reporting & essays

In the Ministry of Eternal Affairs

As India grows in international stature, its diplomatic corps is increasingly outclassed, outnumbered and out of date

By SHASHI THAROOR | 1 July 2012

BACKK IN 1977, as a 21-year-old doctoral student, I found myself prowling the corridors of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) at South Block in New Delhi for the first time, researching the thesis that was to become my first book, Reasons of State. I was callow, curious and opinionated—a useful combination of attributes in one who hopes to break new ground in scholarship—and my analysis was, with hindsight, overly critical of the received wisdom about Indian foreign policy-making. Thirty-two years later, I found myself, after an election victory, seated in South Block as a minister of state, with an insider’s view of the issues I had written so boldly about. It was instructive to realise how much had changed, and how little.

The principal governmental instrument for the formulation and execution of policy—the ministry of external affairs—had struck me at the time as a flawed institution staffed by superbly qualified and able diplomats. I concluded in 1977 that problems of structure, coordination, personnel and planning in the ministry prevented the bureaucracy from developing the professional expertise and authority that could compensate for the failings of individual dominance by the prime minister in policy-making. That was an unduly critical judgement, which even at the time needed to be somewhat qualified. But three decades later, many of the weaknesses I had spotted in the ministry as a student came back to strike me as surprisingly still relevant.

All those years ago, while ferreting into the interstices of India’s foreign policy making, I learnt that recruits to India’ s diplomatic corps were given a picture of the ‘ideal foreign minister’ during their training lectures. I have no idea if that is still the case—and I thought it politic not to ask, given my own recent departure from the ministry—but the earlier conventional wisdom struck me as pretty sound. According to the 1977 lecture notes of a distinguished (and already then retired) ambassador, IJ Bahadur Singh, the ideal foreign minister (and in those days it was assumed it had to be a ‘he’) must possess the following attributes:

1) His position in the party and the Lok Sabha must be strong.

2) He must enjoy the confidence of the prime minister and his voice must carry weight within the Cabinet.

3) He must not be too immersed in Party affairs to devote his full attention to his office.

4) He must be the kind of politician who can temper the professionals beneath him, by knowing enough about foreign policy to assess advice, by having a mind of his own and making his views clear to the bureaucracy and by being self-assured enough to delegate responsibility.

5) Finally, he must possess the temperament and stamina required for success in the world of diplomacy.

As with most ideals, such a picture bears little resemblance to the empirical reality during much of independent India’s existence. While India’s ministers of external affairs have almost always been senior figures in the ruling party, thereby fulfilling the first two requirements in the list, the remaining criteria have rarely been met. As a result, few foreign ministers can truly be said to have been in a position to challenge prime ministerial dominance of foreign policy making. While this was evidently true during Indira Gandhi’s occupancy of the highest office, when the prime minister, as the strongest figure in the party and the government by far, brooked no challenge, it has been no less true under a succession of later prime ministers of considerably less political heft. Far too many foreign ministers were individuals whose seniority in the ruling party was their principal qualification for office, a quality not necessarily matched by an interest in, time for, or expertise at the time-consuming mastery of international issues. As a result, many were seen as little more than relay-systems for the views of their professional bureaucrats, reading out the speeches and talking points presented to them. In one or another respect, therefore, India’s ministers of external affairs, with very few exceptions, never quite emerged as credible and autonomous sources of policy-making, let alone strategic thinking, in their own right, and in their failure to do so they vacated the policy-making arena to the prime minister.

When I first studied Indian foreign policy making, I discovered that a decade earlier Mrs Gandhi had inherited a ministry of external affairs acknowledged in her predecessor’s day to be in complete disarray. One typical critique of the ministry in the days of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri catalogued a long list of woes. The MEA was described as being in woeful shape: civil servants, the critique ran, had neither expertise nor courage, and proffered as advice what they thought the politicians wanted to hear. There was no coordination in policy-making, least of all in the MEA itself, where three secretaries shared responsibility. The Indian Foreign Service (IFS) was short-staffed and demoralised by the most sought-after diplomatic positions going to non-career appointees. The MEA’s publicity division clashed with the information and broadcasting ministry, and foreign service recruits refused to speak to information service officers at several posts. The MEA itself was “misorganised”, with a cumbersome administration, an irrational division of labour and a dilatory decision-making mechanism. In general, it suffered from lack of consultation among those making policy and a lack of coordination among those implementing it.

