By Ritika Passi:
Out of 4 lakh aspirants annually, some 0.01% are recruited into the Indian Foreign Service. This translates into the 600 something diplomats currently representing Indian foreign policy interests in 162 missions abroad. The total strength of the Indian diplomatic corps, including support staff, clerks and military attachÃ©s is under 2,000.
On their own, these numbers don’t say much. Compared with similar data from other countries, however, the picture changes. The United States has a diplomatic corps of about 20,000; the UK, France and Germany each lay claim to more than 6,000. India, with a population of 1.2 billion, has about the same number of diplomats as Belgium and Netherlands, and has only a few more diplomats than tiny Singapore. The disparity is stark even among its own peers. China has eight times as many diplomats as India; Brazil, around double.
For a country seemingly on the verge of global powerdom, here is yet another debilitating factor reducing New Delhi’s potential global footprint. There is a reason India is rarely at the forefront of global debates; as the Naresh Chandra Task Force report stated last year, there are not enough diplomats “to anticipate, analyze and act on contemporary challenges”. The sad fact is that the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has been anything but blindsided with this fact; the Report’s conclusion is much the same as that of the Pillai Report of the mid-1960s. Bilateral relations — and in turn India’s ability to extend its presence beyond its borders concomitant with its growing global weight and needs — are jeopardized, given that “in South Block only five officers (some very junior) are assigned to cover all of the Americas or… that India has more diplomats posted in West European capitals than in East Asian ones”, or that in 2011, none of the nine ambassadors posted in the Middle East could communicate in Arabic.
Furthermore, it isn’t a rigorous and meticulous recruitment process that churns out an inevitably meagre crÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me; instead, the paltry 8-15 annual officers the MEA acquires (which since 2007 has increased to about 30) are successful candidates of the rat race of rote learning that is the common examination which also selects individuals for the country’s administrative and police services, offering little distinction between skill-sets pertinent for the Foreign Services as compared to other branches.
The quality of India’s diplomats consequently also suffers. The glamour of the Foreign Service and the sheen of respectability it commanded during the past have long disappeared in face of more lucrative posts in the national administration that also offer more decision-making responsibilities. Historical precedent set before Independence means that the garb of seniority still proves too much temptation for the hierarchy-minded MEA; there is “very little collective thinking about… long-term foreign policy goals, since most of the strategic planning that takes place within the government happens on an individual level”. This lack of vision diplomats are meant to be working towards is compounded by the need for specialists and experts, instead of generalists, to deal with the growing number of global issues: maritime law, outer and cyberspace, responsibility to protect, climate change, global financial system et al.
As to-be Indian diplomats are chosen from ranks further down the list year by year, the Indian Foreign Service will become increasingly handicapped if significant steps are not taken to increase the numbers and improve the Service. Doubling India’s diplomatic strength by 2020, the current directive of the Indian government, will not suffice. There are a number of ready suggestions for India to become proactive in diplomatic circles and for diplomats to actively participate in constructing the country’s Foreign Policy, as well as to increase the measure of soft-power India has abroad: mid-career professional training; lateral entry instead of solely career diplomats; contracting experts and technocrats from think-tanks, academia and the private sector; overhauling the selection process. The question now is, how long it will take?