Features | Politics | South Asia

The Indian Foreign Service: Worthy of an Emerging Power?

The IFS has long been the elite. As India’s global reach grows, it now faces serious challenges.

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.

Until the 1970s, a career in the IFS was much coveted; it attracted the brightest in the country. Tharoor observes that Indian diplomats have “long enjoyed a justified reputation as among the world’s best in individual talent and ability.”

However, there has been a visible decline in the quality of IFS recruits in recent years. With jobs in the corporate sector paying better and a career in domestic bureaucracies such as the IAS, IPS and IRS promising more power, the IFS has become a less attractive option. It no longer attracts the very brightest. Increasingly, those who join the IFS do so because they did not make the cut to the other more lucrative services. Several of these younger officers are in fact not interested in diplomacy and international affairs.

Thus the impact of understaffing is compounded by the declining quality of its personnel.

To address the problem of understaffing of the IFS, the Indian government has stepped up the numbers being recruited annually. This is expected to double the service’s strength by the end of the decade, the MEA official said.

Tharoor is among many who have suggested the lateral entry of experts from other departments, universities, think tanks and elsewhere. The need for such lateral recruitment has grown dramatically in recent years. Negotiations on nuclear liability clause-related issues, space laws, climate change, environment security, and other areas require considerable expertise in the subject, which an IFS officer may not have.

However, the IFS has strongly resisted hiring or even consulting outside experts. In contrast to the U.S., where foreign policy and area studies experts from universities and think tanks are often appointed to senior positions in the State Department and are routinely consulted in policy making, in India the IFS is loathe to draw on outside talent and expertise.

“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.

Strongly refuting this criticism, Tharoor said that where the situation warranted outside expertise, the IFS doesn’t hesitate to consult. Indeed, experts in space law and trade issues have been taken on board for short periods. In Sri Lanka, where India is involved in a big way in construction of houses in the war-ravaged North, “it is an engineer not a career diplomat who is guiding the project,” he pointed out.

But such interaction with non-IFS individuals and institutions is half-hearted, even superficial. On the rare occasion where accomplished academics or media professionals were appointed as ambassadors, career diplomats serving under them were reluctant to share classified information, Kondapalli recalled.

Kondapalli pointed out that not only is the IFS reluctant to draw on outside talent but worse, it doesn’t use the in-house talent well either. Those who do not toe the line are sidelined, he said, adding that “new thinking is not encouraged.”

A far more serious allegation leveled against the IFS is that it does not engage in long-term strategic planning, that there is little clarity on goals and how they could be achieved.

“New Delhi does very little collective thinking about its long-term foreign policy goals, since most of the strategic planning that takes place within the government happens on an individual level,” writes Manjari Chatterjee Miller in a recent article in Foreign Affairs.

She argues that as a result of understaffing, IFS officers are compelled to take on more responsibilities, which means that “besides their advisory role they have significant leeway in crafting policy.”  Miller cites current and former ambassadors to argue that Delhi provides little input or directions to its missions. “This lack of top-down instruction means that long-term planning is virtually impossible,” she concludes.

A senior serving diplomat told The Diplomat that “while the MEA may not have released White Papers or other documents explaining government policy, its statements in Parliament and in the UN or other multilateral settings, public speeches by senior officials, the MEA’s annual reports, media briefings, all together give a pretty deep insight into the government’s views and policy on a range of foreign policy matters and issues.”

“The overall thrust of foreign policy is well known,” added T P Sreenivasan, a retired ambassador who put in 37 years of service with the IFS.

Sreenivasn refuted allegations that ambassadors often work without clear guidelines from Delhi. “Territorial division heads give directions to the concerned missions,” he said, stressing that these “guidelines are never unclear.”

Sreenivasan recalls that the only time during his career when he “had to take policy decisions without instructions” was during the military coup in Fiji in 1987, when he was India’s ambassador to Fiji. The Fiji government had cut his communications and he had to act without instructions from Delhi. “My actions were ratified by the Government, but with some modifications. These guided me subsequently,” he recalled.

Sreenivasan also drew attention to the “continuous flow of instructions and reports between the MEA and the missions abroad. These constant exchanges” contribute to “collective decision making” in the MEA, he pointed out dismissing Miller’s criticism that decision making in the IFS is “individualistic.”

Expanding on the nature of interactions between heads of missions and divisional heads, the serving senior diplomat said that these are “routine.” “Such interactions also take place either in a regional setting or at the annual heads of missions meeting in New Delhi,” Sreenivasan told The Diplomat, drawing attention to how these meetings enable diplomats “to interact, discuss and debate a diverse range of policy issues and matters and, to plan for over the horizon events.”  Similarly, “interactions between the NSA/NSCS, the PMO and the MEA take place regularly and in both structured and unstructured settings. Where required, such meetings also take place on a need-to basis,” he pointed out.

As for the question of autonomy that the missions enjoy, Sreenivasan argues that this is “confined to making policy recommendations, not decisions or crafting of policy.” He notes these recommendations are “often accepted by the Government.”

Criticism of IFS officers being vested with autonomy seems based on a belief that those on the middle rungs of the hierarchy lack the competence and experience to make recommendations or decisions. However, Sreenivasan pointed out that this is not the case in the IFS. “It is at the level of the Joint Secretary and Secretary that policy is discussed and developed, and annual plans laid down,” he said. At this level, diplomats have considerable experience in diplomacy; a Joint Secretary having around 20 years experience in the IFS and a Secretary 30 years. These are not novices “ignorant of the nuances of policy making, but officers who are chosen with great care and who bring with them substantial and wide-ranging global experience in a variety of stations.”

 It is evident that while some of the major criticisms that are leveled against the IFS are rather exaggerated, the IFS does have some serious shortcomings that need to be dealt with urgently if India is keen to expand its clout on global issues.

The problem of understaffing is not one to be brushed aside. While India has begun recruiting more into the IFS, the pace at which it is doing so is inadequate. It is imperative too that recruitment to the IFS is done through a separate examination, one that tests knowledge in international affairs and also aptitude for diplomacy. The current common examination results in good bureaucrats, not good diplomats joining the IFS.

Two divisions of the MEA that could  contribute significantly to India’s long-term strategizing  are the Policy Planning and Research Division and the Public Diplomacy. These need to be strengthened.

There is an urgent need for the IFS to step out of its ivory tower. It needs to become more consultative and engage more with outside experts and institutions. As for think tanks and universities, they need to produce more work that is policy-oriented, if they want their input to be taken seriously by the MEA.