The Indian Foreign Disservice

Uday Balakrishnan
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Devyani Khobragade…in the wrong
PTI Devyani Khobragade…in the wrong

Our diplomats are a self-serving lot with scant regard for the law, as the Devyani Khobragade episode reveals.

India’s Foreign Service has, over the years, done very well for itself.

It has, for long, cornered the position of National Security Adviser. A former member has been India’s President; the current Vice President of the country as well as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha are ex-members of this service many of whose members end up retiring pretty much at the top, in the rank of Secretary or Additional Secretary to the Government of India.

Several from the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) have been Ministers at the Centre — Meira Kumar, Natwar Singh and Mani Shankar Aiyar among them.

In return the country and its citizens in distress get the more inaccessible and unhelpful members of this service to handle their problems across the world -- from Lima to London, so to speak.

The Indian Embassy or High Commission is the place of last resort for an Indian in distress — approached only after exhausting all alternatives.

Ask Indians trying to escape the clutches of venal Arab employers — many in desperation end up obtaining fake passports to get back to India, never to be able to go overseas again.

As for the job the IFS is expected to do, it invariably falls short. Its ineptitude has repeatedly been shown up. It has successfully made enemies of nearly all our neighbours, to a point where there isn’t one that doesn’t consider us arrogant, condescending or domineering.

The Service messed up in Maldives, was catastrophic in Sri Lanka, came short on peace with Pakistan and has consistently displayed a sclerotic vision, frozen since Nehru’s days, over China.

Many Indians are holed up in prisons for months in prison, simply because our missions won’t do anything to help them, unless there is a huge public outcry back home — as the hapless Indian sailor in a Togolese jail recently discovered.

Khobragade episode

The greatest success of this service has been in getting the country to toe the wrong line on Devyani Khobragade. Former officers of the IFS, ex Foreign Secretaries such as Kanwal Sibal amongst them, would have us believe that the US set out to deliberately humiliate India. The simple fact of the case is that our diplomats, who are supposed to be aware of the laws in the countries they work out of, are either arrogantly disdainful of them or, to be more charitable, ignorant.

It is this failure in the face of repeated and embarrassing violations over the years that led to Devyani Khobragade’s arrest and expulsion from the US; now, several members of the IFS are in danger of being cleared out of that country as well.

For all its indifference to the people of India, the IFS has looked after itself very well — too well for the mediocre job it does. A generous foreign allowance is supplemented by liberal, educational support, ensuring the best possible education overseas for the children of officers of the Indian Foreign Service, not to speak of excellent healthcare -- and home-based, privately engaged and officially compensated domestic support, the last a clear recipe for abuse.

The IFS rarely faces the kind of public scrutiny that members of India's All India or Central Services are subject to. The latter make do with far fewer perks in much tougher work environments.

Instead of reacting to the embarrassment caused by the Khobragade episode sensibly and urgently taking up reforms within to avoid a similar situation, the IFS has closed ranks and successfully led the country to believe that the US deliberately set out to humiliate India.

Heroine’s welcome

Even if that were true — one can never put anything beyond the US, a country as condescending towards the rest of the world as India is to its smaller and weaker neighbours, we need to ask who put India in such a awkward position in the first place, and why.

In any other service Khobragade’s conduct would have earned her a major penalty chargesheet. Instead, backed by the entire Foreign Service fraternity and a thoroughly misled country, she has returned to a heroine’s welcome, with the door wide open for a political career if and when she decides to have one.

(The author is with Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore)

(This article was published on January 17, 2014)
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