Sunday, July 12, 2015

Can South Block’s babudom change?

It appeared as great news from the most powerful babudom’s fief in the Government of India. On June 29, 2015, the Administration Division of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) issued a notification inviting applications for filling up of posts of consultants: “The selected consultants will be required to work as International Relations Expert in the Policy Planning and Research Division of the Ministry. Their duties will entail regular monitoring of specific geographical or thematic areas relevant to foreign policy formulation, and providing knowledge-based inputs for the same. They will be required to summarize and analyse published material in the areas assigned to them.” Revolutionary changes in offing in the MEA?
With the prospect of jaunting aspect around, it could certainly enthuse many bored scholars in Indian Universities and think-tanks: “They will also be required to attend important seminars and conferences relevant to the work of the Policy Planning Division, and submit reports on them.”
The idea that academicians and experts get a ‘lateral entry’ into the MEA is not new and recently suggestions were made by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, which discussed the possibility to expand the recruitment of the IFS cadre.
Nobody can deny that the Indian Foreign Service has too few officials to cope with the new imperatives of Delhi’s foreign policy.
Shashi Tharoor, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee, a regular tweeter, announced: “Foreign Secretary informed us that Government was finally implementing one of our recommendations for lateral entry into MEA.”
A second tweet followed: “Good2let new thinking into MEA.”
The former Minister of State in the MEA spoke of filling up the gaps and bringing ‘different expertise’; a move which could later be emulated by other ministries, he said.
One of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s objectives has been to make of India a major world power. Behind his numerous foreign trips, this thread has always been present. But does India have today the means to assume this new status?
Is the present Foreign Service an effective tool for a ‘major power’? It depends, of course, on how a ‘major power’ is defined.
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 or China) or an economic power (like several emerging nations)?
In today’s world, it is not really enough to be ‘soft’ or ‘moral’; a truly powerful nation needs to be all the above simultaneously.
In the early 1990s, out of the straitjacket of Soviet-type planned economy, India started blooming. The nation soon emerged as a power to reckon with. Another turning point was Pokharan II.
By that time, Western nations had begun then to dissociate India and Pakistan; earlier, the equation had been purposefully kept alive to serve ‘powerful’ nations, such as the United States to create a ‘balance’ in the subcontinent.
Nobody can deny today that India is a great power.
A few years ago, an interesting research was published 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.
Apparently, the new Mandarins under the Prime Minister’s active direction have started working on these issues and the recent notification is hopefully a first step in this direction.
A few years ago, Shashi Tharoor, already wrote an interesting 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. …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.
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 ‘diplomatic vision’.
India needs a consistent and clear foreign policy, with India’s national interests clearly defined; short term opportunism gets neither respect nor lasting friends.
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.
The main problem is the mindset of the babu who ‘knows everything’. This has to change; it is the only way for India to become a truly ‘major’ power.
An interesting point in the MEA notification is the following sentence: “From time to time, the [consultants] may also be asked to undertake historical research on specific foreign policy related issues.”
One of the greatest tragedies of modern India is that history has been kept under wraps by the successive governments. Will the Modi Sarkar be better than its predecessor?
Markey had written that steps should be taken to “support the efforts of Indian researchers to maximize public access to material related to the history of India’s foreign policy.” There is no move in this direction.
Can you imagine that there is no Historical Division today in MEA today? It means that the Mandarins in the ministry have no reference point to check on a historical event or prepare a note on it. Can a ‘major power’ like India be dispensed of knowing its history?
I thought that the issue was on the way to be solved when, a few years ago, a group of 15/20 retired ambassadors started going through lakhs of old files. After reading them, they were to decide if the files could be destroyed (after being digitalized), remain classified or sent to the National Archives of India (as required by the Indian laws).
Unfortunately, the experiment was stopped. Why? I don’t know. Probably the babus have as usual prevailed.
Is it the sign of a mature democracy, a ‘major power’?

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