To remedy these ills, Mrs Gandhi’s predecessor, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, appointed a committee on the foreign service, headed by a retired MEA Secretary-General, NR Pillai, in June 1965. The Pillai committee was asked “to review the structure and organization of the Indian Foreign Service, with particular reference to recruitment, training and service conditions, and to consider any other matters conducive to the strengthening and efficient functioning of the service at headquarters and abroad, and to make recommendations to Government”. The committee circulated a comprehensive questionnaire, took oral depositions, and held 77 meetings before submitting its report to the Indira Gandhi government in October 1966. It is startling how, more than 45 years later, so many of its concerns and recommendations are still worth repeating in any discussion of the MEA’s structure and functioning.

The Pillai report discerned four basic weaknesses in the Indian Foreign Service and the MEA. The diplomatic corps, then 300 strong, was not large enough and did not draw on wide professional experience; coordination within the MEA was poor; coordination with other ministries which dealt with foreign policy was almost non-existent; and, finally, professional training was limited and, where it existed, inadequate. Every one of these conclusions could be repeated today.

Among other recommendations to redress these limitations, it urged increased recruitment and the selection of older professionals; the revival of the post of Secretary-General, abolished by Shastri upon the appointment of a full-time foreign minister (Nehru had been his own foreign minister, a practice Shastri wisely eschewed), to facilitate coordination of policy and administration within the MEA and with other ministers; and better training facilities as well as increased specialisation in the foreign office. The Pillai report also stressed the importance of the non-political aspects of diplomacy, calling particularly for greater economic and commercial expertise.

MC (Mohammed Currim) Chagla, who assumed the foreign ministry soon after the submission of the report, made every effort to consider its recommendations earnestly. He went over it every morning with his three secretaries in an attempt to utilise its workable provisions. Those minor suggestions that could be implemented directly by the MEA were put into practice, but the prime minister and the Cabinet revealed a singular reluctance to act on the report’s other recommendations. The Pillai report died of inattention even where (and this was not always the case) its suggestions constituted useful responses to a crying need. And yet, except perhaps in the area of training, which has seen modest improvement—with some mid-career opportunities available to Indian diplomats to improve their skills and international exposure—everything that Pillai said in 1966 remains oddly relevant in 2011.

THE RECRUITMENT, training and orientation of the generalist bureaucracy called the Indian Foreign Service provide a useful indication of how foreign policy is made and executed. The quality of the diplomatic corps provides significant clues to its efficacy in meeting the goals of the system. In India, this is particularly relevant because the elite Indian bureaucracy originated in the pre-Independence days and traced its expertise to the colonial vision.

The problems persisting from the earliest days are compounded by the crippling affliction of severe understaffing in the MEA. India is served by the smallest diplomatic corps of any major country, not just far smaller than the big powers but by comparison with most of the larger emerging countries. At just about 900 IFS officers to staff India’s 120 missions and 49 consulates abroad, India has the fewest foreign service officers among the BRICS countries. (In addition, there are some 3,000 stenographers, cyber experts and clerks in the IFS ‘B’ service that provide support staff to the MEA.) This compares poorly not just to the over 20,000 deployed by the United States, and the large diplomatic corps of the European powers—UK (6,000), Germany (6,550) and France (6,250)—but also to Asia’s largest foreign services, Japan (5,500) and China (4,200). The picture looks even more modest when compared to the 1,200 diplomats in Brazil’s foreign ministry. It is ironic that India—not just the world’s most populous democracy but one of the world’s largest bureaucracies—has a diplomatic corps roughly equal to tiny Singapore’s 867.

The size and human capacity of the Indian Foreign Service suffers by comparison with every one of its peers and key interlocutors. While this may partially be a tribute to the quality and the appetite for work of the 900 who staff the foreign service, it lays bare some obvious limitations. I remember the frustrations of the 19 ambassadors from Latin America and the Caribbean in New Delhi at the near-impossibility of getting an appointment with the sole joint secretary (assisted by one mid-ranking professional) who was responsible for all their countries. At a time when India is seen as stretching its global sinews, the frugal staffing patterns of its diplomatic service reveal a country punching well below its weight on the global stage.

