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India wants to be Vishwa Guru but IFS gets too few diplomats to take us there

Only 24 officers were recruited to the IFS in this year’s UPSC exam, and officials and former diplomats say there’s a host of reasons why.

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New Delhi: In this year’s civil services exam, the Union Public Service Commission has picked 354 candidates for the top three services — the Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Police Service and the Indian Foreign Service.

The number of candidates selected for the IAS is 180, while that for the IPS is 150. And for the IFS, whose officers are mandated with making and implementing India’s ever-changing and complex foreign policy, the number is 24.

Under the Narendra Modi government’s maxim of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’, all civil services in India have been reducing recruitment since 2014. But the fall in recruitments for the already short-staffed IFS has been both steep and glaring.

Initially, the Modi government had, in fact, picked more IFS officers than the preceding three years’ counts of 30 (2012), 32 (2013) and 32 (2014). In 2015 and 2016, 45 officers each were selected for the IFS, but the next two years, the numbers fell to 42 and 30, respectively.

“The IFS is one of the smallest cadres in the country. The government recruits more officers in most other civil services…What does that tell you about the country’s priorities when it comes to foreign policy?” said a retired diplomat, who did not want to be named.

“It tells you that the country is essentially an inward-looking nation, with limited global ambitions beyond the rhetoric.”

Also read: 5% Muslims among new civil services recruits, only one in top 100

India’s global footprint and size of IFS 

According to the Ministry of External Affairs, India’s sanctioned IFS cadre strength is 850, as against 6,500 for the IAS and 4,843 for the IPS, as of 2017.

In 2016, briefing the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, then foreign secretary S. Jaishankar, now the External Affairs Minister, had said India has 2,700 diplomats. Asked to provide a breakdown, he told the committee that it included 912 IFS (A) grade officers, 252 Grade 1 IFS (B) officers, 33 of the Interpreters Cadre, 24 of the Legal and Treaties Cadre, 635 attaches, 540 diplomatic officers from sectorial staff, and 310 diplomatic officers for other ministries.

Compare this to other world powers — South Korea has over 1,250 diplomats, New Zealand has over 1,300, Brazil has over 2,000, China has over 4,500, and Japan has over 5,700. Even a small island nation like Singapore has 800-850 diplomats — nearly as many as India’s IFS ‘A’ cadre.

The numbers are glaring because of the size of New Delhi’s diplomatic footprint around the world. According to Australian think tank Lowy Institute’s Global Diplomacy Index, India’s diplomatic network ranks 12th in the world — behind smaller countries such as Turkey, Spain, and Italy.

A more micro-level comparison with China and Brazil sheds light on India’s relatively smaller global footprint — China has 276 total diplomatic posts around the world, Brazil has 222 and India 186. In terms of embassies and high commissions, China has 169, Brazil has 138, and India has 123, while in terms of consulates and consulate-generals, China has 96, Brazil 70, and India 54.

This means Brazil, whose GDP is about $1.8 trillion, almost a trillion less than India’s, has a larger global presence than India. While the scale of China’s global presence is in line with the size of its economy, looking at some particular criteria further highlights Beijing’s mammoth foreign service capacity.

Other than foreign embassies and high commissions, China has 12 permanent missions across the world, as compared to India’s five. The gulf in Indian and Chinese capacity becomes all the more stark when one looks at the internal structure of some of these permanent missions.

India’s Permanent Mission at the United Nations has 14 officers, while its Chinese counterpart has 12 separate divisions, with many more officers serving in each of them.

Similarly, at the World Trade Organization (WTO), India has eight officers, while China is believed to house a staff of 1,000.

China, thanks to its large diplomatic corps, not only has permanent missions in significant entities such as the European Union (EU) and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), but also a much larger internal capacity at its missions across the world.

Also read: Language test for UPSC — less than 5% IAS, IFS officers take civil services exam in Hindi

Overburdened officers

Critics argue that the categorisation of diplomats into IFS (A) and the various other groups hides the reality of India’s understaffed core diplomatic corps. IFS (A) officers are the only trained diplomats India produces, as opposed to other officers, who play ancillary roles or have been promoted to the position of diplomats, such as a part of the IFS (B) cadre.

“The problem is very grave,” said Congress’ Shashi Tharoor who, as chairman of the Standing Committee on External Affairs in 2017, had authored a detailed report on the issue.

