Indian Foreign Service in desperate need of reform, particularly when it is losing relevance

That there are serious problems, both in quality and quantity (size) of the elite Indian Foreign Service (IFS) — the service that is primarily responsible for India’s interactions with the outside world — was pointed out last week by the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs led by former minister of state Shashi Tharoor. In fact, last year too, the Tharoor-helmed standing committee had revealed the same problems and suggested some ways to improve the things. It seems that not much progress was made, compelling the committee to reiterate its views in its latest report.

Tharoor may not have been a big politician (he was a minister of state under former prime minister Manmohan Singh and for some time, handled Indian foreign policy), but his views on the crafting of India’s foreign policy (the way decisions are made) need to be taken with all seriousness as he is one of our outstanding scholars on foreign policy. I must share a bit of personal experience here. Years ago when I was doing a short course at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Boston, I felt proud as an Indian when told by one of the senior professors that for him, Tharoor was the best student that he had ever come across. Tharoor had done his PhD there; his thesis was subsequently converted to a book titled Reasons of State: Political Development and India's Foreign Policy Under Indira Gandhi, 1966-77. I consider the book among the very best to understand the theoretical underpinnings of Indian foreign policy.

File image of Sushma Swaraj flanked by diplomates. Twitter @MEAIndia

File image of Sushma Swaraj flanked by diplomates. Twitter @MEAIndia

However, coming back to the report of the Tharoor-led committee, the IFS is a remarkably small service and thus highly inadequate, given India’s global aspirations. At the moment, the total strength of the IFS and other supporting cadres in the Ministry of External Affairs is 4,086. Of these, 1,940 posts are at headquarters and 2,146 posts are at missions/posts abroad. But there is a catch. The number of the Class One officers in the IFS is only 772, which is 140 short of the sanctioned strength. Although every second year, the ministry is supposed to examine its ideal strength, the exercise is hardly undertaken. There is an annual take of about 30 to 35 officers through the Union Public Services Commission (UPSC), but that is not enough.

In contrast, the city-state of Singapore’s diplomatic corps numbers around 900. India’s 772 officers actually pale into insignificance in terms of number vis-à-vis 2,000 of Brazil, 4,500 of China, 5,700 of Japan, 6,100 of the United Kingdom and around 20,000 of the United States. Middle-sized economies such as Republic of Korea have 1,250 diplomats, the corresponding figures of New Zealand are 1,300.

As if the situation was not bad enough, the Tharoor-led committee has also expressed concerns over the gradual “deterioration” of the quality of the officers entering the IFS, of late. There was a time when the toppers of the combined civil service examination (usually in the top 30) were opting for the IFS; but now the rush is for the IAS, the IPS and revenue services like Income Tax. The committee suggests that for selecting suitable candidates, 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 etc.” It recommends that an additional paper for testing the aforementioned aptitude/knowledge be introduced by the UPSC and that this should be made obligatory for candidates opting for the IFS. “Other candidates may be given the option of not appearing for this paper, but passing this paper should be mandatory for all candidates opting for the IFS”, it says, adding “the scope of the personality test should (also) be enhanced suitably for candidates opting for IFS and they should be assessed for qualities which are considered sine qua non in a diplomat.”

Besides, the committee has also recommended for the lateral entry into the diplomatic service, and drawing on expertise from outside the IFS. Though the committee has not gone deeper into this issue, the fact remains that unlike foreign services of the developed countries, the IFS does not have any provision for a lateral entry into the service at middle levels from think tanks, universities, the corporate sector and media, even for short durations. Incidentally, the US allows a small number of positions in its Foreign Office to officers from other allied countries, including France and the UK, as a means to expose these officers to Washington’s labyrinthine bureaucracy. The US also has a hiring category of “technical appointee”, designating individuals who are neither permanent civil servants nor political selections vetted by the White House. These technical appointees serve a maximum of four years and offer outside expertise — academic, scientific, or private sector-related — that might not otherwise reside in the bureaucracy. A programme of this sort in the IFS is worth considering.