A few examples will suffice. The joint secretary in charge of East Asia has to handle India’s policies regarding China, Japan, the two Koreas, Mongolia, Taiwan, Tibetan refugees and the disputed frontier with China, in addition to unexpected crises like those relating to India’s response to the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. Inevitably, China consumes most of his attention and relations with the other crucial countries within his bailiwick are neglected or assigned to one of the five junior officials working under him. Another joint secretary is responsible for India’s relations with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, while a colleague of equivalent rank handles Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and the Maldives, all countries of significant diplomatic sensitivity and security implications. One more joint secretary has been assigned the dozen countries of Southeast Asia, with Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific thrown in!

The problem has not escaped the attention of the professionals. In 2008, Shivshankar Menon, then the foreign secretary, moved a Cabinet Note proposing a doubling of his effective diplomatic strength. The government agreed to increase the cadre by 520 personnel (320 in the IFS category and 200 additional support staff), but the hierarchy-minded bureaucracy immediately stepped in to forestall any dramatic expansion which would have required, for instance, the infusion of external professional talent at all levels of the MEA by mid-career recruitment from the other services or even (perish the thought!) from the private sector. Instead of reaching beyond the government to people who could fill the gaps in the service—more French and Spanish speakers, for instance, or more professional journalists for public diplomacy positions—the implementation of the Cabinet decision was stretched out over 10 years by simply increasing the annual intake into the IFS (including promotions from the clerical grades of the IFS ‘B’) by 32 a year. Even this has not materialised, since the MEA has not found 32 worthy candidates in each of the three years since the Cabinet approved Menon’s proposal. 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 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 countries. The critique developed here is not in any way meant to reflect on any member of this capable and widely respected corps. It 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 (UPSC) 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, the only three compulsory subjects being an essay, general English and general knowledge. The top cumulative scorers are invited to appear before an interview board which tests their knowledge, behaviour and presence of mind and the eventual selection seeks to produce, according to the IFS, “bright young men (or women) of 21 to 24 years, who have the requisite intellectual ability, breadth of mind and mental discipline” for diplomatic service. (The age limit has now been relaxed to 28.)

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 families 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 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. The further complication of this problem is that several civil service aspirants are thrust unwillingly into the MEA when their real ambition is to serve elsewhere—a far cry from the glory days and a situation that does not produce a dedicated and proud foreign service.

The recruits are then trained at the National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, for three months, and then at Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in New Delhi for about a year, attending courses on such subjects as the Indian Constitution, international law, international relations and diplomacy. The stint at FSI includes a month-long district attachment, visits to India’s borders, a tour of the country (“Bharat Darshan”, or literally “seeing India”), a brief exposure to the working of an Indian mission abroad followed by a six-month-long MEA desk attachment. Then there is a final language-training stint of one or two years at a mission abroad. The total amounts to a three-year training period, less than half of which is related to the direct concerns of the professional on the job.

Not every diplomat emerges from the 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 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, not to mention a series 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 learnt Arabic. Surely we can aim for 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.

The effect of the foreign service’s bureaucratic stranglehold on the MEA merits attention, particularly because the Pillai committee, too, recommended a broader-based recruitment process that would seek out professionals in various fields, between the ages of 28 and 35, for mid-career employment in the foreign service. The idea was to compensate for the lack of experience and the consequently more restricted vision of the standard process which recruited only 21- to 24-year-olds, who, according to the Pillai report, “grew” in the MEA within the norms and confines of the foreign office bureaucracy. The Pillai report suggested that 15 to 20 percent of the annual recruitment be set aside for older recruits “to permit entry of persons with specialized knowledge of international relations and area studies, experience in management and administration and public relations”. The recommendation was never implemented and the thinking behind it continues to be strongly resisted by the entrenched bureaucracy.

Ironically, the need is even greater today than when Pillai did his work nearly half a century ago. In today’s multilateral diplomacy, for instance, 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. Concomitantly, there is no threat to officialdom’s established way of doing things.

