That the ministry of external affairs (MEA) will soon start recruiting academics and private-sector candidates is no breaking news. The ministry’s doors have been so wide open all these years that IFS officers are now a minority in the MEA and our missions abroad.
Out of a total of 4,024 posts, IFS officers occupy only 917. The rest are from the IFS (B), IAS, IPS and other services, such as the Interpreters’ Cadre and the Legal and Treaties Cadre. Our passport operations are handled by a separate cadre altogether. The MEA itself has more than 70 deputationists in the territorial divisions doing the work that was earlier done by the IFS. The present move is not opening doors but breaking walls, which will endanger the structure itself. A new method of recruitment is being devised outside the UPSC to bring in short-term experts, who are not likely to leave. The move “runs the risk of degenerating into an uncontrollable spoils system”, as observed by a serving IAS officer.
The plan for lateral entry into the IFS was hatched in a New York think-tank and was embraced by vested interests in India. The thrust of the study was that India did not have enough diplomats to handle the responsibilities of the 21st century and, therefore, there was a need to recruit people from outside. The point was not about quality but numbers. “Growth in girth is the road to Nirvana,” according
to these analysts, as pointed out by a former foreign secretary.
The optimum size of our foreign service should not be determined by comparing it to China, Russia or the US. Indian diplomacy has never suffered because of a dearth of people. It will be uneconomical to match the numbers of richer countries.
India has been wary of expanding the foreign service beyond a point for quality and economy-related reasons. When a foreign secretary tried to increase recruitment in 1979 he was accused of extravagance. A second deputy permanent representative sent to our mission to the UN in 1994 was found to be a luxury we could ill afford. If 4,500 IAS officers can manage the whole country, would not 900 IFS officers be enough to man our missions?
Another argument for “opening the doors” is the alleged shortage of research in the MEA. The IT revolution has totally transformed the way diplomats function. Even while engaged in firefighting, it’s possible for officers to access information, analyses and insights. Today’s diplomats need to multitask as researchers, analysts, decision-makers and draftsmen. Political acumen, a general understanding of geopolitical realities and instinct, grown out of years of training and experience in the field, are important factors. If research
and access to information were enough, countries like the US would have made no mistakes in foreign policy.
The MEA has also experimented with different structures for long-term and short-term policyplanning. The limitations of long-term planning have been in evidence throughout history. What the territorial divisions need is a bridge between themselves and the political masters, a role normally performed by the foreign secretary. A policy-planning division in parallel with the territorial divisions has not been
effective. A high-level chairman of a policy-planning body was found eminently beneficial in the past.
The value of the contributions made to foreign policymaking by other ministries, think-tanks, universities and the media are beyond question. Some of their advice has been decisive in changing the course of policy. But it is best if they operate within their own domains rather than become part of the MEA. The government benefits from multiple entities that study issues and make recommendations. Most democracies rely on multiple agencies and forums for inputs into foreign policy.
The administrative complexities of recruitment into the MEA will also be formidable. The initiative to recruit more IFS officers through the UPSC, taken a few years ago, will be enough to make up for the shortage. By reducing routine training programmes, officers could be deployed more rapidly with quicker promotions.
Such a measure would also make the IFS more attractive to young people. Let the doors of the MEA remain open, but let them not be blown away.
The writer is a retired diplomat.