalayan region, wrote, “The Indian media’s sabre-rattling on defending Bhutan from Chinese encroachment may be good for arousing nationalistic sentiment but does not find echoes in Bhutan. While the Bhutanese don’t fear invasion from the north, an increasing Indian presence will surely undermine its sovereignty.”

“There has been no progress absolutely” on India–China relations, a senior diplomatic correspondent told me. After the initial meetings between India and China after Modi took power, “Doval didn’t seem to have any ideas to take the second step forward. The relationship never really took off. Doval’s whole emphasis seemed to be on border management. Three years later it is dead. The problems are as alive as in 2014.”

“Doval is a policeman, with a very law-and-order approach, and doesn’t look at the long-term point of view,” the correspondent said. Jaishankar, reportedly with the greater say on China now, “looks at things like a diplomat.” But, the correspondent told me, “Doval and Jaishankar are both hardliners in terms of not letting traditional forms and historical factors affect their interests. They share their worldview openly, and it makes Modi comfortable. … The diplomats of other countries in our neighbourhood, including China, don’t really have any respect for Doval and Jaishankar as they are seen not as diplomats with a vision but as apparatchiks.”

This is an excerpt from “Undercover,” Praveen Donthi’s profile of Ajit Doval in the September 2017 issue of The Caravan. It has been edited and condensed.

Praveen Donthi  is a staff writer at The Caravan.