That way originated in the Indian Civil Service (ICS) under the British, when Indian officials functioned under the obligation of proving their worth to their white colleagues, and accordingly placed a premium on individual brilliance and success. The first generation of senior MEA officers raised in this tradition institutionalised the ego in bureaucratic procedure, undercutting rivals, sheltering behind seniority and seeking self-advancement as the principal priority in their careers. Under Nehru, these tendencies had received full play: he was less interested, as a critic noted, in institutionalising a policy-making ministry than in creating a body to reflect his views. Originality in thought and action was thus at a discount. This was augmented by the political culture’s emphasis on a non-political bureaucracy primarily responsible for implementation of policies made elsewhere; deprived of ultimate authority, officials were largely content to concentrate on their own advancement. While some of this remains true of any bureaucracy, the increasing clout of the foreign service—as the repository of precedent, the storehouse of experience and the legatee of diplomatic practice—in relation to increasingly underprepared political masters, has improved matters considerably. In all fairness, it is essential to state that there are many efficient, achievement-oriented men and women of vision in the MEA—some of whom helped frame this analysis. But their impact was circumscribed by several of the attitudinal and institutional factors traced above.

These limitations on effective professional performance were underscored by other factors, notably inadequate specialisation and training. The IFS recruits’ initial three-year training included little direct applicability in a diplomatic situation. Academic coursework was no substitute for professionalism, and in those days a few months spent in the Indian countryside did not compensate for poor grounding in foreign life and customs. Paradoxically, there was greater need for IFS recruits to be exposed to Indian conditions in order to make them more representative of their nation than they were; but a few weeks in a village as a visiting government official were hardly enough.

But advocates of a year’s training at a foreign institution (such as that which selected entrants received at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in the early 1950s) were defeated by the domestic bureaucrats, whose anxiety to maintain a par between the IAS and the IFS was matched by their desire to be involved as much as possible in India’s external affairs. This too has finally changed, with stints at institutions abroad becoming much more widely available at various stages of a diplomat’s career. But as one retired ambassador observed, “Training at any level in the IFS means listening to a series of lectures. These vary in quality and usefulness. At no time is any training given for two of the most important functions expected of officers at every level: political and economic reporting, and recording of conversations.” The neglect of these basics has created a service that, at its junior levels, is woefully underprepared for the obligations of international diplomacy.

The mandarin-style approach to recruitment—which requires all entrants to come through the 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 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. 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 MEA’S FINANCIAL RESOURCES are also far from commensurate with the globe-spanning tasks with which it is saddled. The ministry’s revised budget for the year 2011–12 was R78.36 billion ($1.56 billion), of which the amount actually budgeted for “external affairs” (as opposed to administration, overseas aid, etc) was R38.14 billion (about $762.8 million, or 48.6 percent of the budget). The rest was largely allocated to technical and economic cooperation with foreign countries. The cost of running India’s embassies and overseas missions was R14.64 billion ($292.8 million, or 18.6 percent). The MEA’s overall budget in 2012–13 was slated to go up to R96 billion ($1.93 billion), but most of the budgeted increase was earmarked for additional aid to Afghanistan, Bhutan and African countries. Not every year witnesses an increase: indeed, in 2005–06 and 2009–10, the MEA’s actual expenditure patterns showed negative growth (–3.42 percent and –5.12 percent respectively). It is not unreasonable to conclude from these figures that the MEA does not dispose of adequate resources for the challenges of global diplomacy.

Early conceptions of Indian diplomacy had required that India’s global presence be wide but inexpensive, a real challenge for a country whose diplomacy spread itself too thin and not too efficiently. Indian diplomats had long tried (with uneven success) to maintain standards of style and hospitality on limited resources while avoiding the appearance of either miserliness or vulgarity. Yet while on the one hand the India of the 1970s could not afford a direct system of communication between the MEA and the embassies, and had to rely on commercial telegrams (on which ambassadors were regularly advised to economise), it also permitted colossal waste in the allocations of such resources it did not possess. For instance, in a perverse genuflection towards the former colonial masters, India House in London in the early 1980s was overstaffed (with nearly 400 employees), overpriced (it operated on a budget that amounted to a seventh of the total expenditure on all Indian embassies) and maladministered (security guards assigned from India were paid a pittance and not permitted to bring their families with them, while a ‘medical adviser’ earned 25 times as much, even though, as a non-registered practitioner in Britain, he could not legally fill a prescription). Though the resources available to today’s MEA have gone up considerably with the country’s two decades of booming economic growth, such anomalies in the allocation of resources persist, despite India having had to open a slew of new embassies in the former Central Asian Republics of the Soviet Union, and needing to considerably strengthen its presence in Latin America and in Africa.

