The Indian Foreign Service: Worthy of an Emerging Power?


India’s global ambitions have grown remarkably over the past decade. However, questions are being raised about the capacity of its diplomatic corps to act as an effective catalyst in India’s transformation to a global power. Analysts are asking whether the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) has the numerical strength to project India’s influence in a manner befitting an emerging power. Do its officers have the expertise to engage in the kind of complex diplomacy that is required of a global power? Are IFS officers too preoccupied with putting out fires to spare time for crafting a grand strategy based on a long-term vision?

Several of the criticisms being hurled at the IFS are not new. The service has grappled with short staffing, for instance, for decades. Only now, given India’s growing global stature, have these problems acquired a new significance and resonance.

Part of the Ministry of External Affairs, the IFS is the permanent bureaucracy comprising of career diplomats. It works with several other bodies such as the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), the National Security Council (NSC) and so on in the formulation and implementation of India’s foreign policy.

According to an official source in the Ministry of External Affairs, India’s diplomatic corps consists of around 1,750 officers, which includes roughly 750 IFS Grade-A officers, 250 IFS Grade-B personnel, military attachés, and other officers.

The IFS’ numerical strength is small not only in the context of India’s geographic size and its 1.1-billion population, but also in comparison to the diplomatic corps of its counterparts in other countries. “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,” wrote Shashi Tharoor, a former junior minister in the MEA (2009-10) and former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, in his book Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century (Penguin, 2012).

Indeed, the IFS is miniscule compared with its U.S. counterpart, and is also far smaller than the foreign services of countries like China and Brazil. 

The IFS’s short-staffing was identified as a weakness of the Indian foreign policy establishment in a report prepared by N R Pillai as far back as 1965. This shortage of personnel is being acutely felt now with India’s growing global footprint. As the country’s interests and influence extend into more continents, it needs more diplomatic representation. For instance, Africa and Latin America are emerging rapidly on India’s radar and while India has increased the number of missions on those continents, they are inadequate.

The inadequate number of personnel in the IFS has also expanded the workload of India’s diplomats. More importantly, as the Naresh Chandra Task Force Report of 2012 pointed out, the IFS doesn't have enough diplomats to “anticipate, analyze and act on contemporary challenges.” In other words, the IFS is inadequately equipped to act proactively in response to global challenges.

Recruitment to the IFS is through competitive examinations held annually. More than 400,000 aspirants take the preliminary exams. Those who qualify go on to take another round of exams and then an interview. At the end of it all roughly a thousand are recruited into the IFS, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the Indian Police Service (IPS), the Indian Revenue Service (IRS), and other agencies.

According to Tharoor, the former MEA official, 30-35 people are recruited annually into the IFS, up from around 12 about 30 years ago. In other words, just 0.01% of those who sit the exam make it to the IFS.

The competitive exam that is used to recruit India’s diplomats also selects its domestic bureaucrats, its police and its customs and tax officials. Thus, those who join the IFS are not necessarily people with the skills or aptitude for a career in diplomacy.

July 28, 2013 at 15:07

our fertile land grows the world's largest stock of food & feeds 1.1 billion people and yet exports foodgrains.

go stick your beggarly slavic landscape and do a better job of populating barren spaces which is all you guys got

July 21, 2013 at 14:03

After Nehru's death the foreign service never had a politician who headed them and commanded respect.What ever it is worth IFS is a typical Indian babudom which just produces babus ofcourse with lot of perks compared to other central services like foreign posting, children studying in foreign schools and wives learning to use local training and ofcourse they also know how to milk the Air india for layovers.

    The IFS babus also know how to cater to the "National interst " of the countries to which they are posted(Not National interst of India) when it comes to postings to USA, UK,Geneva,EU,Saudi arabia and UAE. They show the national interest of India only when it comes to Pakistan but now also China and African nations.

    These babus also do not know what is commerce. Otherwise Pakistan will not be exporting more clothes than India to Vietnam!!!.Local language, training in Chinese, local dialects. and how to increase Indian manufacuring exports to China to balance trade are some of the things they may not like or leave it to commecial councillor. But when it comes to Geneva posting or western nations, they know catering to the national interest of these nations alone will give them extended tenure and they know how to function like Hussein Haqqani of Pakistan.

   These world bank, UN, IMF postings are stepping stone to reemployment in lucrative private sector and now even Politics is  known. The uncermeonious booting out of Mani shankar iyer for pursuing  Indian national interest by opting for Iran/Pakistan/India pipeline is not lost on these Babus.How many of these babus  write their memoirs truthfully even after retirement? No guts.IFS B may have talent but then they cannot open their mouth as CBI said in Supreme court " we are a Government bureacrcy"!!!!

