Interview: Strengthen Modi’s hands… he’s going to see you through this stormy period, says Jaishankar

India’s External Affairs Minister Jaishankar highlights India’s confident foreign policy stance under Modi’s leadership.

India now takes not just clear, but confident positions whether it be over the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the invasion of Gaza, or the South China sea, external affairs minister S Jaishankar has said. In an interview with R Sukumar and Shishir Gupta, Jaishankar said that the Modi government’s “experienced, sober, practical, grounded but courageous” leadership in foreign policy matters is now part of his pitch to voters, for whom he has a simple message: “Strengthen Narendra Modi’s hands because he is actually the guy who’s going to see you through the storm.” Edited excerpts:

External affairs minister S Jaishankar (Hindustan Times)
External affairs minister S Jaishankar (Hindustan Times)

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We are in the midst of the 2024 general elections and the conventional wisdom says foreign policy does not impact the elections, which are more focussed on internal issues…

I think two things have changed. One, the line between what is foreign policy and what is domestic policy has got blurred. So if you look at something like, (India) buying Russian oil, at the end of the day for the consumer, it is domestic policy, because it’s what you pay at the petrol pump.

I find it very interesting, because when I have gone to about nine or 10 states during the elections, I almost invariably get a set of questions on foreign policy. So I think somewhere it has seeped into people’s consciousness. What has seeped into it? One, a sense of pride about where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken the country. Two, an understanding that some danger outside, it could be a pandemic, it could be terrorism, will not stay outside, and will come home. So it’s very interesting. If you look at the BJP manifesto, I think we have given much more space to foreign policy than we have ever given before.


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Things in the external world are in a state of flux. We very much seem to be moving from one crisis to another. There’s Ukraine, there’s Gaza, there are terror strikes happening, somewhere there’s gunboat diplomacy. What is the way to manage this turbulence?

You know, you actually said we are moving from one crisis to another; in truth, we are in multiple crises at the same time. And it began with one and then two, and then three. I mean, look, impact of Covid still remains. The Ukraine war is into its third year. Israel-Gaza, likely to intensify. Israel-Iran is still smouldering. Attacks, drone attacks, missile attacks which are impacting shipping in the Arabian Sea are very much a danger to Indian ships out there.

Go further East, China trying to pressurise us in the LAC. Pakistan is in a perpetual, in fact, intensifying crisis. Afghanistan is getting very tense. Keep going further up to the South China Sea maritime disputes, then US-China competition, then Russia. Other regions have their own terrorism, governance issues. If one objectively assesses the state of the world, it’s actually very turbulent, very volatile with every prospect of it actually getting more complicated.

So what can we do to respond? I think the most important thing we can do is actually have an experienced, sober, practical, grounded but courageous leadership which can take the calls because we will have to keep making calls. You know, we will have to make a call like we did, about our students in Ukraine. We will have to make a call, do we buy Russian oil. We will have to take a call, do we bend to Chinese pressure on Quad or stand up to Chinese pressure because we bent many years ago in 2007. So I think today, my message, when I go out, and people ask me… my honest answer to them is to strengthen Narendra Modi’s hands because he is actually the guy who’s going to see you through the stormy period; that you need a very firm, steady, experienced pair of hands on the tiller as we navigate these turbulent waters.

And also a very clear idea of what our position is, right? I mean, what we stand for, what we want.

Not just clear, I think very confident. I mean, a sense of what we are, what we were, what we should be, and how do I get to that?

Since you mentioned Ukraine, what is the actual story behind the ‘Modi ji ne war rukva di papa?’ It’s become a meme of sorts. You are smiling.

That’s because in this campaign, I would call it the number one FAQ for me. People are genuinely interested, genuinely curious; I’ve had functions from Odisha to Maharashtra, where students or families of students who came out of Ukraine wanted to come up to the stage to thank us for it.

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So, did the PM intervene?

There are two episodes. The first episode was in Kharkiv. It was being subjected to artillery shelling. Now, to get them out, we had worked out a safe zone, where the students who leave Kharkiv City walk out there because there was no other mode of transport. Now, while this was under progress, shelling started again very close to the vicinity of the safe zone. So on that occasion, the Prime Minister spoke to President Putin, and specifically told him, ‘Look, this was an agreement between your people and our people, this is happening. So I would request you to personally have someone look into this and stop it’ — which it did. It took a few hours, but the Russian shelling stopped and the buses went there to pick them up and brought them out.

