Our diplomatic deficit

As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flies into Tehran to join his non-aligned counterparts, attention is drawn to the diplomatic structure that supports his international efforts. The Indian diplomatic corps has long enjoyed a justified reputation of being among the world's best in terms of 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. Yet it is dismaying that it is so small: India's is arguably the smallest foreign service of any significant country, smaller than all of its peers amongst the emerging powers, and far smaller than the global heavyweights.

How do the numbers stack up? We have fewer than 900 diplomats staffing our 120 embassies and 49 consulates across the world. Even in the BRICS, the Chinese, with 4,200 officers, and Brazil, with 1,200, clock in ahead of us. The British, famous for punching above their weight in the global diplomatic arena, deploy 6,000 diplomats. The Americans have 20,000; I am told they have more officers in the US Embassy in New Delhi than India employs in its entire foreign service.

Of course we can't match the resources the US can command, but does it make sense that India, with a population of 1.2 billion people and global ambitions and responsibilities, has about the same number of diplomats as Singapore and New Zealand, island nations of fewer than 4 million people each?

The undeniable fact is that we are already straining under the incapacity of even our talented and hardworking diplomats to meet their existing responsibilities, let alone aspire to more. We are trying to open up to Latin America, and the Latin Americans have opened 19 embassies in New Delhi to reciprocate our interest, but all we can offer them is one joint secretary to deal with the whole lot of them, and he is so busy managing the telegram traffic with all the countries he covers and preparing briefs and reports on them that they can barely get an appointment to meet him. Similarly the JS for East Asia is so overwhelmed by our issues with China that he has barely enough time for countries as important as Japan and South Korea, which he also covers. His counterpart for the crucial and sensitive ASEAN nations has to manage the rest of South East Asia as well as Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific countries: inevitably none of them gets the individual attention each deserves.

A 2008 decision to increase the IFS by 320 more officers, and augment them with another 200 in the clerical and IFS "B" categories, is slowly being implemented by the traditional expedient of increasing the annual intake from the UPSC's regular civil service exams. This means that the people we hire today will take at least ten years to acquire the expertise and experience that we need today. There are manifest gaps in knowledge and expertise in a number of areas today — not enough French or Spanish speakers, climate-change experts, public diplomats capable of handling the social media — but we are not filling those gaps now. These additional recruits will take years to acquire the skills and experience that we need today, not ten years from now. 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.

The fact is that in today's multilateral diplomacy, the MEA needs expertise that it cannot provide from its own ranks. For instance, climate change has become a hot-button diplomatic issue that needs to be discussed and negotiated in multilateral forums where other delegations rely on technical and scientific expertise that they find indispensable, but which the MEA eschews because it is unwilling to look beyond its own ranks (or those of its retired grandees). In an era when a certain level of specialisation is considered essential by many foreign ministries, Indian diplomacy still abounds in talented generalists. This is why the Parliament's Standing Committee on External Affairs has recommended that the MEA adopt a practice of augmenting its ranks with mid-career recruits from outside, including the private sector. But ask any senior MEA official and he will react with horror to such a step polluting the pristine purity of his service.

Yet the service itself needs renovation. One key problem is that the Indian Foreign Service is recruited from the same competitive examinations from which emerge the domestic services, like the Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Police Service, the Indian Revenue Service, and so on. For decades, the cream of the examination crop opted for the Indian Foreign Service: in the years after Independence, when resources and foreign exchange scarcities made travel abroad a rare privilege, a job that took you frequently abroad was prized by the middle-class Indians who 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 ten finishers 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. Several civil service aspirants are even 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. This is no longer the best way to find the most suitable diplomats. 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 cop.

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 essential. We need not bureaucrats but diplomats in the IFS: bright young people with an extrovert orientation, adaptability and curiosity about the world, with an engaging personality, a talent for languages and an interest in international affairs, who know how to talk to foreigners. Not too many of those emerge from the UPSC exams. The time for reform is now.

Tharoor is an author and a Congress MP. His latest book is 'Pax Indica:India and the World of the 21st Century', express@expressindia.com

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