It may be added in this context that after 1966, no significant administrative reforms have been undertaken in India's foreign services. That year, the former Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) secretary-general NR Pillai had presented a report that has been partially implemented. In May 1983, the Samar Sen Committee gave a report on strengthening the Indian Missions abroad, but it was not implemented. In 2000, the then external affairs minister Jaswant Singh had asked senior officials for a report on reforms in the service. His successor Yashwant Sinha who wanted to strengthen economic diplomacy, appointed a committee under NK Singh to suggest ways. But nothing came from the moves of these two ministers.

Over the years, foreign offices of comparable countries have evolved to the next stage — “the networked catalyst”. For instance, Germany has allowed its provinces to deal in many matters directly with European Union. Some border-provinces in China have been empowered to deal with the neighboring countries on some economic matters. So too has been the case with many Asean and Latin American countries. In fact, Australia has gone to the extent of replacing its trade commissioners in its American consulates with US nationals under the belief that they would better sell Australian products and interests.

This is not to suggest that the foreign office is no longer relevant. The point is that as is happening in other parts of the world, the foreign office can retain the driving seat in the country’s international behaviour by metamorphosing itself “from the role of the gatekeeper to that of the coordinator”.

As it is, even within the national government, the MEA seems to have lost its sheen, with the real power gradually shifting to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), including that of the national security adviser (NSA), who is primarily accountable to the prime minister. Over the years, the NSA has become the czar of Indian foreign policy bureaucracy. My personal interactions with the senior officials of the MEA and retired foreign secretaries suggest that under the Manmohan Singh government, the base of Indian foreign policy-making became the narrowest ever, with everything being controlled by the NSA and the PMO. Given Modi’s perceived image of concentrating all the powers in his hands, it is indeed tough for any foreign minister or foreign secretary — the head of the IFS, to ensure that the IFS or for that matter the foreign office as a whole has a place of pre-eminence or relevance on core external issues facing the country.

Incidentally, of late there has been a huge problem of the foreign secretary facing a loyalty test from his colleagues within the service. It may be noted that foreign secretary is not the only secretary-rank officer in the MEA. He/she is no doubt the “first-among-equals”, but then the fact remains that in the MEA, there are three other secretaries, besides having around 33 Grade-I ambassadors to various countries who, too, are of the secretary-rank. All of them being of the same rank and entitled to have direct access to the foreign minister, there are stories of frequent friction among them. And that is all the more so — and here I am citing from Asian Diplomacy penned by veteran diplomat Kishan S Rana — since the 1970s, when with the rare exceptions, successive foreign secretaries have enhanced the oversight authority in their hands, denuding work from the other secretaries.

Cutting across territorial divisions, the foreign secretary is in charge of relations with all the major countries — the US, UK, Germany, France, Russia, Japan, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan. This means in practice that at least seven territorial division joint secretaries deal directly with him or her, while also working with other secretaries for some of the other countries in their divisions. All multilateral conferences are under foreign secretary’s direct charge. The foreign secretary is also responsible for media relations, public diplomacy, assistance programmes (a recent addition), consular work and coordination among the secretaries. Besides, the power of initiating the appointment of new ambassadors has always belonged to the foreign secretary, and it is his or her proposal that goes to the foreign minister.

In other words, while the foreign secretary has too much work, other secretaries have relatively lighter charges and are naturally resentful. As Rana writes, consequently, overall supervision in the MEA has suffered. “The MEA has not learnt from its foreign counterparts that it is impossible to run a larger diplomatic network through one individual, especially if the political advice role is not partly delegated”.

In other words, the need of the hour is to do something to improve the quality of internal dialogue and collegiality of decision-making within the foreign office, particularly at a time when the IFS, as I have mentioned above, is struggling to keep its relevance as a service.

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Updated Date: Aug 09, 2016 11:18:36 IST

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