I think the other one happened a little bit later. Now the timing is important because what happened was, pretty much everybody else in Ukraine had got out or was getting out. And this one place was stuck. It was a particularly complicated place, because other than the Russian military and the Ukrainian military, there was also a kind of a Ukrainian militia which didn’t seem to be under anybody’s particular command and control. So everybody was firing at everybody else. And the students started getting more and more agitated because they felt everybody else was leaving.

This is at Sumy?

Sumy. So, we took two calls. One, that two of our very senior people, from MEA, who were actually handling this whole thing, were Russian speakers, we decided we would send them to Sumy. But the way out had to be secure. So, I requested the PM, saying that look, you will have to speak to Putin and Zelensky, which he was very willing to do and he actually spoke to both of them and told them ‘Look, this is very, very important, you know, we want your forces to stand down and give us a pathway and my officials will work out the details’. So, they passed the instructions down. I was actually sitting with the PM, and he called up Putin and Zelensky.

In January, we were supposed to have a Quad summit, which has been put off. No future date has been set. Has the grouping taken a back seat?

No, no, not at all. Look, I’ll tell you what happened in January. We ran into problems with every one of them. The Americans had a State of the Union problem. The Australians had their own national day on January 26. The Japanese were going through some political turbulence. And, frankly, that became a problem and once we missed the January window, we had to say, look, now Parliament is starting, we are moving into elections.

But I don’t think it’s really had any material impact on the progress of Quad. That continues, everybody is very strongly committed to it. I can tell you as Quad ministers, we talk one-to-one or one-to-two or sometimes one-to-three, regularly. There is a Quad Sherpa meeting which on our side the foreign secretary does. So, things are moving well. Once the elections are over and the new government is formed, there will be things related to Quad which will immediately pick up. So Quad is in good shape, ready to do more. In fact, in many ways, I would say I find it very interesting that more and more countries actually want to work with Quad, even ASEAN, which initially had some reticence about it. Today, there’s a much greater enthusiasm about it.

There are two schools of thought on the Pannun incident in the US. One was that the US in India would compartmentalise this problem and deal with it in isolation and everything else would continue. All the other work would continue. And the other one was that it would actually affect the relationship. Can you give us a sense of how the investigation committee’s work is going?

Well, I agree with you that there are two schools of thought. One school of thought is Narendra Modi will never succeed and should never succeed. So there is a kind of professional pessimist school. Then there are practical guys like us who have a good sense of the world, whose job it is to deliver and we keep at whatever we are doing.

In the case of the Pannun episode, the Americans brought to our attention certain data points. The data points were specific enough, serious enough for us to say, okay, it warrants us investigating it, because it wasn’t just the implication for them. We also in those data points, assess certain implications for us. So I think that is going on. But beyond that is there anything I would like to say in public? My answer is no.

While we are on the Pannun issue, I want you to talk about the allegation that was made by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last year in the Canadian Parliament, where he virtually accused the Modi government of orchestrating the murder of Khalistan terrorist Hardeep Singh Nijjar. Now, they’ve already arrested people over there but there appears to be no evidence per se, right now, to link India.

If I have an issue vis-a-vis country X, I would either go to that country and say, here is the evidence; now, please give me all your views on it. Or I will say I have investigated it and now come to a point where I think you have something to do with it, okay? In this case, actually, we see neither. You know, we have not been given anything specific to go on, which we can say becomes the basis for our own investigation… it’s now getting to a year from when Prime Minister Trudeau said what he did, but we are still very much at the level of suppositions, inferences and quotations.

So no evidence has been produced?

No, my answer to you is that I think there’s a political agenda at work. That today, he and presumably, I mean his political constellation, see some advantage in pointing fingers at us in creating a certain, I would say, narrative. And they think, I assume, that they will get some political advantage out of it. Now, I am also conscious of the fact that I think they are reliant on some other parties for support in Parliament and I think some leaders of those parties are also stoking the fire. So, frankly, in a way, I would say, the relationship has become a victim of Canadian coalition, compulsions, or political football, call it whatever.

There is an election that is going on in Punjab, and if you start defaming India and talking about as if the leadership of the of the NDA and the BJP is involved in such an activity, the Sikh community within Punjab itself may sort of have a coloured image of what’s happening. Do you think there is an attempt to influence the election in Punjab itself?