“We have such few diplomats that we don’t have embassies in several countries, and in most countries, our counsels are manned by the second rung of IFS officers — IFS (B) — who are not trained to be diplomats,” said the former Union minister of state for external affairs and under-secretary general of the United Nations.

While IFS (A) officers are recruited by the UPSC directly, IFS (B) officers are recruited through the Staff Selection Commission (SSC) for the posts of assistants, lower division clerks (LDCs) and section officers, among others.

“As an outsider, it is obvious to us that MEA officers do a lot of work,” said a foreign diplomat in India, who requested anonymity. “Often, one under-secretary is handling multiple countries, and is overburdened.”

The problem is so grave that experts point out how the foreign secretary alone is tasked with managing at least 9-12 of New Delhi’s key international relationships, while the four secretaries below him manage the rest. This creates a structure where all five secretaries who sit on the top of the MEA structure are chronically overburdened.

Why the numbers remain stagnant 

It is a problem that some MEA officials too acknowledge. Sources in the ministry said it is widely known that India’s diplomatic corps is understaffed, and even as the demand grows due to changing geopolitics, India hasn’t been able to fill some key positions, unlike other countries.

While there are many reasons for this, the most important is that a “serious cadre review of the foreign service has not been undertaken”, an official told ThePrint.

According to Harsh Pant, head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation, the reason behind the neglect of the IFS is bureaucratic inertia.

“One can argue now that the country is facing fiscal problems, and cannot expand the cadre, but this is a recent phenomenon,” he said. “What were we doing before that?”

Pant said the bureaucracy’s first instinct is to protect itself by maintaining the status quo. “Mr Modi’s government is known to be firm when it comes to pushing administrative reforms, and yet even he is facing such a problem. They get concerned about their promotions, career progressions, etc. and the issue remains where it is.”

K.C. Singh, former ambassador to Iran, however, argued that the career progression concerns are real. “The government has to work keeping in mind the pyramidical structure of the cadre,” he said. “You cannot recruit hundreds of people in one go since that would cause frustration when it comes to promotions.”

In addition, there are budgetary constraints too. “If the MEA budget is reduced, which it may very well have been due to Covid-19, then you cannot recruit so many people,” Singh said.

He insisted there was no direct correlation between the number of officers recruited and India’s foreign policy ambitions. “During our time, the number of officers recruited was 26, and that was a high number,” he added.

Also read: All the PM’s interpreters — the select IFS officers who translate and keep many secrets

Shadow of its past

In the first few decades of independent India, the IFS was the most coveted service, but its prestige among civil service aspirants has fallen drastically in the last two decades, officers said.

“During our times, just about 10 officers would be selected in the IFS,” said a senior IAS officer. “But those would be the top 10 officers… The first IAS officer would be the 11th rank.”

Data also corroborates this trend. Until the early 1970s, the IFS drew its officers from the top ranks of the UPSC exam. In 1972, for example, 20 of the top 26 of the selected candidates chose the IFS. By 1988, the government was forced to go down to the 480th position to pick 10 IFS officers.

In recent years, this trend has continued. Of the 30 IFS officers picked by the UPSC in 2018, only eight ranked among the top 100. In 2017, the first officer to be allotted the IFS ranked 17th, and the number of officers ranked among the top 100 was just five. In 2016, the number of IFS officers in the top 100 was just seven.

The IAS officer quoted above said aspirants don’t prefer the IFS anymore. “It’s too challenging to uproot one’s life, especially nowadays, with men and women working outside the house. You cannot just ask your spouse to leave their job and travel the world with you for your job,” he said.

Shifting demographics of aspirants has also played a part. “Back in the day, most civil servants used to be recruited from urban centres, so the IFS was up there in their preferences. Now, with several officers being recruited from tier-2 or tier-3 cities, IFS does not command the same attention,” the officer said.

Moreover, with policy making becoming globalised, every service offers the opportunity to travel abroad, thus taking away the exclusive attraction of the IFS.

Problem needs attention soon

Be it the lack of political or bureaucratic will, or the absence of interest among civil service aspirants, what is obvious is the deep impact of the under-staffed cadre on India’s foreign policy ambitions.

“In the last few years, India’s foreign policy ambitions have grown at a much greater pace than its capacity has,” argued Pant. “For example, you want to increase India’s footprint in Africa, but where is the manpower for it?”

