New Delhi: S Jaishankar, till yesterday India's ambassador to the US, took charge this morning as the new foreign secretary. The opposition Congress has questioned the timing of his appointment and the removal of his predecessor Sujatha Singh eight months before her tenure ended.
As he took over, the new foreign secretary said, "I am really honoured to have been given this big responsibility. My priorities are the same as the government's priorities."
The Narendra Modi government announced Dr Jaishankar's appointment after a meeting of the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet, chaired by the PM, last evening.
A terse official statement said the tenure of Ms Singh, who took over as India's third woman Foreign Secretary in August, 2013, has been "curtailed" with immediate effect. She was due to retire in August this year.
Dr Jaishankar's appointment came a day after US President Barack Obama concluded a three-day visit to India, during which the two countries saw a breakthrough on the stalled civil nuclear deal.
Sources said External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj favoured Sujatha Singh completing her two-year tenure, but PM Modi is said to have been very keen to get on board Dr Jaishankar, who was, before his key Washington posting, India's longest serving ambassador to China.
The Congress' Manish Tewari said this morning, "If the PM was unhappy with the foreign secretary, why didn't he ask her to go nine months ago. The timing is questionable. Why wait for the presidential visit to end? Did something happen during the visit? The PM needs to explain."
Dr Jaishankar, 60, is the son of K Subrahmanyam, who was one of India's leading strategic analysts. He was a key member of the team that negotiated the nuclear deal with the US in 2008, when Dr Manmohan Singh of the Congress was Prime Minister.
A 1977 batch officer of the Indian Foreign Service, Dr Jaishankar was reportedly Dr Singh's first pick to replace Ranjan Mathai as Foreign Secretary in 2013. But the then PM was reportedly advised by senior leaders of the Congress to go by seniority, and Ms Singh was appointed.
"The government has the right to appoint any officer. Many of the previous governments have done this. I don't know why the Congress is making this a political issue. The Modi government wants to make India strong, " said the ruling BJP's Nalin Kohli.
Sujatha Singh's sudden removal is being compared to the controversial dismissal on national television of A.P. Venkateswaran as foreign secretary by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1987.