If Shashi Tharoor's panel has its way, India's diplomatic corps could grow in quantity and quality
If recommendation 19 of the Shashi Tharoor-helmed Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs's latest report is adopted, you could be on your way to becoming a diplomat minus all the stress of UPSC exams
Do you harbour dreams of being India's emissary overseas?
Ever imagined yourself presenting your diplomatic credentials to a Head of State?
Maybe diplomatically anchoring a rescue mission of Indians in some other country?
If recommendation 19 of the Shashi Tharoor-helmed Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs's latest report (embedded at the end of this article) is adopted, you could be on your way to realising those dreams.
On Tuesday, the panel presented its 12th report, which was on the topic of 'Recruitment, structure and capacity-building of IFS Cadre, including need for a separate UPSC examination for cadre, mid-career entry and in-service training and orientation' and one of the key points stated:
The committee is concerned to note that the space for non-career ambassadors has considerably shrunk, as in the past there had been a number of highly illustrious ambassadors who were not drawn from the (Indian Foreign Service) and who served their posts with distinction. The committee is of the considered view that more eminent persons who have excelled in the field of community affairs, diaspora issues, foreign policy, area studies, literature, journalism etc should be considered for appointments as ambassadors/high commissioners.
If this recommendation is taken on board — even in part, if not in entirety — it will go some distance in changing the present image of India's ambassadorial circle as an elite club, to which, as retired diplomat Kishan S Rana points out, "appointments are almost exclusively from the Indian Foreign Service cadre".
However, while the issue of ambassadorial appointments is serious, far more pressing is the need to build the numbers, quality and capacity of India's diplomats.
With a grand total of 912 foreign service officers — among 2,700 members of the diplomatic corps, India doesn't fare all that badly in comparison to some countries.
While India's diplomatic strength is more than that of Brazil's (2,000), it lags behind countries like China (4,500), Japan (5,700), France (6,000) and obviously, the US (20,000) where one in every 16,000 or so citizens is a diplomat. Closer to home, the report points out that within India and in comparison to other All-India or Central Services, "IFS is one of the smallest in terms of cadre strength". However, it notes that the IFS has demonstrated "highest levels of efficiency and innovation" in managing MEA posts and at missions/posts abroad.
So what's the problem?
As the report states:
"The number of diplomats is an important factor in projecting and promoting a country’s national interest and in pro-actively engaging all countries. Therefore, a diplomatic
corps commensurate with foreign policy engagements and goals is the sine qua non for the realisation of our national interests"
To follow up on the sort of energetic programme of foreign outreach that the Narendra Modi government has undertaken over the past 26 months — and not let them devolve into one-off exercises, it's easy to see why India will require a larger diplomatic corps.
To address this need and apart from recruiting eminent non-IFS persons into the ambassadorial circle, the report suggests that the long-overdue cadre review be conducted immediately. Additionally, the report (recommendation 6) calls for "experts from academia and the private sector" to be enlisted and deployed across important divisions. Their role as consultants or advisors, it is believed, will not only add expertise, but also boost numbers.
The Civil Service Examination is best known for the sort of heightened stress levels it induces. Students take years out of their lives to study in a bid to prepare themselves for this nightmarish exam. And when it's all said and done, toppers are praised to the sky and those that didn't make the cut go back to the books.
The problem, the report points out, is that the test in its present form fails to examine the aptitude of candidates for the foreign service. The report states that apart from the written exam and oral interviews, "it should be imperative that candidates are also assessed by parameters such as international aptitude, curiosity about the world, knowledge or demonstrated interest in foreign affairs, communication skills in English and foreign languages".
But that's just the first step. Once candidates have been selected, the report notes that a significant percentage of IFS trainees have an "average English language proficiency" and "lack
oral fluency and, in some cases, written communication skills." Taking cognisance of the fact that English is the "lingua franca of international diplomacy", the report suggests that "adequate measures" be taken to build written and oral language proficiency at the earliest, particularly for those trainees who don't have a strong background in English.
The report recognises in equal measure that simply being fluent in English is not enough. It notes that among the 770 IFS officers in service, only 569 are fluent in a foreign language — a factor that can be detrimental to diplomacy in countries where language can be a major barrier, as in China. Among the recommendations to fix this situation, the report states that urgent measures including intensive foreign language training and regular refresher courses are the need of the hour. Further, it adds that a policy must be implemented that aligns at least half of all foreign postings with the language in which officers are fluent. Additionally, a month's training in terms of language, culture, society and customs must be provided before anyone is posted overseas.
The report takes into account the 'horses for courses' concept and submits that training programmes must be tailor-made for trainees, taking into account his/her background and skill-set so that "the best in them can be brought out in their future careers as diplomats". India's MEA is probably one of the most proficient ministries when it comes to the use of social media and accordingly, the report recommends training modules in social media.
With a view to augmenting "capacity in the relevant fields without disturbing the existing equilibrium between the domain experts and generalists", the report suggests a course of mid-career training to equip officers with expertise that builds on their existing knowledge bases. The aim of this endeavour is to create a certain amount of "specialised domain knowledge instead of exclusive specialisations".
While the implementation of these recommendations will certainly boost India's diplomatic strength and its global standing, there's no certainty about whether they will even be considered, never mind the implementation.
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