I think that’s a hypothesis which needs to be very carefully examined. What I can tell you is we’ve seen definitely, in terms of the Western media, a very strong attempt — much stronger than previous elections — to kind of shape the direction of choice in India. It’s almost like they are also a political participant in our democratic process. We know the realities today of the globalised politics. To some extent, we also know that there are people in the country who have made no secret of the fact that they rely on people outside the country to support them. So there is an in-and-out combo really at work, and it takes different forms. You attack institutions, you call into question the integrity of the value of the democratic process. It takes different forms. Look, I am a responsible minister, I am very careful about what I say in public. So at this moment, I will, I think it would be prudent of me, to stop at that.

Okay. Customary question on Pakistan, we have only one. Prime Minister Modi said in a recent interview, that it sort of put a lock or a freeze on bilateral relations with Pakistan.

That, by the way, is an improvement. There are many, many interviews where people don’t even ask me anything about Pakistan.

As to my recollection, I think, essentially, what he said is, `Pakistan is no longer a reference point for me’. I am, I mean, in our business, we call it real de-hyphenation; my trajectory is up. Pakistan is in a different direction. My numbers look good and you know their numbers. I think the story is very clear. Well, I think what he was trying to say is yes, we have a neighbour, but that old habit in India, that you know, when are you going to talk to them, should we not be engaging them? That era is now behind us. We will assess them for what they are, and we will deal with them accordingly.

On Wednesday, you went to the Election Commission to complain to them about Rahul Gandhi’s statement on the armed forces.

Essentially, what he said, I’ll summarise it to you, is that Narendra Modi has created two categories of soldiers: one are the soldiers of the poor families, the backward to the minority families, and one are the children of rich families, and that we treat the two differently and if something happens to them, the benefits or the response of the military will be very different. Now this is incredibly dangerous, because you are now attacking the institution of the army. You are now saying that the army runs a two-track system, which is a downright lie. You know, I can understand politics but if you take politics to questioning you institutions, your security forces, you are doing great damage to this country.

Coming to China, what is the situation right now on the LAC?

The situation on the LAC is that both of us today remain forward deployed, which means we are deployed well ahead of our traditional bases and camps. Secondly, we are deployed in very much larger numbers than we deployed before 2020. We are also deployed with very much more weaponry than we were deployed before 2020. They did it first, we responded to it, so they are responsible for it. In terms of the issue today what we are discussing, right now the focus is on patrolling. You know, both of us used to patrol from our traditional bases to the LAC and there was like a patrolling pattern. The patrolling patterns have got disrupted. So, right now the focus is on how do we get the patrolling issues resolved. Thereafter, there could be discussions about the troops in Pangong Tso. That’s the de-escalation side.

Some of the INDIA bloc leaders have been talking about the model village China is building in Arunachal Pradesh, nibbling of territory in east Ladakh, and also how our presence in Siachen is being threatened by road that is being by the Chinese in the Shaksgam valley which has been illegally sealed by Pakistan.You are an expert on China and you have served in China as an ambassador. Can you tell us in detail what is happening?

Model village – are the Chinese building these model villages? Yes. The village which became subject of controversy, it is in a place called Longju. If you check the records of the Indian Parliament or you read any book on our border problem with China, the Chinese captured Longju in 1959, then there was a discussion with them. The Chinese came back in 1962; this time they captured it in its entirety and held it. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in 1959 told Parliament, I am sorry but it has gone out of my hands.

The second example which they cited was a bridge. There is a bridge which is being constructed on the northern side of the Pangong Tso lake. You can look at the coordinates of that bridge, it is close to a place called Khurnak, Khurnak Fort. The Chinese came to Khurnak Fort in 1958 and that particular part of Pangong Tso, that segment, they actually illegally occupied it in the 1962 war. The recent one which came out during the campaign; their spokesperson said under Modi, we are actually now even risking Siachen because a road is built out of Shaksgam valley which has implications for the security of Siachen. Now Shaksgam valley; in 1949, Jawaharlal Nehru allowed it to become part of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir by accepting a ceasefire and not pressing our attack on Pakistan further. Then in 1963, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as the foreign minister did an agreement with the Chinese and handed over 5,180 sq km of that territory to the Chinese. Nehru let it happen, Bhutto handed it over to the Chinese and now you are saying Modi has culpability.

