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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.