|South Block in Delhi|
I had written this a few years ago, it is still valid, I think.
On meeting new Indian friends, if I tell them that I have been living for nearly 4 decades in their country, they are usually amazed.
They can’t really understand: “We Indians we dream of migrating to the West where everything is clean, organized, politicians are not that corrupt, trains run on time, the streets are safer, etc… Why would you stay in India all these years?”
I usually answer that I see two Indias, one ‘incredible’ India which attracted me in the early 1970s; the India I still love, and then there is the other India which make want to many migrate.
Whether one sees India ‘shining’ or only perceives the less likable India, one can’t deny that the nation is fast becoming a major world power.
Many questions remain, one of them is: has India the means to assume her new status?
The field of Foreign Policy is particularly symptomatic and worth looking at. Can the present Foreign Service be an effective tool for the ‘major power in-becoming’?
What is a ‘Major Power’?
At the outset, it is important to define what a ‘major power’ is.
Is it a moral power (like Nehru wanted India to be in the 1950’s); a scientific/innovator power (like Finland and the Noika experience); a soft cultural power (like Buddhist India during Ashoka’s times); a military power (like the US today, and to a lesser extent, the People’s Republic of China) or an economic power (like several emerging nations). In today’s world, it is all these attributes together?
It is true that in the past India has been a soft-power; she has exported her philosophy and civilization far away upto Central Asia, South-East Asia, East Asia and elsewhere.
Not only does the Indian civilisational input seem to have been forgotten by most of the Asian nations, but in today’s world, it is not really enough to be ‘soft’ alone.
It is when India became an economic power in the 1990’s that India started to become respected as a ‘major power’ on the planet.
We are living today in the age of globalization and ‘economy’ is unfortunately the main factor taken in consideration to determine if a nation is a ‘big’ or an insignificant power.
When did India become a ‘big’ power?
In the 1990s, India emerged as a power to reckon with.
It was mainly due to the economic ‘liberalization’ introduced by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao; suddenly out of the straitjacket of Soviet-type planned economy, India started blooming.
The main turning point was perhaps Pokharan II.
On May 11, 1998, Operation Shakti was carried out.
‘Shakti’ was the codename of a thermonuclear device which was exploded in the Pokhran test range in Rajasthan; since then, the tests are known as Pokhran II. Though it resulted in several sanctions against India by a number of major states, on that day, India entered the club of those who ‘have it’.
Interestingly, western nations then began to dissociate India and Pakistan; earlier, the equation had been purposefully kept by some ‘powerful’ nations, particularly the United States, to create a ‘balance’ in the subcontinent.
What does a big power’s diplomacy require?
Let us return to the question: has India the required Foreign Service to support the diplomacy of a major nation?
An interesting research was published a few years ago by Daniel Markey, a Senior Fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC. Markey pointed out some of the issues which prevent India’s diplomacy to grow:
- expand, reform, pay, and train the Indian Foreign Service to attract and retain high-caliber officers.
- encourage the growth of world-class social science research and teaching schools in India through partnerships with private organizations.
- invest in Indian think-tanks and exchange programs that build capacity for foreign policy research.
- bring non-career officers into the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and other parts of the foreign policy establishment as term-limited fellows to improve outside understanding of the policy process.
- support the efforts of Indian researchers to maximize public access to material related to the history of India’s foreign policy.
This is a real problem.
How to make the Indian Foreign Service more responsive?
This is a serious issue which has to be looked into and tackled if India is to grow into a ‘major’ power.
What can be done?
Several suggestions can be added to the points made by Markey.
1- Far too small diplomatic service
The Indian diplomatic corps is far too small in number for a ‘major’ nation. Recently, The New Indian Express reported that the MEA “is suddenly waking up after little ambassadorial activity since June, causing both a backlog and logjam in the Indian diplomatic service. Many senior diplomats will be retiring in the coming months and final decisions have to be taken to fill up important seats—Islamabad, Kabul and New York.”
There are simply not enough senior officers to fill up all these posts.
Shashi Tharoor, a former Minister of State in the MEA, wrote a remarkable report on the subject. He noted: “India is served by the smallest diplomatic corps of any major country, not just far smaller than the big powers but by comparison with most of the larger emerging countries. At just about 900 IFS officers to staff India’s 120 missions and 49 consulates abroad, India has the fewest Foreign Service officers among the BRICS countries. (In addition, there are some 3,000 stenographers, cyber experts and clerks in the IFS ‘B’ service that provide support staff to the MEA.) This compares poorly not just to the over 20,000 deployed by the United States, and the large diplomatic corps of the European powers—UK (6,000), Germany (6,550) and France (6,250)—but also to Asia’s largest foreign services, Japan (5,500) and China (4,200). The picture looks even more modest when compared to the 1,200 diplomats in Brazil’s foreign ministry. It is ironic that India—not just the world’s most populous democracy but one of the world’s largest bureaucracies—has a diplomatic corps roughly equal to tiny Singapore’s 867.”
