Thursday, June 25, 2015

Foreign Service must remain elitist

Whether at the time of uncertainty over foreign policy before the Lok Sabha elections, or after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reinvigoration of foreign policy, foreign service reforms have focussed on expansion, lateral entry of officers and general dilution of the service’s elitist character. But no attention is given to the fact that the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) is already a shadow of its former self, and does not appeal to civil service aspirants. Most of those who join the IFS are those who did not qualify for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). If IFS has to perform effectively, its elitism should be preserved, its attractiveness enhanced, and it should be brought to the centre of international relations as it was originally intended to be.
Partners in foreign policy
Nobody disputes the academic Amitabh Mattoo’s argument that “India’s foreign policy must be seen as a shared partnership across departments within the government of India, and academia and think tanks outside the traditional corridors of power” (“A new foreign policy agenda”, The Hindu, April 8, 2014). But the answer is not to merge the various partners while destroying the identity of each, but to allow each of them to develop in their own spheres and provide inputs to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). No one seems to suggest that the IAS and Indian Police Service should be expanded through lateral entry to improve their performance. The logic of this argument for the IFS seems to defy the need to preserve a specialised and professional foreign service. IFS, it should be noted, is no less professional or specialised than the other services.
Foreign policy is framed by various departments of the government, academia, think tanks and the media. They should all have their own defined roles in drafting foreign policy and must remain independent of each other. The MEA should not absorb them into a monolithic institution that has no diversity. Think tanks and the media should shape foreign policy from outside rather than from within the government. Is the right remedy to recruit media experts into the IFS in order to get their inputs on foreign policy? Would they fit into the bureaucratic milieu with its hierarchical and political constraints?
The usual lament is that the IFS is smaller (900 officers) than Chinese (4,000) and American (20,000) diplomatic services. This number is insufficient to meet the requirements of our 120 missions and 49 consulates. It is a fact that India started off with more missions than it could manage. It is not easy or politically correct to close down missions once they have begun; India, therefore, maintains them with a skeletal staff in marginal posts. Its larger missions are well-endowed and it does not need to be envious of bigger missions maintained by the U.S. or China. The right mix of need and affordability must determine the numbers. The information revolution should lead to a reduction, rather than an increase, in the number of missions abroad. The size of the service should not by itself detract from the efficiency of diplomacy.
Those who argue for expansion and lateral entry seem unaware of the fact that in most of India’s important missions, the IFS is in a minority, as it is staffed by officers of other Ministries. Many Ministries have preserved positions in the name of specialisation, but most of them are IAS officers, who may have been recruited specifically for assignments abroad. They may not even have gained experience in the concerned Ministries before being posted abroad. When there is such a practice, there should be no need to induct them into the foreign service itself. Moreover, Ministries such as Commerce, Finance, Industry, Environment, Science and Technology, Atomic Energy, Space and the Cabinet Secretariat have officers who specialise in various international negotiations. The missions are merely asked to service these delegations; even the heads of mission receive only a courtesy call and a cursory report. These officers function, in effect, as diplomats, and they should be added to the strength of the IFS when functional requirements are taken into account. In other words, we have more diplomats in action internationally than the strength of the IFS indicates.
If officers who claim their seniority on the basis of their services in totally unrelated areas enter the IFS laterally, this would only dilute the service’s quality. Past experience has shown that such entrants do not leave the service after a term or two, but remain to claim higher positions, spending their whole careers in diplomacy. If there is a need to induct officers from outside, the procedures available should be used rather than induct those who had once spurned the IFS. The expectations of advancement in the IFS should not be belied.
The MEA has already begun to recruit more officers every year, and that is the only way that such a specialised service should be expanded. If necessary, there are retired officers with proven ability, to fill the gaps without claiming high positions and salaries.
Reforms needed
The suggestion here is not that reform of the diplomatic service is unnecessary. First, it should be made more attractive so that the best candidates are chosen. Like Jawaharlal Nehru did, the aptitude and readiness of the selected candidates should be ascertained before they are chosen. It is patently wrong to take in officers who qualify without English proficiency. No amount of language training after entry into the service would equip them for the rigours of the work abroad. The recruitment of a large number of doctors and engineers is by no means negative, particularly in the context of the growth of technology. Some of India’s best diplomats have come from the medical profession. But we should not lose sight of the recent trend in management to deploy more graduates of social sciences and humanities. Training should be constantly revamped to equip officers to deal with different regions.
The present practice of posting on an ad hoc basis should cease. Officers should develop expertise in countries and regions. Multilateral postings should not be meant for rotational blessings, but for those who have the talent and experience. Instead of rotating officers so that they retire comfortably, we should give them other incentives to stay in tough assignments. Those in difficult places must be compensated financially. Postings, an art at present, should be made a science, with a clear criteria. There should be no vagaries of political influence or acceptability.
The real shortage of officers is not in missions abroad, but at the headquarters. Many heads of divisions cover whole continents with very little support. Temporary deputation of officers from various disciplines can strengthen the headquarters till we have a sufficient number of IFS officers to return. The style of the present Prime Minister seems to be to rely on a small number of people to work intensively on issues; this method could be developed into a system.
The role and relevance of the policy planning and historical divisions are often exaggerated. Policy planning cannot be done in a vacuum; it is the territorial divisions which can help formulate policy. The historical division should be a service unit, helping policymakers, as it is functioning right now. Nothing prevents the Ministry from drawing on the experience and wisdom of people from other fields, without absorbing them into the Ministry.
Many youngsters who aspire to the IFS have begun to believe that it really does not call the shots in foreign policymaking, as decision-making has passed on to the technical Ministries. They believe that the MEA has been reduced to a post office. Unless this impression is removed by concrete action, real talent cannot be attracted to the Videsh Bhawan. Foreign services are elitist in most countries, and India should not fritter away its strengths by diluting its specialised and professional character.

(T.P. Sreenivasan is an IFS officer of the 1967 batch. He is former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA.)

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