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Speaking at one of his early public outings since taking over as Minister of External Affairs in the new Modi government, former senior diplomat Subrahmanyam Jaishankar made some astute observations on a number of trends that are sweeping the world and how India might deal with these in the coming years. Mr Jaishankar was a surprise inclusion in the Modi 2.0 cabinet – and a clear indication that his actions in the previous government on a number of important matters particularly concerning China and the United States, which he had successfully dealt with among others, had impressed Mr Modi enough to make this unprecedented move.

As a diplomat of many years’ standing in some of the world’s biggest nations, he has had a ringside view of the geopolitical developments in recent years that have shaped the world and is eminently suited to guide India’s rising star on the international firmament toward the zenith.

He said many of the givens that shaped political and business decisions in decades past were no longer so. “Globalisation is under stress,” he said. “Many of the assumptions of globalisation like global supply chains, mobility of talent and market access are no longer assumptions we can make to the same extent of confidence [as before],” cautioning that he wasn’t meaning to raise alarm on it.

His observation quite obviously comes from the strong headwinds that world trade has been facing, following the ongoing standoff between the United States and China and the former’s hardening stance on a number of other countries such as Iran, that is already affecting other countries including India.

As for mobility of talent, his comment stems from the short shrift that Indian professionals already resident in the United States for work or intending to live and work there in the future have received from the Trump Administration in recent years.

Its flip-flop on H1B policy, among a slew of changes to other immigration policies, has heightened insecurity not only among talented Indians who have grown to become a vital part of the American tech industry but also the entire industry itself, threatening the availability of suitably qualified talent for its own business growth.

Mr Jaishankar has his work cut out on that front in dealing with the United States on those matters and his ample diplomatic experience, his connections and his nous will hopefully stand him and India in good stead in negotiating the choppy waters of trade and talent mobility. Given his diplomatic background and these quite unprecedentedly testing times, he is probably the best man for the job, as Mr Modi might have rightly determined.

He also referred to the growth of nationalism around the world in recent years, with elections in several democracies pitchforking either far right or right wing-flavoured political parties into national governments. The recent Indian elections in which the Bharatiya Janata Party led National Democratic Alliance won a whopping victory is the latest and a rather emphatic case in point.

Interestingly, Mr Jaishankar pointed out that there seemed to be two kinds of nationalism – positive and negative, as it were. One was driven by pride and confidence from a sense of achievement on the back of recent economic success and growth, as in many countries in Asia – and the other resulting from insecurity, fear and despondency, as in the case of several western nations including the United States.

One could see India as belonging to the first category, going by the economic growth and progress the country has made on the human development front in the past five years, particularly in the fields of hygiene, infrastructure, delivery of government services and essentials like power and energy supplies and the improvement in the ease of doing business among many other improvements.

Critics might very well argue that this positivity has been tinged with shades of insecurity fuelled by fears of the perception of growing terrorism and sectarianism seen by majoritarian religious groups as coming at a cost to it. And they would certainly have a point.

However, looking at the situation dispassionately, while this can possibly be argued to be the case to an extent, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle – but clearly tending toward the positive side of the scale: a sense of nationalism born out of the perception of a rapidly emerging India as a strong global player.

Having swapped his well-worn diplomatic hat for a brand new political one, Mr Jaishankar makes it clear that the results of the election are ample indication that people’s aspirations have been met in the past five years and voters have endorsed the leadership to take the country ahead on the same tack.

But standing at the helm of the world’s largest democracy’s foreign affairs ship, he is under no illusion about navigating it in this constantly changing world: he acknowledges that he sees that as challenge.

First appeared in The Indian Weekender dated 14 June 2019.