No further comment is required.
A collateral is that some senior officers are overburdened. Take the Joint Secretary (EA) which stands for East Asia,; responsible for China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Mongolia, Taiwan, the Tibetan refugees in India (what are they doing in EA?) and the border talks with China.
Tharoor concludes: “Inevitably, China consumes most of his attention and relations with the other crucial countries within his bailiwick are neglected or assigned to one of the five junior officials working under him.” This is a real issue.
The lack of ‘vision’ or ‘plan’ for the next 20 or 30 years has been a serious difficulty which has hindered the advent of a powerful diplomacy. South Block today does not have a 5-year or 10-year plan, like for example the one released last year by President Obama on “Priorities for 21st Century Defence”.
Take an example, does South Block have a clear policy on issues like Iran, Syria or more recently Mali or does the Indian diplomacy only react in an ad hoc manner?
India should have a consistent and clear foreign policy, with India’s national interests clearly defined. India should not emulate the model followed by some Western nations, of short term opportunism which neither gets respect nor lasting friends.
There can be structural and operational improvements in the Foreign Service. Academics of proven scholarship with research capacity should be posted as advisers to ’Ambassadors’ in all major Indian Embassies, where they would be free to pursue their studies as well as give inputs on policy to the IFS establishment. This would improve the situation in the Universities by stimulating the demand for courses related to foreign policy and social sciences.
This, of course, may not be acceptable to the Foreign Service, who often has a ‘know-it-all’ attitude.
Language remains a handicap at different levels of the Foreign Service. Take the example of France, most of the time, the Indian Ambassador to France and his entire supporting staff do not speak French. The Ambassador would certainly make a greater impact if he would speak French. One may say that it is the problem of the French, who cannot speak English fluently, but it does not solve the problem.
The remark is even more valid for countries like China.
More time and money have to be invested in teaching the lower echelons of the Foreign Service different foreign languages. There should also be a ban on recruitment of persons of Indian origin who do not know the local language as ‘local staff’.
Not many officers look forward to mid career training opportunities given to the Foreign Service. There should be a balance of compulsion and incentives to make sure that diplomats periodically undergo training programs. The question of incentives should be clearly studied. At the end of the day, there is no miracle; India will not get a top level Foreign Service, if India does not invest in it.
Postings abroad are classified and everyone hankers for a posting in the US — it helps educating and later settling the children — or in Europe, where allowances are higher. India could afford to adopt a compensation system which makes it difficult for a diplomat to choose a posting in Washington DC over a posting in Harare or South Sudan.
All these are suggestions, but first and foremost a Vision is required and then the will to take all necessary measures to go in that direction is required.
An Action Plan
In 2008, Shivshankar Menon, then Foreign Secretary prepared a note for the Cabinet in which he proposed doubling the Foreign Service strength. It was agreed that the cadre would be increased by 320 officers in the IFS category and 200 in the support staff.
The move was however blocked by some serving officers, too jealous of their privileges. As Tharoor put it, it would have meant: “infusion of external professional talent at all levels of the MEA by mid-career recruitment from the other services or even (perish the thought!) from the private sector.”
Finally the implementation of the Report was stretched over 10 years by simply increasing the annual intake into the IFS (including promotions of the IFS ‘B’) by 32 a year.
Tharoor commented: “Lateral entrants have not been encouraged; a circular to the other government departments soliciting candidacies have turned up few whom the MEA is excited about. The chronic understaffing is therefore likely to continue for more than another decade.”
These issues are not new; they existed when India was not yet on the verge to become a ‘major power’.
In June 1965 already, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri appointed a committee to look into the functioning of the MEA. It was chaired by N.R. Pillai, a former Secretary-General of the Ministry.
Pillai and his colleagues found four flaws in the Foreign Service: the diplomatic corps was not large enough; it did not draw on wide professional experience; the coordination within the MEA was poor and with other ministries was non-existent; and professional training was limited and inadequate.
What to say?
The mindset has to change; it is the only way for India to become a truly ‘major’ power. And it should not only change in the Foreign Service, it should do so the government in general, in the society at large and more particularly in the gender issue.
Then, India would really shine.
Both Indias will have joined in One!