On a more positive note, however, the efforts of Indian diplomats are being actively augmented by the Indian private sector, which in recent years has demonstrated a considerable penchant for playing a diplomatic role. The major business associations, particularly the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, have been significant players at events such as the World Economic Forum in Davos. They have also conducted what they call “strategic dialogues” between titans of Indian industry and influential opinion makers in countries like the United States, Japan and Singapore, and organised important trade delegations, such as a major group that made a breakthrough visit to Pakistan in 2012. The private sector has already convincingly demonstrated the capacity and the talent to serve as a force multiplier for Indian diplomacy, particularly in its public diplomacy efforts and in national image-building overseas.

Aside from tight budgets, another legitimate concern about the MEA’s conduct of India’s international affairs relates to India’s inadequate foreign policy planning and research facilities. As far back as 1965, the reactive rather than anticipatory nature of Indian diplomacy had prompted the creation of the policy planning and review division of the MEA. The division, first headed by a joint secretary, reported to a policy planning and review committee, chaired by the foreign secretary. In theory the committee was to receive the division’s recommendations and suggest, on their basis, guidelines and directives for future policy, but in practice the committee paid little attention to the division, which after submitting a few disregarded papers rapidly fell into desuetude.

When I came to the ministry and found myself assigned overall supervision of the policy planning and research division, I was dismayed to find it was a backwater largely used to park officials for whom a more challenging assignment could not be identified. Perhaps the only tangible output of the division is the MEA’s annual report, that too prepared on the basis of inputs from the other divisions of the MEA. The government’s traditional ‘political’ interests and congenital disregard for strategic thought; MEA officials’ limited access to widespread sources of information, their lack of time and opportunity for reading and the narrowness of their functional data base; the nature of the power structure and prime ministerial supremacy; and, above all, the bureaucratic imperatives in favour of immediate and evident results rather than long-term dividends, all militated against the creation of effective policy-planning structures.

Inevitably the MEA tends to place a greater premium on pragmatic ad-hoc-ism than futuristic projections. The top policymakers largely function on the basis of single-page assessments. Senior Indian policy planners and MEA officials tend to be a little defensive on the subject; several suggest that responsibility for policy planning should reside in the substantive territorial divisions, rather than be assigned to a separate entity with no particular expertise in the areas for which policy needed to be planned. It is not unreasonable to argue, as well, that policy planning is never missed in most governments until a crisis erupts and people start frantically seeking a plan. Inevitably, though, the substantive divisions are too busy with the immediate preoccupations of their daily inboxes to have time for the luxury of long-term thinking. The result is that hardly anyone in the MEA is able to create policy plans that are anything but extrapolations from past policy.

OUR CONCLUSION IS CLEAR. India has evident, and significant, global responsibilities: these require it to review and reform the capacity, structure, functioning and reach of its foreign policy apparatus and its national security establishment. The challenge of engaging credibly with the global community is no trifling matter. It involves dealing with the wide range of issues involved in conducting relations with the rest of the world from the position of a serious, indeed major, power: political and strategic issues, economic and trade-related questions, cultural exchanges and public diplomacy. And it requires a country like India to be staffed and equipped to take initiatives, not merely react to world events. The MEA has to bear the brunt of the blame when Indian foreign policy is criticised in Parliament and abroad for lacking vision and failing to develop a unified strategy for India’s role in the world.

Numbers are an essential part of the reforms needed. It is absurd that in South Block only five officers (some very junior) are assigned to cover all of the Americas, or that the number of Indian diplomats at our embassy in Washington has not changed since the days of our estrangement from Cold War America, or indeed that India has more diplomats posted in West European capitals than in East Asian ones. This situation, replicated ad infinitum across the geopolitical map, has prompted analysts like Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations to suggest that India lacks the institutional structures to even become, let alone conduct itself as, a global power.

