India has once again reposed its faith in Prime Minister Narendra Modi despite the Poll pundits, Lutyens Media and Exit polls predicting an edge to opposition alliance, Modi has managed to sway voters with his idea of new India and developmental politics. A young and aspirational India is crafting a new political narrative. This mandate is indeed historic. BJP has not only showed the opposition how electioneering is done in style but also forced them to dismantle their opportunistic political ambition and imagination. As many members of the Government said, 2014 was an election of hope but 2019 was an election of trust.
With India rapidly evolving as a global economy, this trust is not limited demographically. Modi’s foreign policy has brought India respect and stature in the global arena. India under his regime has become a major global player. It is apparent from India’s influence in the global diplomacy that no vital discussion or treaty – may it be related to trade or climate change or human rights – can be implemented without India backing it. Modi as a global leader will be far more powerful than he was during his last term in a manner Vladimir Putin is powerful in Russia and Xi Jinping is powerful in China. This command for respect in the global space can be seen by the responses by world leaders rushing to congratulate Modi even before the results of the parliamentary election were formally declared. Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu has stood out for his enthusiastic message in Hindi. Xi Jinping’s elaborate message stands out for the speed with which it was issued. Donald Trump said India is lucky to have Modi as Prime Minister.
Foreign policy and Indic diplomacy have been one of the core areas of the Modi Government. We may see a new Foreign Minister in a couple of days, but what we may also see is the long-lasting problem of Indian Foreign Service (IFS). The IFS is one of the most prestigious services in the country and those who desire to be a part of this service and become a career diplomat needs to clear the Civil Services Examination (CSE) first. A diplomat is a representative of his country and a foot soldier of its foreign policy. Good armies fight wars and win. Good diplomats deter wars and win. In spite of the bureaucratised entry system, many of the former Indian officials have come out and stated that an understaffed and underprepared foreign ministry is holding back Modi’s plan to seek greater global influence in line with his country’s fast-growing $2.6 trillion economy. India has 1.3 billion people, but fewer than 1,000 diplomats. With roughly around 940 foreign service officers, India has one of the most understaffed diplomatic corps of any major economy just moderately higher than New Zealand’s 885 officers, or Singapore’s 850. It is to a great extent outnumbered by the Japanese and Australian foreign services of around 6,000 people, the estimated 7,500 diplomats of rival China and the United States’ State Department’s service of nearly 14,000.
Lack of diplomats restricts the Ministry of External Affairs from processing all the information it receives from various embassies and consulates, and a large number of small countries that are deemed as less strategically important are neglected. Deficiency also hinders the MEA’s capacity to manage multiple negotiations at the same time. Between 1998 and 2005, there was a drastic cut-down in recruitment. The total intake through the UPSC exam across services came down to approximately 200 per year. In the early 2000s, no more than eight IFS officers were inducted each year. Between 2008 and 2018, a Ministry of External Affairs expansion plan was put in place. This looked at two aspects – to increase the intake through the UPSC civil services exam and also to fast-track promotions on merit, which meant there were several promotes from group B services who held important diplomatic posts like ambassadors. Over the last six to seven years, the intake through the UPSC exam has been 35-40 IFS officers each year. The total number of recruitments, across services, was close to 1,200 last year.
The Ministry of External Affairs in a written reply to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs in 2016 had said, “India has a pool of about 2,700 diplomatic rank officers in our Missions/Posts abroad and at Headquarters, including those from the feeder service and other Ministries and Services. In contrast, China has 4,500 diplomats, Japan has 5,700 diplomats, Brazil has 2,000, Italy has 910 and Korea has 1,250. The United States is known to have about 20,000 diplomats. We are, therefore, not among the smallest of the diplomatic services, but are also not among the largest.”
BJP’s 2019 election manifesto promises to “increase the strength of the diplomatic and allied cadres to keep pace with our increasing global engagement”. The idea should not be limited to increasing the size of foreign service but also implement lateral entry, an idea that has been opposed fervidly by the civil service cadre in the past. Lateral entry is a sine qua non to restructure the IFS. The MEA’s ongoing Expansion Plan 2.0 has a special provision for lateral entry but here lateral entry will mean officers on deputation for 3-5 years.
India’s interpretation of “Lateral entry” is to involve posting an officer from any other All India service to an overseas mission to execute a specific job. For instance, a railway service official is posted for executing railway projects in a neighbouring country, or a Commerce Ministry official is posted to handle complex trade negotiations. But lateral entrants are not given an opportunity to grow into the service. They have had to return to their parent service after the completion of assigned tasks. A better option would be to introduce the ‘revolving door’ concept. Experts in academia, think-tanks, scholars, research professionals or industry experts should be given an option to serve in the diplomatic ranks. The veil between these fields and diplomacy need to be lifted and interoperability needs to be tested. The United States and European Union have been following this kind of inter-operability for decades, and with success.
Another major step would be to depart from the colonial system of examination for Foreign services. A completely different exam and selection procedure focussing on international relations, diplomacy, economic history, global governance, negotiation skills and the law should be introduced so that area-specific meritocratic professionals come into foreign diplomacy services and policy making. India has a lot to contribute towards global policy making and for India to maintain its position as a global power, reshaping and revamping of IFS is an immediate necessity.