The Indian Foreign Service (IFS) is in focus again as the new global role of India is being defined. Questions are being asked whether the IFS, conceived in a different age and time, can cope with the challenges of India’s new role as one of the poles of a multipolar world. No doubt, the IFS has adapted itself to the global agenda, as it went through changes over the years. Indian diplomats are as adept in human rights and environment, as they are in disarmament and development. Public diplomacy and social networking too have captured the imagination of the IFS. With additional resources and responsibilities, the IFS should be able to play its new global role effectively.
It is fashionable these days to lament the fall in the attraction to the IFS, as gone are the days when the best and the brightest opted for the IFS. The Indian Administrative Service (IAS) attracts the holders of the highest ranks and many even prefer the Indian Police Service (IPS) or the revenue services. The fact is that the standards of the new recruits are no whit less than those of us who joined the IFS from the higher ranks.
The civil services examination attracts a much bigger pool of talent today. The higher salaries in the private sector do not attract the young graduates as the power and prestige of the civil services do. The ruling class of yesteryears has discovered that their children can bring back the glory of the old days as young district collectors and police superintendents. Mukherjee Road in Delhi is a virtual factory of civil servants. Given the large numbers involved in the selection and the vagaries of the valuation system, those in the lower positions need not necessarily be of low calibre. In fact, the variety of qualifications and talents in the recent batches are much more than in the earlier years.
The answer lies not in a new recruiting system or bringing new talent from those who failed to make the grade in earlier years and strayed into other professions. Those who are recruited to the IFS must be given first-rate training with focus on what they are expected to do. The one thing that diplomats have to manage all their lives, whether as a third secretary or the foreign secretary are conversations. They ought to know how to converse, how to listen and how to report conversations. This is one thing that is never taught in any training programme. Political and economic reporting is now being learnt by trial and error. Systematic training in basic skills, rather than lectures on history and bilateral relations, should be part of the training.
Next to training, the posting policy is the biggest bane of the IFS. Promotions have a pattern, which cannot easily be broken, but promotions have no meaning if grades are not respected in postings. There is a world of difference between postings to Seychelles and Singapore, Belarus and Beijing even if the officers are in the same grade. IFS officers, who hardly know each other, have no qualms about feathering their own nests, without any care for others. Absence of a proper posting policy makes IFS officers frustrated at every level. Specialised areas like the multilateral field gets people most ill suited for the job as they are attracted by the glamour of the stations, not the nature of the work they are expected to do.
The tragedy of the IFS is not the shortage of people, but the dilution of its responsibilities over the years. Of all the posts in our missions abroad, particularly in important missions, IFS officers man less than half. Every ministry insists on sending their ‘specialists’ to commerce, finance, economic, education and environmental posts, pushing the IFS to administrative or political posts alone. The IFS was set up to take care of the entire gamut of issues in our external relations, from trade to tourism, culture to consular matters. A wide variety of the other services have penetrated these posts and it is now a struggle for IFS officers to get assigned to specialised positions. The all-important area of legal and treaties is not open to IFS officers even if they have legal qualifications and training. Parallel offices have been opened in major cities by some ministries to escape the disciplines of diplomatic missions. To ask for more lateral recruitment from other professions to make up for shortages is to make a bad situation worse.
The service conditions of the IFS have improved over a period of time. Developed countries and China stand far apart from us in terms of the living and working conditions. The answer is not to give a counterpart to every American, French or Canadian diplomat, but to give our diplomats the wherewithal to function effectively. As long as people, who have not seen the inside of a western chancery, process our administrative proposals, our furniture, carpets and crockery will represent a bygone era. Most of our missions today do not have even the IT tools necessary for modern diplomacy.
India will never match the number of diplomats that other countries field. Nor is it necessary to do so. Diplomats will be much more productive if their allowances and other facilities can match the best. Numbers need not be the answer for fall in performance.
It was a handful of IFS officers, who laid the foundations of our environment policy before the Rio Conference, long before the environment ministry took charge of it and took positions occupied by our diplomats. Another set of young IFS officers, some of them from IITs and IIMs, fashioned the whole public diplomacy apparatus to create a credible platform. The demand that professionals should be brought into public diplomacy is unnecessary. Professional talent should be hired, but diplomatic practitioners should manage public diplomacy. Language is a good tool for diplomats, but language specialists, hired from the market do not make good diplomats.
Even the critics of the IFS concede that it has done well even with sparse numbers and resources. The need of the hour is to restore its past glory by giving it the responsibilities it was originally expected to perform. Investment is required not as much in terms of numbers, but in terms of resources. Once the IFS becomes the sole service that manages our external affairs, it will attract more talent. With the finest traditions of resilience in the face of change, the IFS can be trusted to succeed.
T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India and governor for India of the IAEA.