In a landmark 2009 paper, ‘Developing India’s Foreign Policy “Software”’, Markey outlined what he saw as “significant shortcomings in India’s foreign policy institutions that undermine the country’s capacity for ambitious and effective international action”. These accord largely with the ones I had identified three decades earlier, in Reasons of State. They include the modest size of the Indian Foreign Service, its inadequate selection process, stunted mid-career training and reluctance to avail of external expertise; the absence of what Markey identifies as compensatory “high-quality, policy-relevant scholarship” by India’s few, under-resourced foreign policy-oriented think tanks; the very modest output of our “poorly funded, highly regulated” universities, which have few worthwhile international relations programmes; and the hopelessness of our media and private-sector companies in promoting foreign policy issues. He went on to propose “steps that both New Delhi and Washington should take, assuming they aim to promote India’s rise as a great power”. These include: expanding, reforming, paying for and training the Indian Foreign Service to attract and retain high-calibre officers who could make a real difference to India’s engagement with the world; bringing external recruits into the MEA; encouraging world-class international studies in Indian universities; and building capacity for foreign policy research and policy advocacy in India’s think tanks. No reasonable person would dissent from any of these prescriptions.

Markey is undoubtedly correct that the intellectual and institutional infrastructure for foreign policy making in India is still “underdeveloped, in decay, or chronically short of resources”. Unusually for a foreigner, Markey comments on the IFS itself, painting a portrait, in the words of former foreign secretary Salman Haidar, “of a service wrapped up in its own ways, insufficiently responsive to change and mired in outdated methods”. Markey notes practices like the almost automatic promotion system, which involves no weeding-out of deadwood before people become
senior enough to do real damage; and the extent to which senior policymakers are bogged down by daily operational responsibilities. His observations on the administrative shortcomings of the MEA prompted a former ambassador to wax indignant about the skewed careers of the “blue-eyed boys” with which the MEA is said to be replete: “Those who have remained in neighbouring countries or in multilateral posts [the most desirable foreign postings] for long have done so by hook or by crook, not by the government’s deliberate design.”

This clearly has to change. There is room for additional ideas that such studies have overlooked, such as doing to the MEA what India does to other nations—outsourcing some of its tasks and functions (especially routine protocol matters) to lesser, lower-paid entities in the private sector. Some of the needed reforms, if implemented, would beget other reforms; if the recruitment policy were changed, for instance, even if it simply involved a doubling or tripling of the annual intake, as India’s place in the world would justify, there would be an inevitable promotion logjam in a couple of decades as the number of entrants would vastly outstrip the number of senior positions available. This would itself oblige the MEA to create a more rigorous evaluation and promotion policy that would reward efficiency and effectiveness, rather than mere seniority.

Some other proposals, however, face difficulties that go beyond the terms of the argument Markey makes: India’s few think tanks, for instance, have to struggle to gain access to any official documentation or reliable inside information, so that their studies, in Salman Haidar’s mordant words, “tend to be at a remove from official preoccupations”. The lack of a coherent and effective declassification policy compounds this problem. It is difficult for analysts to understand Indian foreign policy making from Indian sources, as the analysts have no legitimate access to such sources or to any documentation at all, other than material of historical value (though even many in that category have not been declassified, including material relating to the wars of 1962 and 1971). Other ideas, like improved pay to make diplomacy a more attractive career option, cannot be pursued in the IFS alone; as Haidar points out, some of the reforms suggested by the likes of Markey or myself “cannot be undertaken without much broader reform within the civil services as a whole: the MEA is not an island to itself”.

In India, therefore, some changes in essential areas will be slow to come because they cannot be pursued in other areas. There is a mountain to be climbed before the IFS and the MEA become more effective instruments of India’s global interests in a globalising world.   s

Adapted from Pax Indica: India and the World of the Twenty-first Century by Shashi Tharoor, forthcoming
from Penguin Books India in July.

BACKK IN 1977, as a 21-year-old doctoral student, I found myself prowling the corridors of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) at South Block in New Delhi for the first time, researching the thesis that was to become my first book, Reasons of State. I was callow, curious and opinionated—a useful combination of attributes in one who hopes to break new ground in scholarship—and my analysis was, with hindsight, overly critical of the received wisdom about Indian foreign policy-making. Thirty-two years later, I found myself, after an election victory, seated in South Block as a minister of state, with an insider’s view of the issues I had written so boldly about. It was instructive to realise how much had changed, and how little.