Ram Sharma
July 21, 2013 at 11:49

As soon as the Indian planners figure how to "plan" anything , it may help it become a "regional" power. Till then , it is just a pipe dream.

July 15, 2013 at 16:33

Candidates opt for IFS not because of the specialisation of the area, but because of the perks attachd to the service like foreign jaunts, etc. Ideally there must a separate exam in order to determine whether a candidate has a flair for the job. For instance how can a candidate with a medical degree and with very little knowledge of international affairs make a good foreign service officer?

July 15, 2013 at 12:46

I agree.  India has a lot of soft power and India is a Superpower.

Now go and feed your own people.

Anand khismatrao
July 15, 2013 at 03:47

I do agree with mr Bhand shankar. One of the special aspect which creates intrest and excellency as well amongst Diplomats is their entire one year training at Foreign Service Institute in New Delhi after selected for a service has been totally neglected which should have been mentioned by writter. This is a age of Generalism and hence generalists take over specialists in most of the execultive levels and hence examination which is conducted to select multitalented candidate for a service for IAS IPS IFS helps themseleves to reform themselves as Generalists in times ahead ! 

9 dashes, 4 dishes, 1 soup
July 14, 2013 at 19:58

As far as Bollywood goes – or computer-literacy or English proficiency – I agree. India is not only the future. It's the present. What exactly does China have to compete with Bollywood? 

The Beijing Opera? Lang Lang? Xi Jinping? Where is this great Chinese soft power I keep reading about? 

As far as diplomatic corps though – I had to laugh when I read this: “They behave like blue-blooded Brahmins,” who know it all and do not need to draw on specialists in academia, think tanks or the media, observed Srikanth Kondapalli, professor in the School of International Studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University."

So how exactly is that different from the diplomatic corps of most nations? It certainly can describe the US pretty well. 

I've driven by the Indian foreign service complex several times. That whole area is lovely. India does a better job of arranging embassies than any country I've seen — except for the Chinese embassy. But maybe that is by agreement of both countries. Perhaps it's because they don't like each other. 

The Chinese embassy is an ugly rectangular complex surrounded by circular barbed wire. How lovely, eh? The other embassies on that street are pleasant to look at and for security – they have walls. Not China – its embassy is surrounded by barbed concertina wire that is even uglier than the buildings inside. The whole place looks like a North Korean prison camp. Maybe that also is by design, because that's what it is.  

If one were to judge human civilization only by the architecture and the landscaping of the embassy grounds near New Delhi's Connaught Place - China would be judged the most barbaric of all nations. 

But maybe that also, is by intention. 


MJK Shervani
July 14, 2013 at 03:07

This article is intended to reflect well on proportionate glow VS the Lamp but suffers from refractive-equivalence..

I feel Mr.Bhand Shankar has, seemingly, correct projections as the short answer is we're intellectually stubborn. We don't always weigh all the evidence before we make a decision, and this is especially true if a change of opinion requires a wholesale overhaul of our worldview vs our infrastructure. We face the same problem as faced by large economies.. our best boys join the Corporate world now! Yes-usually, we're defensive in the face of change, spouting alternative theories and contradictory feed back. Although this type of resistance can help keep everyone honest, it can also produce very bad effects in times ahead of us!!

July 13, 2013 at 19:27

It must be Indian 'Soft Power' of an incoming Superpower. Both Russia & China have no match against Indian soft power at all.

Bhand Shankar
July 13, 2013 at 19:14

Was always told the IRS was the cream of the crop. Just talking in the air about 'skills and aptitude for a career in diplomacy' does not mean the writer knows what these skills are, nor necessarily does Tharoor, former minister. He was in the employ of the UN which, though well-paid, is peppered like a fruit cake with incompetence and patronage. The UN civil service is not an example for emulation.

If India is run well, the task of its diplomats becomes easier. It is odd that the same scrutiny is never applied to the IAS, a far more important service, crucial to running India. No-one asks that with India becoming an emerging power, do the IAS recruits have the 'aptitude and skills for a career in administration?'  Why not?

There is something called training which doesn't find a mention in the article. There is also something called experience. It is time that shallow articles about the civil service ceased being written.

Rafael Prince
July 13, 2013 at 05:02

A Brazilian perspective of the same question:

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