When my new book Pax Indica was launched in New Delhi last week, a good portion of the discussion on it focused on my recommendation that the Foreign Service be strengthened, enlarged with the addition of new personnel, and reformed in significant ways. Last month, in this newspaper, I argued the case for increasing the numbers in the service. Today I’d like to turn to recruitment — what kind of diplomats do we need?
The Indian diplomatic corps has long enjoyed a justified reputation as among the world’s best in individual talent and ability. It includes men and women of exceptional intellectual and personal distinction who have acquired formidable reputations in a variety of capitals. Indian diplomats over the years have won in print the admiration of Henry Kissinger, Strobe Talbott and other distinguished memoirists who have dealt with them professionally; several have distinguished themselves not only in India’s service but in international organisations and conferences. My critique is not in any way meant to reflect on any member of this capable and widely respected corps. My book seeks instead to examine institutional failings which are evident despite the quality of the individuals who operate within them.
The Indian Foreign Service is recruited by competitive examinations held by the Union Public Service Commission across the country, followed by a personality test. The diplomatic corps is selected from the same examinations from which emerge the domestic services, like the Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Police Service, the Indian Revenue Service, and so on. The examinations have always been firmly grounded in the generalist tradition; it’s overall talent that is sought, not specialisation.
For decades the cream of the examination crop opted for the Indian Foreign Service: in the years after our Independence, when the government’s resources and foreign exchange scarcities made travel abroad a rare privilege, a job that took you frequently abroad was prized by the middle-class whose sons (and sometimes daughters) took the civil service examinations. From the 1950s to the 1970s, it was customary for the foreign service to draw its entrants almost exclusively from the top 10 rankers in the annual examinations.
This has now changed dramatically. Not only has the far more powerful Indian Administrative Service supplanted the IFS as the service of choice, but even the more lucrative Indian Revenue Service — which places officers in the customs and tax administrations, where financial incentives are considerable — is preferred over the IFS by many applicants. As a result it is now common for the IFS to find itself selecting officers ranked below 250 in the examinations, something that had been unthinkable to the officers currently heading the MEA.
The decline in prestige of the foreign service has also been enabled by the relative ease of foreign travel, which has negated what used to be seen as the IFS’ principal perquisite, and the widespread perception that diplomats neither wield as much clout nor have as many opportunities to salt away a retirement nest-egg as their domestic counterparts. The further complication of this problem is that several civil service aspirants are thrust unwillingly into the MEA while their real ambition is to serve elsewhere — a far cry from the glory days but one that does not produce a dedicated and proud foreign service.
The mandarin-style approach to recruitment — which requires all entrants to come through one-size-fits-all civil services examination, the same one that produces generalist administrators, tax officials and police officers — has evident limitations. Since working abroad for the government has lost some of its allure, this is no longer the best way to find the most suitable diplomats; indeed, for many applicants the IFS is a third or even fourth preference among the career options available to those who do well in the exams. I feel strongly that a diplomat should not be someone who fell short of his or her “real” goal of becoming an administrator, a customs official or a crime-busting sleuth.
We need internationalist-minded young Indians who see the chance of serving the country abroad not only as a privilege, but as something indispensable to India’s growth and prosperity.
A separate foreign service exam, with a greater emphasis on international relations and languages, is one possibility. Another would be to recruit bright students, with an extrovert orientation, adaptability and curiosity about the world, directly from universities, and then train them in diplomatic skills before gauging their aptitude and confirming their appointments.
In any case, we need diplomats, not bureaucrats, in the Foreign Service: young people with an interest in world affairs, an aptitude for languages and an engaging personality, who know how to talk to foreigners. It’s by no means clear that a majority of our recent recruits would fill the bill.
Not every diplomat emerges from the current training process well enough equipped in the “soft skills” required in international diplomacy to function effectively, though their mastery of their assigned foreign language is now usually impressive. But then language training, too, is not always reflected in assignments: I have frequently come across Indian diplomats in non-Anglophone European capitals whose foreign language was Chinese, a number of ambassadors in Paris who could not speak French, and (as I pointed out in a Parliament question in 2011) not one of India’s nine ambassadors stationed in the countries of the Gulf at that time spoke or had learned Arabic. Surely we can aim at a time when every national language is spoken by at least one Indian officer and an eventual time when every one of our missions is headed by an ambassador who knows the language, be it Khmer or Korean, Spanish or Swahili?
When I presented my book to external affairs minister S.M. Krishna, he seemed receptive to my thoughts on staffing and language skills. I hope he will grasp the nettle. Whatever is decided, the time for reform is desperately overdue — though little of the urgency required is visible in the corridors of South Block, once known, in the early 1960s, as the “Ministry of Eternal Affairs”.
The writer is a member of Parliament from Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram constituency.
Rather appalled to read people can put the IPS ahead of the IFS as a service of choice, never heard that before though it is understandable to put IAS and IRS ahead as a choice, but IPS, something has definitely gone wrong in between.
You've got to bring back the charm that was once associated in serving the IFS.
That said, and Shashi Tharoor rightly points out, we still have some excellent people delivering, and it can be seen in the results produced.
from the words of civil services aspirants
serving as an ifs can send you anywhere in the world where we have interests.that's the problem.
if you are posted in some good places then fine but not in some problematic nations.
you have to stay out of your country
if you are an ias/ips you work in own country,pride for your family many other benefits..
all above problems can be prevented
a person heading a company of 3000 work force and having economic presence of just few billion at most is paid 20-30 times more than an ias or ifs whose single action affects lakhs if not crores of people and having economic footprint of many billions. is it kind of forced labor?