This is also a decades-old problem. In 1964, MEA official Rajeshwar Dayal had observed that only 13 IFS officers were being recruited every year. Tharoor, in his 1982 book Reasons of State: Political Development and India’s Foreign Policy under Indira Gandhi, 1966-1977, had argued that New Delhi’s foreign policymaking capacity was acutely low.

In 2016, former foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon, who was India’s National Security Advisor until May 2014, wrote in his book Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy: “India has serious capacity issues in the implementation of foreign policy and lacks the institutional depth to see policy through.”

But in the 50-plus years between Dayal and Menon’s observations, nothing has prompted capacity expansion at the MEA.

“The change is being made rather reluctantly,” Pant argued. “They say it is being done gradually but what you do is add two-odd positions here and there, because the bureaucracy does not really want to tweak the system meaningfully.”

Yet, it is not just a numbers problem. India’s foreign policy apparatus is in dire need of holistic reform, experts say.

“If India has to expand its international profile, it needs a much larger number of diplomats,” argued Arun Singh, former Indian ambassador to the United States. “And it is not just the number of officers, but also the number of well-trained officers. You need officers who are trained in technology, trade, etc. and not just in traditional diplomacy.”

K.C. Singh, meanwhile, spoke of the need to increase the number of officers at mid-levels through lateral recruitment.

“You cannot rely on civil service recruitment alone…If you recruit them now, it will take them at least 15 years to be in key roles,” he said. “There should instead be lateral recruitments… During my time, for example, we roped in an officer from an oil PSU to manage India’s oil diplomacy. We did not create a new post for him since he came with his earlier post… So, there is always scope for innovative means.”

Singh’s idea of lateral recruitment has been proposed several times over, but has not quite been institutionalised.

“In the Standing Committee report, we had argued that India needs lateral entry into the foreign service, and at the same time, needs to conduct a separate UPSC exam for the IFS,” said Tharoor.

“The truth is that a lot of diplomats we produce don’t have the aptitude to be diplomats,” he added. “At a time when one needs expertise in climate change, global trade, etc., we cannot only be relying on generalists to articulate India’s point of view to the world.”

While the MEA has, in the last few years, started engaging consultants from the academia for its Policy Planning and Research Division, experts say more domain expertise is needed.

“India needs trained and skilful IFS officers for some of the future challenges as it chalks a strategy for groupings like Indo-Pacific and the Quad that call for specialised training,” said one of the unnamed MEA officials quoted above.

“In today’s world, with growing Chinese influence, the demand for highly skilled diplomatic corps in the neighbourhood, especially in countries like Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan, is huge. But India simply is unable to fulfil it.”

Also read: Indian Forest Service, the other IFS which is foreign in its own land


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  1. The Print started out as a national newspaper but lately is becoming more and more a regional north Indin newspaper that does not get much coverage any more.anywwhere. More Modi news and more Hindi Vishwa this, vishwas that bias, less odd for it to be National All India paper.

  2. The following points also need to be addressed
    1) India’s aspiration of having permanent seat in SECURITY Council need to be well thought of since in next 5 years it would be a reality.
    2) Someone mentioned about the 10% economic growth rate however without the foreign markets, raw material that wont be possible. African market need to be developed with in hand focus with Trade services.
    3) With India’s economy stature IAS on an average have better long term prospects than IFS since the country has developed a lot.
    4) The most IFS trainee failing to clear the language test shows the very nascent communication problem.
    5) Since Liberalization charm of Foreign trips and added perks has fallen.

    Advantage of RED Passport must be Larger than life.

  3. India can become vishwaguru by clocking 10% real economic growth y-o-y for next 20 years, and not by fattening up foreign service by more recruitment eating up our taxes. Focus on economic growth and rest will follow.
    Requesting author to convey to her sources to take VRS and leave our taxes alone. Enough furniture buying in Paris has taken place already.

  4. With due recognition and respect to great foreign service officers who have rendered great service to India, our IFS Babus cannot uphold India before the world. They are trained following a colonial curriculum which disparages India, its tradition and its people, social systems and everything about India. IFS trainees hardly learn anything about India’s past, and the values India stands for. Because of their colonized mindset, they are always apoligetic about India and its issues. UPSC exam itself is the starting point of this disaster. The books prescribed are set in colonial values. Nothing has changed for UPSC or Government of India or MEA. IFS babus are like salesmen who love the competitors’ products.