The principal governmental instrument for the formulation and execution of policy—the ministry of external affairs—had struck me at the time as a flawed institution staffed by superbly qualified and able diplomats. I concluded in 1977 that problems of structure, coordination, personnel and planning in the ministry prevented the bureaucracy from developing the professional expertise and authority that could compensate for the failings of individual dominance by the prime minister in policy-making. That was an unduly critical judgement, which even at the time needed to be somewhat qualified. But three decades later, many of the weaknesses I had spotted in the ministry as a student came back to strike me as surprisingly still relevant.

All those years ago, while ferreting into the interstices of India’s foreign policy making, I learnt that recruits to India’ s diplomatic corps were given a picture of the ‘ideal foreign minister’ during their training lectures. I have no idea if that is still the case—and I thought it politic not to ask, given my own recent departure from the ministry—but the earlier conventional wisdom struck me as pretty sound. According to the 1977 lecture notes of a distinguished (and already then retired) ambassador, IJ Bahadur Singh, the ideal foreign minister (and in those days it was assumed it had to be a ‘he’) must possess the following attributes:

1) His position in the party and the Lok Sabha must be strong.

2) He must enjoy the confidence of the prime minister and his voice must carry weight within the Cabinet.

3) He must not be too immersed in Party affairs to devote his full attention to his office.

4) He must be the kind of politician who can temper the professionals beneath him, by knowing enough about foreign policy to assess advice, by having a mind of his own and making his views clear to the bureaucracy and by being self-assured enough to delegate responsibility.

5) Finally, he must possess the temperament and stamina required for success in the world of diplomacy.

As with most ideals, such a picture bears little resemblance to the empirical reality during much of independent India’s existence. While India’s ministers of external affairs have almost always been senior figures in the ruling party, thereby fulfilling the first two requirements in the list, the remaining criteria have rarely been met. As a result, few foreign ministers can truly be said to have been in a position to challenge prime ministerial dominance of foreign policy making. While this was evidently true during Indira Gandhi’s occupancy of the highest office, when the prime minister, as the strongest figure in the party and the government by far, brooked no challenge, it has been no less true under a succession of later prime ministers of considerably less political heft. Far too many foreign ministers were individuals whose seniority in the ruling party was their principal qualification for office, a quality not necessarily matched by an interest in, time for, or expertise at the time-consuming mastery of international issues. As a result, many were seen as little more than relay-systems for the views of their professional bureaucrats, reading out the speeches and talking points presented to them. In one or another respect, therefore, India’s ministers of external affairs, with very few exceptions, never quite emerged as credible and autonomous sources of policy-making, let alone strategic thinking, in their own right, and in their failure to do so they vacated the policy-making arena to the prime minister.

When I first studied Indian foreign policy making, I discovered that a decade earlier Mrs Gandhi had inherited a ministry of external affairs acknowledged in her predecessor’s day to be in complete disarray. One typical critique of the ministry in the days of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri catalogued a long list of woes. The MEA was described as being in woeful shape: civil servants, the critique ran, had neither expertise nor courage, and proffered as advice what they thought the politicians wanted to hear. There was no coordination in policy-making, least of all in the MEA itself, where three secretaries shared responsibility. The Indian Foreign Service (IFS) was short-staffed and demoralised by the most sought-after diplomatic positions going to non-career appointees. The MEA’s publicity division clashed with the information and broadcasting ministry, and foreign service recruits refused to speak to information service officers at several posts. The MEA itself was “misorganised”, with a cumbersome administration, an irrational division of labour and a dilatory decision-making mechanism. In general, it suffered from lack of consultation among those making policy and a lack of coordination among those implementing it.

To remedy these ills, Mrs Gandhi’s predecessor, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, appointed a committee on the foreign service, headed by a retired MEA Secretary-General, NR Pillai, in June 1965. The Pillai committee was asked “to review the structure and organization of the Indian Foreign Service, with particular reference to recruitment, training and service conditions, and to consider any other matters conducive to the strengthening and efficient functioning of the service at headquarters and abroad, and to make recommendations to Government”. The committee circulated a comprehensive questionnaire, took oral depositions, and held 77 meetings before submitting its report to the Indira Gandhi government in October 1966. It is startling how, more than 45 years later, so many of its concerns and recommendations are still worth repeating in any discussion of the MEA’s structure and functioning.

