Can Jaishankar rev up the diplomatic corps?

Richa Mishra | Updated on November 21, 2019

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar (file photo)   -  SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

As India seeks greater influence in global policy-making, an understaffed foreign service needs to be reshaped

Till about the early eighties, the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) was perceived to be the more desirable service than the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). Then the trend changed and IAS outshone IFS. Today, once again, career diplomats are grabbing the spotlight. Take the recent Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Summit where the Ministry of External Affairs stole the show.

Has it got to do with Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the Indian diplomat turned politician serving as the current Minister of External Affairs? Or is it because Prime Minister Narendra Modi is so clued into international affairs?

Public policy commentator Aashish Chandorkar feels that IFS has traditionally been a relationship-management field force, with limited lobbying or Brand India-building mandate. “In the last few years, the focus on the IFS has been higher, with international branding of India as well as ‘consumerisation of services’ like passport and visas getting more focus,” he says. “To this end, it was logical that the focus on IFS would eventually increase. Even before Jaishankar joined this government, the process had started,” he feels.

K Ashok Vardhan Shetty, former IAS officer and former Vice-Chancellor of Indian Maritime University, Chennai, too is of the view that Jaishankar's appointment and his reported proximity to the Prime Minister has not necessarily raised the stature of IFS. Several IFS officers before him have been Cabinet Ministers — Natwar Singh, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Meera Kumar, he points out.

Losing sheen

Shetty feels that IAS may have many problems, but it is the most sought after service today. He describes how the IAS vacancies get filled up long before the IFS vacancies.

“Till about the late 1970s, there used to be only about 10 vacancies in the IFS and the top rankers used to opt for IFS. The last rank among General candidates to get into IFS used to be between 15 and 20. Now the number of IFS vacancies has gone up to 30-40,” he says.

He also points out how the last rank among General candidates to get into the IFS now is between 120 and 160. “This doesn't mean that ‘less meritorious’ candidates are now getting into the IFS because rank is not always correlated with merit. But, it is proof of the fact that the IFS has certainly lost sheen,” he says.

Former Civil Servant T R Raghunandan, Advisor, Accountability Initiative, and the author of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Bureaucracy But Were Afraid to Ask feels that, pre-liberalisation days, IFS held more appeal as it offered an opportunity to see the world and it was perceived as a more glamorous service.

But that changed as more IAS officers started getting foreign postings, such as Ministers (Economic) in Indian foreign mission offices — a fact resented by the IFS.

Shetty feels that another reason why IFS has lost its appeal is that foreign policy today is not just about politics, war and peace, but also about commerce, industry, environment, human rights, defence cooperation, and so on, which are specialised functions. Ministries such as Commerce, Finance, Industry, Environment, S&T, Atomic Energy and Space, have officers who specialise in various international negotiations and who function, in effect, as diplomats, he says.

Moreover, IFS officers do not enjoy the raw power and status that IAS, IPS or IRS officers enjoy, especially in the initial 10-15 years of service.

Ashok Sharma, a former diplomat, agrees. “Unlike IAS, IFS does not have any role in the country's power play,” he says, adding, “The role of IFS officers is limited to the Ministry of External Affairs whereas IAS officers control almost all other departments of the Government of India.” The State Governments are run almost exclusively by the IAS and IPS officers, he points out.

Cadre revival

However, the MEA has been engaged in outreach activities to build up the IFS’ image. The External Publicity & Public Diplomacy Division of MEA is running a Students and MEA Engagement Programme to reach out to the student community all across India in order to familiarise students with the role and functions of MEA, key elements of India’s Foreign Policy and its success stories and achievements. This programme involves visits of Ministry’s officers to schools and colleges in their hometown/State during leave, purely on a voluntary basis.

But there are challenges. The thin cadre strength of IFS officers is a concern. The total strength of IFS officers today is about 850. This is lower than the desired cadre strength and the demand of the job.

The Shashi Tharoor-led Parliamentary panel on “Recruitment, structure and capacity-building of IFS cadre” has highlighted that the IFS and MEA are not exactly in the pink of health, and they have serious capacity constraint.

As Chandorkar says, “As we target a bigger role in the international arena, the current service staff size may be too small to address all our interests. India should aim to at least double the IFS size, if not more, and bring in more specialisation in the service in areas like trade, cross-border security, international terrorism and technology.”

If Jaishankar is able to leverage his reported proximity with the Prime Minister to get more funds, more posts and bring about the necessary structural reforms and ‘re-engineering’ of the MEA, can it regain its old glory? Given the increased global engagement of the Modi 2.0 government, revving up the diplomatic corps is the need of the hour.

Published on November 21, 2019

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