  5. Your argument about posting making little sense because as far as I know all the foreign postings are completely vouluntary. And IFS may have lost its charm in recent years but still is one of the top choice of the candidates , and even if it becomes the fourth or fifth choice of candidates, it will still be more competitive than SSC cgl examinations. Infact even in ssc MEA is not the first choice of candidates. And about training , maybe the ministry is not being very proactive in this regard but tell me how many of IFS B officers themselves have raised the issue? Why doesn’t the association does something about it? And even if the ministry doesn’t provide training , tell me how many IFS B officers have on their own taken educational courses or went on to higher education in the field?
    It is very easy to point fingers and act victims but it is very convenient to forget that both IFS A and IFS B are part of the MEA and if the MEA has shoddy RTI record, then it is the fault of both not just one. This is high time that both IFS a and b act mature and realise that they both are just government servants and their personal interest can’t come above the nation. And if they are unable to do so, then let us hire laterally.

  6. “”Critics argue that the categorisation of diplomats into IFS (A) and the various other groups hides the reality of India’s understaffed core diplomatic corps. IFS (A) officers are the only trained diplomats India produces, as opposed to other officers, who play ancillary roles or have been promoted to the position of diplomats, such as a part of the IFS (B) cadre.””

    Highly biased assertion in favour of the neo-Brahmins – the IFSA.

    IFSA runs the MEA – what stops it from imparting the requisite training to the IFS B?

    But no, they hate IFSB so much that ALL requests for training courses by IFSB officers are routinely turned down.

    IFSB is treated as Shudras, as cannon fodder and are posted to places where the IFSA is afraid to go – example Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria etc.

    As one senior politician, known for his knowledge of English, once said – “Half the time and efforts of IFSA are spent in pulling down the IFSB.”

    The journalists should have just made a survey, specially of the newly opened Missions and all Missions in Africa overall – all inductee IFS (formerly of IFSB) are posted there.

    In any other organisation, the supposedly ‘best’ or ‘better’ officers would have been posted to newer territories. But here IFSB is deployed to do the dirty work and IFSA gets all plum postings. Almost half of IFSA have never been posted to Africa – not even once !

    Unlike the period upto the 1990s, it is now fourth and fifth rate aspirants who join IFSA. Most of their time is spent in comparing themselves to their peers in the IAS, IPS and IRS.

    Being run by the IFSA, for the IFSA and meant only for the IFSA, the MEA has the shoddiest record in responding to RTI queries.

    On the other hand, they have a stellar record in covering up the corruption and other misdeeds of their own ‘Cadre’.

    We have a serial woman molester who has been let go scot free three times, been promoted unhindered but is still considered a ‘topper’.


    Another senior diplomat who loves the country but not the way it is run.

    • Reading this arrogant garbage is amusing.

      The only joke in the MEA is calling its group B officers as “IFS-B” when in fact they are no IAS-B or IPS-B . IFS-B’s sole purpose is to help the actual diplomats do their jobs, otherwise they wouldn’t exist. But since they are usually unfit to even carry out menial tasks, it is the IFSA officer who is left to do the clerical work AND his own job. So much for the “sacrifices” of the IFS-B. Further, ALL postings be it Afghanistan or Washington DC are voluntary. That is IFSB volunteer to go to Afghanistan and Somalia or Timbuktu because they are desperate for the perks and FA that it brings them compared to their otherwise humble lives in New Delhi. IFS A on the other hand have no such desperation as their jobs and perks are equally adequate even if their pay is significantly lower.

      Further, the IFS-A are “better” and “brighter” and most importantly more “deserving” even if they got the last rank in UPSC examination because even the last ranker in UPSC has faced a higher standard of examination and scrutiny than the topper of the IFS-B staff selection exams. And while the IFS A has to go through all the training in language , FSI etc, we have IFS B clerks warming chairs around the world in govt bunglows, selling passports and office furniture to supplement their foreign allowances for 30 years without oversight or accountability only to whine and moan that they cant become FS or ambassador in the US when they dont have even a basic understanding of Indian foreign policy or international conventions. Even the mandatory language course they are required to take to get Group A status is something they endlessly moan and whine about, ludicrously calling it a “plot by the IFS-A” when all IFSA officers have done the same too.