The Pillai report discerned four basic weaknesses in the Indian Foreign Service and the MEA. The diplomatic corps, then 300 strong, was not large enough and did not draw on wide professional experience; coordination within the MEA was poor; coordination with other ministries which dealt with foreign policy was almost non-existent; and, finally, professional training was limited and, where it existed, inadequate. Every one of these conclusions could be repeated today.

Among other recommendations to redress these limitations, it urged increased recruitment and the selection of older professionals; the revival of the post of Secretary-General, abolished by Shastri upon the appointment of a full-time foreign minister (Nehru had been his own foreign minister, a practice Shastri wisely eschewed), to facilitate coordination of policy and administration within the MEA and with other ministers; and better training facilities as well as increased specialisation in the foreign office. The Pillai report also stressed the importance of the non-political aspects of diplomacy, calling particularly for greater economic and commercial expertise.

MC (Mohammed Currim) Chagla, who assumed the foreign ministry soon after the submission of the report, made every effort to consider its recommendations earnestly. He went over it every morning with his three secretaries in an attempt to utilise its workable provisions. Those minor suggestions that could be implemented directly by the MEA were put into practice, but the prime minister and the Cabinet revealed a singular reluctance to act on the report’s other recommendations. The Pillai report died of inattention even where (and this was not always the case) its suggestions constituted useful responses to a crying need. And yet, except perhaps in the area of training, which has seen modest improvement—with some mid-career opportunities available to Indian diplomats to improve their skills and international exposure—everything that Pillai said in 1966 remains oddly relevant in 2011.

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Shashi Tharoor is a Member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram and a former minister of state for external affairs.

READER'S COMMENTS

5 thoughts on “In the Ministry of Eternal Affairs”

Dear Sir, You have raised valid issues.Our foreign service establishment is in tatters.The quality of officers have declined.They have no interest and no knowledge of international affairs.I met one diplomat (with 7 yrs service) who did not know the name of Francis Fukuyama. I have written 2 letters to prime minister to bring changes in recruitment system.In the present pattern ,if a candidate qualifies the exam with oriya litt he is made a diplomat(even if does not have any interest.) i have made suggestions for changing recruitment system.Please read those letters.I have sent a copy by post to you.

Tharoor is not informed of an important fact that some IFS probationers are not able to follow the training lectures delivered in english.These “smart” people have managed to get through the Civil Services examination which is being touted as the toughest among all competitive examinations.A separate examination for IFS is long overdue.It should be held immediately.

Like the rest of Govt departments, Foreign service is also useless and not of any benefit to Indians.
1. Has India resolved any of broder issues with neighbour even after many wars?
2. Is India liked by any of the neighbouring countries?
3. Does India has a real friend in the world after USSR breakup?
4. Even getting a passport is a horrible issue with RPO.
5. This guy Tharoor just blah blah blah – created a IPL team for Kerala, lived in 5 star hotel, roams around world lobbying for Mallus, marries much married woman.
6. What is India’s policy on many issues is unclear – Israel, Srilanka, Iran, Syria, Myanmar.
7. Foreign Minister reads Portugal minister statement.
8. Foreign Minister behaving like a poodle for beautiful Pak lady Minister.
9. Bigget democratic country did not raise voice against Mynamar military rule for 20 years.
10. Supporting genocide in Srilanka.
11. Indian Army reported by UN for abuse in Africa – India very silent about it.
List is endless.

I was dissapointed when Shashi Tharoor lost out the bid to become the UN Secretary General. I appreciated his writing.

But the years, he has been in India, I recognised why he was never a threat to the current Ban Ki Moon. The problem is that he ha a teflon coated approach to the problem. Like in this article, I told you it was broken – you did not act on it. It is your problem.

It shows his inability as a politician and a beauracrat to get his party to implement changes that would have been least debated in the parliment. He was a Minister of State in MEA. His party is in power. He has the ear of the Prime Minister and even the Gandhi clan. If only, he had concentrated more of his efforts in making MEA work, than starting a cricket team or hob-nobbing with the rich and mighty.

I hope he learns from Hillary Clinton on what diplomacy is.

A very insightful article sir.The MEA should be allowed to recruit on their own or else the UPSC should hold a separate exam to recruit IFS officers.we should not be recruited along with the IAS and other services..we are different and our work is different.Also i strongly believe that an ambassador designate has to learn the language of his country before he is posted there.Atleast the basics of that language..

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