The Congress party has actually been practising a very sort of clever doublespeak. On the one hand, Rahul Gandhi will actually meet the Chinese ambassador secretly while Doklam is going on. On the other hand, they claim to be a great nationalist outside. Please read Rahul Gandhi’s speeches on China, because he has a sense he knows a lot, and maybe he does. He doesn’t attack the Belt & Road [Initiative]. Belt & Road violates our sovereignty but the Congress party is very, very cautious about it. You can actually sense his admiration for China – you know a great civilisation coming back, a great manufacturing power.

One of the things that India has sought to do over the last few years is emerge as an alternative to China in global supply chains or as a complement to China; the China plus one strategy with many countries in the Western world wanting to diversify out of China, not put all their eggs in one basket. Is China blocking this actively process in some way? I am asking this with the specific focus on what happened with Tesla.

No. To the best of my knowledge, there is no connection at all between Tesla and supply chains at all. Look, what is happening with supply chains is, that there are two broad drivers. One is the manufacturing technology dependence on that over-concentration which China managed to get with the complicity of many Western countries and companies. People woke up to it during Covid. There will be economic de-riskers and there will be political de-riskers. The response is really today to multiply the supply chains, to get more resilient, redundant supply chain. To create more centres of production. The second is in the digital domain, a digital commodity, a product or service is not the same as a manufactured good. India today can score big in both; in fact, one of the initiatives of the Modi government has been a domain like semiconductors which is so important, you know. I mean today, in a way, chips will determine economic growth and even balance of power in many aspects; it’s a world of AI and it’s all about chips. Now, we have got left way way behind because you’ve had people in charge of this country who were also anti-manufacturing. If you do not do manufacturing, you do not get that employment numbers; you will not get technology. I mean, nobody builds technology on services, you need manufacturing to build technology, okay? So, I think today it’s absolutely vital for us to look at these new domains.

Tesla has nothing to do with any of this. Tesla already has a longstanding business in China. So, I assume that, that guy was going to negotiate the past, present and future of his business (Tesla CEO Elon Musk made a recent visit to China), that’s the best information I have. What he was discussing with us was a new business. It’s not an either-or for him. It’s not that he is moving his China factory to India or by going to China, he is not going to work with India. This is a business decision, there is no political implication involved. You look at existing investments with one lens and you look at new decision with another. Don’t confuse the two lenses.

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Moving on to the elections. In some ways, it’s your first general elections.

Yes, sure, as a politician. Seen many as a voter.

How was it to actively campaign in these elections, how was it to speak to voters? What’s your biggest learning?

I was active in two of the state elections, the Gujarat state elections and the Karnataka state elections, but still, I must say, national elections/general elections are clearly different. Different people have different styles of communication. If you look at somebody like Prime Minister Modi, home minister Amit Shah, some of these people are, extraordinarily effective in mass communication. I find I am much more comfortable and much more effective in doing more of a town hall kind of thing. Sure, town halls can be pretty big. I did one in Mumbai, a day before yesterday, there must have been about 2,000 people.

I am sure that in these town halls especially, there must have been a lot of young people. I am particularly curious to know what kind of questions they are asking about India’s role in the world?

Since I became a minister, I have actually spent a lot of my time talking to young people. So, in that sense, a lot of their concerns and interests have been absorbed over the last five years. I find young people are actually very, very taken with what they believe is greater respect today for India at the world stage. They are fascinated. You have no idea how many times this Ukraine issue has come up. And sometimes, I actually talk to them about other operations. You know we did a very risky operation in Sudan. Our embassy was actually physically occupied by one of the combatant sides. I tell them how for example we organised oxygen supply, the kind of effort we made abroad or how you know there was a time when the US had put a ban on any vaccine ingredients going out…, how we persuaded the US. I think it’s good to see that sense of nationalism in young people because often when I travel out, my peer group ministers, they don’t have that same degree of optimism in their societies.

The Prime Minister says he has a 100-day plan. What’s the MEA got lined up?

Well, I think, it’s our job right now to come up with certain options. That’s the way Prime Minster Modi works. So, we are working right now in looking at a whole range of options. Obviously, we will have to wait and see, the government will form and once the government forms, there will be a method by which, these will be put forward to the prime minister and the senior members of the government and then we will take it out further. But right now, I won’t talk about the options we are looking at.


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