      Instead of whining and moaning about the IFS A the IFS B should have written the UPSC exam, most can still write it of they chose to. But why didn’t did they ? Did they not know where the exam center was or were they too lazy to get the application? Those who dont walk the walk cant talk the talk!

      PS – IFS-B are NOT diplomats, they are a CLERKS who work in a diplomatic establishment, they have NOT earned the right to call themselves diplomats as they are not appointed by the President of India to represent India.

    • Are you talking about the Ambassador to Greece? Twenty years ago there was a scandal in France regarding his abuse of his maid.

  7. Your story portrays only one side of the picture . IFS is a top heavy service looking somewhat like an inverted pyramid with a cadre strength of 33 secretaries , 46 additional secretaries and 170 joint secretaries at the very top. Almost every IFS Officer reaches up to the level of Secretary in a time bound manner. The top in MEA needs de -cluttering so as to ensure that only the best reaches there.
    Even the annual intake of 35-45 probationers is disproportionately higher then the retirements in IFS . The real issue therefore is not one of quantity but of quality.

    Dr Shashi Tharoor led Parliamentary Committee in its report had ,inter -alia , recommended enrichment of IFS B cadre which constitutes the largest HR pool in MEA . Instead of tapping their potential talents ,such officers are subjected to perpetual mistreatment in the form of delay in DPCs, irrational amendment of rules to their detriment , reduction of entitled posts , deployment in low profile desks etc etc .. Unfortunately, you have overlooked these vital issues in your article .

    • It is ironic that you talk of quality vs quantity yet disregard the “quality” of the best and brightest in the nation in favor of people who have written an exam most people havent even heard about and galk of their “excellence” and “ability”.
      If they had the ability they would have become Joint Secretaries via the front door – not through a system of automatic promotions designed to generate stable govt employment rather than merit based promotions.

  8. Your story portrays only one side of the picture . IFS is a top heavy service looking somewhat like an inverted pyramid with a cadre strength of 33 secretaries , 46 additional secretaries and 170 joint secretaries . Almost every direct recruit IFS Officer reaches up to the level of Secretary in a time bound manner. The top in IFS needs de -cluttering so as to ensure that only the best reaches there. The real issue therefore is not one of quantity but of quality .

    In any case , 35- 40 probationers have been recruited in MEA every year since 2013 , disproportionately higher than the actual number of retirees in the particular year . What is actually needed is a long term comprehensive plan to enhance and enrich the skills of the middle level categories of officers in MEA in every area of Diplomatic engagement. The MEA Parliamentary Committee led by Dr. Shashi Tharoor ,in its report had inter -alia ,recommended enrichment of IFS B cadre who constitutes the largest pool of human resources in MEA , most of them having completed of over 20 years of service before being inducted into IFS .They must be imparted intensive training on international diplomacy and related areas and deployed at important desks both at the headquarters of MEA and Missions abroad . You will hardly find a single officer from IFS B cadre handling political affairs in the Missions in the countries of consequence. Sadly , the present scenario portrays a dismal picture where such officers from IFS B cadre are subjected to unfair treatment with their posts being reduced or diverted elsewhere , their DPCs being held up for years together, service rules being amended to their severe detriment and court cases being inflicted on them at regular intervals. This situation needs to be averted if MEA really wants to maximize the available human potential in its reserve .

    That said , there exists reasonably strong grounds for augmentation of Human Resources at the middle level in MEA , who handle every subject under the Sun , particularly when they are posted in its 190 plus Indian Missions / Posts abroad . Keeping in view the country’ s growing global profile , the Union Cabinet in August 2008 had approved a decade long expansion plan in MEA with an additional lot of 514 posts which inter -alia included 312 posts at the middle level in senior scale and director grades. The posts under the Expansion Plan were seamlessly approved every year till 2013-14 when it was abruptly terminated for unspecified reasons . The grapevine is that the plan was stopped under the new found maxim ‘ minimum government, maximum governance’
    Diplomacy is one such area that can never be handled by artificial intelligence.Humans will have to perform it ,but we don’t need to clutter the top but enhance the potentials at the middle levels in MEA.

    Babu Paul
    Former Consul General of India To
    Reunion Island , Republic of France

  9. It is true that in the 60’s and 70’s the IFS was the preferred choice of the aspirants. It is really sad that there is now a dearth of talent for this service. Lateral entry and a separate entrance test should be seriously considered. There is also the larger than life image and power of the IAS that attracts the youth.

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