For Smart Diplomacy, Reshape Our Dull Foreign Service Mandarins

Tridivesh Singh Maini argues that it is about time the pampered Indian Foreign Service is restructured 

5 min read
Tridivesh Singh Maini argues that it is about time the pampered Indian Foreign Service is restructured 

What ails the IFS?

  • Primary concern is improving the tally of IFS personnel with the ideal figure pegged at 900
  • Government agrees on lateral entry of people in the Policy Planning Division
  • Foreign policy think tanks should not be reduced to resting stables for the retired
  • Need for an emphasis on states, their needs can’t be discounted anymore

There have been numerous debates about the need for a major revamp in India’s diplomatic corps, the Indian Foreign Service. It is not just committees set up by the government including the Pillai Committee (1965), Sen Committee (1983), Satinder Lambah Committee (2002) but even scholars who have suggested the need for bringing about major changes in the Indian Foreign Service.

Some of the key recommendations which committees as well as scholars have made, include increasing the number of diplomats which is currently around 900. Daniel Markey in a report article titled, ‘Developing India’s Foreign Policy Software’, (Asia Policy, July 2009) argued that even the diplomatic corps of smaller countries is around this figure. In fact, even Singapore’s diplomatic corps is nearly 900, as of 2013 it was estimated at 867.

Lateral Entry

Apart from improving the tally, there has also been a thrust on the need for improving the quality of IFS personnel. For this reason, for over five decades, committees set up by the government have argued in favour of lateral entry in the diplomatic service, and drawing in on the expertise from outside the foreign service, both from the private sector and academia.

This recommendation of the parliamentary standing committee headed by Congress MP, Shashi Tharoor was finally accepted, with the Foreign Secretary, S Jaishankar on June 19, 2015 informing the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, that the government will soon be accepting lateral entrants into the Policy Planning and Research Division of the IFS.

Recently, there have been some incremental reforms which have been made, to ensure that India’s diplomatic corps is in sync with the changing times. For instance, mid-career IFS officers are supposed to do a course at Indian School of Business, Hyderabad and write a paper on an issue pertaining to economic diplomacy. This recommendation was made in a report written by Satinder Lambah (2002).

Yet a number of other changes need to be made to ensure that the IFS functions more effectively. There is a need for coordination between the foreign ministry, and other ministries such as home and commerce. Officers also need to spend more time in India’s states to understand domestic politics.

In the US, officials of the State Department get an insight into domestic politics through the Pearson fellowship according to which officials of the State Department are given an insight into legislative functioning of the Congress. In India, currently there is no such provision, institutionalising a mechanism whereby foreign service officers work closely with a state government for a short period.

Tridivesh Singh Maini argues that it is about time the pampered Indian Foreign Service is restructured 
(Photo: Reuters)

Beyond Reform

If one were to pinpoint some of the drawbacks of think tanks working on foreign policy, they are as follows:

First, most think tanks, especially government ones, and to some extent even private ones are overstaffed with retired bureaucrats. Their baggage some of which is totally out of sync with the current world scenario is not really helpful.

Secondly, most think tanks invest heavily in senior analysts, while not enough importance is given to mentoring juniors, as a result of which most think tanks turn into parking lots for both juniors and retired officials.

Thirdly, most experts in these think tanks are not country experts, but instead focus on India’s ties with these countries. There are a large number of so called Pakistan experts, who themselves have not even visited Pakistan once and do not know the language apart from of course having an understanding of the domestic politics of those countries.

Fourthly, there are only a handful of strategic thinkers who have a mastery of both economics and foreign policy. In the current situation, it is important for foreign policy thinkers to have a sound understanding of not just International Relations (IR) theory, but also complex economic issues.

Tridivesh Singh Maini argues that it is about time the pampered Indian Foreign Service is restructured 
(Photo: Reuters)

Collective Effort

Apart from the IFS and think-tanks, Indian scholarship on foreign policy itself has failed.

With India’s increasing clout it is important to popularise Indian strategic thought and even military history and concepts. If Sun Tzu, can be quoted by western scholars, why not Chanakya’s Arthshastra? If Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum can become popular, there is no reason for the observations of India’s leaders’ quotes not becoming popular.

With the current PM’s thrust on promoting Indian culture and soft power globally, and some of his terms ‘sab ka saath, sab ka vikaas’ being popular even among foreign leaders including US Secretary of State, John Kerry. Many of the joint statements too have sharp Hindi such as ‘saanjha prayaas’, it is likely that Indian strategic thought may find space in the global discourse on strategic affairs.

Tridivesh Singh Maini argues that it is about time the pampered Indian Foreign Service is restructured 
(Photo: Reuters)

‘Glocal’ Perspective

Apart from spending time overseas for fellowships, it is important for scholars of IR to spend greater time in states, which will have an impact on India’s foreign policy. While IR scholars have started spending time in regions like the Northeast and Kashmir, it is also important to spend more time in other states.

For instance, those studying the phenomenon of ‘constituent diplomacy’ and participation of state governments in foreign policy would do well to spend more time in states which have been successful in reaching out to the outside world and forging links in the economic and non-economic spheres, such as Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu

Apart from the above stakeholders, the private sector too needs to invest more in Indian think tanks. While certain groups have taken the initiative, others prefer to set up chairs in foreign think tanks which does no real favour to the development of India’s strategic thought. In conclusion, it would be fair to say that for a more dynamic foreign policy it is essential not just for the government to introspect, but all stakeholders. One of the necessary pre-requisites for this is that they all work closely and get over the turf mentality.

(The writer is a Senior Research Associate, The Jindal School of International Affairs.)

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