WHEN THE FOREIGN SECRETARY, Sujatha Singh, got a call from the external-affairs minister’s office in January 2015, she knew something was up. Sushma Swaraj wanted to set up a meeting for 2 pm on 28 January but would not say what the meeting was about. This was unusual and enough to make Singh wary. When she went in, she tried to keep up appearances and began briefing the minister about the next day’s plan. But, before long, Swaraj conveyed the disappointing news. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wanted to replace her as foreign secretary, with Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. She would not serve a full two-year term, which was to end in six months.
When she described this sequence of events to the journalist Karan Thapar, Singh’s voice was heavy with emotion. The news of her curtailment had made headlines—it was a shocking and rare development in the history of the Indian Foreign Service. The only other time a foreign secretary had been unceremoniously replaced was in 1987. AP Venkateswaran had a reputation for being blunt and not being a pliant bureaucrat; he was known, for instance, to have differences with various officials, including the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi—on sending the Indian Peace Keeping Force into Sri Lanka. In a televised interview, Gandhi finally dropped a bomb: “Soon you will be talking to a new foreign secretary.” Venkateswaran resigned before he could be officially dismissed.
The news of Singh’s dismissal would not have been quite as surprising to her as it must have been for Venkateswaran. “There were bets being laid even before this government was sworn in that I will be one of the first secretaries to go,” she told Thapar. In December 2014, she said, a civil servant in the prime minister’s office had hinted at the possibility of another job for her. Singh had stated clearly that she was not interested in any other job. After she was intimated about Modi’s decision, Singh wrote a letter stating that she was seeking early retirement “as instructed by the Prime Minister.” She told Thapar that she soon received a call from the prime minister’s office, asking her to delete the reference to Modi’s instruction. She did not agree to this, because this was not a voluntary decision.