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For a country of India’s geographic size and population, it is highly surprising that it has almost equal number of diplomats in its foreign service as that of the tiny country of New Zealand. India has one of the most understaffed diplomatic corps of any major country with about 940 foreign service officers at present in comparison to New Zealand’s 885 officers. A country’s diplomatic weight is, in most cases, proportional to its influence in the world and is indicated by the significant factor of the size of its foreign service. It is not only the size or population that matters but the geopolitical significance and economic heft of a country. The tiny city-state of Singapore is a perfect example of this having 850 foreign service officers. In the past when India was mostly focused inward and was not integrated as well with the world economy, it could afford to keep a low-profile and maintain foreign relations with a limited number of diplomats. But as the country’s sheer economic rise and geopolitical weight in the international system increases, the country’s foreign service must also keep pace with those changes.

To put it in a broader perspective, India lags behind not just the big industrial powers like US (14,000-15,000 officers), Japan and Australia (6,000 officers), but is also lagging far behind its developing peers Brazil (1,200 officers) and China (7,500 officers). [1]

(Source: Bloomberg)

At a time when India is witnessing high economic growth and is being courted by various powers around the world, its stature in the international arena is only going to increase as we progress further into the 21st century. The strength of the diplomatic corps is a limiting factor in India’s great power ambitions. Not only does India lack the numbers to implement the policies and agreements with various countries and international organisations but is also found wanting when it comes to area expertise in various fields. Today’s diplomacy not only deals with traditional state-to-state relations but involves a complex set of interactions with foreign audiences, with non-state actors like MNCs or NGOs, and dealing with niche areas like international law, intricate trade negotiations and emerging agendas like AI and cyber diplomacy. Whether it is about safeguarding traditional interests such as in the neighbourhood or pursuing unfinished goals like United Nations Security Council reforms, India needs lot more skilled officers abroad to engage more proactively in an increasingly complex and multi-polar world. [2]

Under PM Narendra Modi, India has reinvigorated its diplomatic outreach to various regions/countries that were overlooked for years and in some cases even for decades. The government has further decided to open new embassies/consulates in parts of Africa and Latin America that were hitherto neglected. The situation though is not very encouraging with some of the present embassies functioning in these areas already abysmally understaffed, and few being manned by even one or two people. This thinly staffed service makes it quite difficult for India to follow-up on PM’s headline-grabbing, high-level visits. Consequently, the implementation of various policies becomes tougher. There is a lot of legwork required to function effectively and engage with the host country. Besides, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) handles not only a lot of project implementation work in various countries, but also manages various issues dealing with the ever-increasing Indian diaspora around the world. [3] [4]

Besides the quantity, in recent years, former diplomats and prominent parliamentarians have raised concerns over the quality of recruits in the foreign service as well. They have lamented the fact that Indian Foreign Service (IFS) is no longer the service of the first choice among the Union Public Service Examination (UPSC) toppers and has lost its ‘elitist’ tag. [5]

To bring these issues to the fore and compel the government into action, in 2016 Congress MP and chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on the external affairs Dr Shashi Tharoor submitted a comprehensive report highlighting various gaps in recruitment, training, and quality of the IFS cadre. The committee recommended several ways to increase the intake capacity of the ministry including the suggestion of lateral entry and facilitating the selection of qualified NRIs. It further suggested a separate examination to be conducted for recruitment into the foreign service as it noted with concern the entry of those who never wanted to be a diplomat but ended up in the service due to their rank in the common entrance exam. [6]

The committee has expressed its dissatisfaction on the lack of progress made by the ministry to implement its recommendations and found the ministry wanting on several counts in its action taken report presented to the parliament at the start of 2018.  For instance, the MEA rules mandate a cadre review after every two years but the last such review took place in 2004 and the ministry has not given any assurance to do the same even now. Although the MEA has opened up to the idea of hiring consultants from academia/private sector and more officers on deputation from various other ministries, it is still lukewarm towards the injection of fresh ideas in the form of lateral entrants or NRIs. [7]

A ministry such as external affairs that has to deal with emerging and challenging issues in the field of geopolitics, environmental or economic diplomacy needs to have strong area and domain expertise.

One of the serious impediments in the MEA having such expertise is the selection process itself, i.e. the UPSC Civil Services Exam. Through this one common exam, various officers for police service, revenue service, administrative service, foreign service and even postal and railway service are selected annually. The various services have little in common with each other but the generalist exam tests each candidate on a common syllabus. This colonial-era style exam needs to be revamped to reflect an agile and adept 21st-century bureaucracy that can handle complex and specialised policymaking challenges. India is perhaps the only major country in the world that still recruits cadres through a common exam. The time is ripe for a comprehensive overhaul of the recruitment system. [8]

India now does not see itself as only a regional power but aspires to become a major global power in the 21st-century world. It, therefore, needs a foreign service commensurate with its size and growing ambitions. The present size of India’s diplomatic corps, to quote Dr Tharoor “is inadequate considering the tasks and challenges before the Ministry and nation”. It is high time that voices like him are heeded to and for the government to take a serious approach at implementing changes to the service.

Image credit: Wikipedia

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Written By Amandeep Hanspal

Software engineer turned geopolitical enthusiast.

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