Will Shashi Tharoor's Recommendations Reform the MEA for the Better?

Examining the three measures Tharoor suggested, and others which are debated frequently, aimed at improving India's foreign policy and its delivery.

IAS Exam

Candidates writing IAS entrance exam. Credit: Reuters

Congress member of parliament Shashi Tharoor, a former United Nations undersecretary general and a former minister of state in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, is the first chair of the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee to take a professional interest in the operation of India’s diplomatic system.

In May 2016 the Committee had stoutly supported greater allocation of funds for MEA, pointing out, that if this was not done, ‘with such limited resources the objectives of India’s foreign policy are definitely going to be compromised’. That plea fell on deaf ears. Tharoor has continued to bat for giving more resources to MEA. In a recent comment, he has reverted to three themes he has espoused in the past:

  1. Expanding the manpower in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS),
  2. Providing lateral entry into the IFS, and
  3. Organisation of a separate exam for the service.

Let us examine these and other measures, which are debated frequently, aimed at improving India’s foreign policy and its delivery.

Unlike the general administration work that is handled by the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), or audit, tax and other government branches, diplomatic services function in a global environment and by their very nature, they invite international comparison. Countries as disparate as Brazil, France and Kenya, vie to run the most efficient foreign ministries, to give to their countries the very best value for the public funds given to them. Each is conscious that ostentation and prestige are integral to their work profile, but behind the pomp and glamour, the quotidian business of safeguarding and advancing the nation’s external interests is demanding, multifarious and hinges on professional dedication.

Two key elements inform the functioning of all diplomatic services. In the national budgets of their countries, foreign ministries, and diplomatic services, account for barely 1% of government expenditure (if we exclude the monies routed through them by way of foreign aid or contributions to intergovernmental organisations).

Second, while the country’s foreign policy provides the strategic framework for all its actions, it is the efficacious execution of that policy, the MFA’s core task, which gives the country a cutting edge in obtaining for the country optimal results in its international engagement. Simply put, a foreign ministry firing on all cylinders is both the country’s international trump card, and its thin line of first defense in safeguarding national interests. Consider: in the 73-day Doklam impasse, it was quiet diplomacy by tenacious professionals that worked out an acceptable resolution.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the Officer Trainees of the 2013 batch of Indian Foreign Service, in New Delhi on June 04, 2015. Credit: pmindia.gov.in

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the Officer Trainees of the 2013 batch of Indian Foreign Service, in New Delhi on June 04, 2015. Credit: pmindia.gov.in

Against this background, let us consider Tharoor’s three suggestions, before briefly considering other possible improvements in MEA’s functioning.

  1. The current effective strength of executive diplomats in MEA is actually around 1000, because we must add to 770 in the IFS the 250+ in Grade I of IFS (B), ranked as first secretaries. But Tharoor’s key point is valid that we need a larger IFS to give MEA the capacity to fully handle all its tasks.
  2. Lateral recruitment blends badly with direct entrant professionals in diplomatic services, as Canada and others have seen, eroding morale and satisfying neither side. A better way is to open MEA’s portals to outside talent, as has been done by the Development Partnership Administration and other divisions that have taken in officials on deputation from other branches and the private sector, the policy planning unit that has brought in some 20 researchers, and the interns that are now brought in for some months each year.
  3. Separating recruitment into the IFS from other civil services would undermine the structure of the UPSC process, and open the door to fragmentation in union government administration. A better way is to involve the concerned ministries in the process, through a more rigorous, objective interview process. I wrote about this two years back. Incidentally, that committee, set up in September 2015, to report ‘in six months’ on improving the functioning of UPSC, seems to have gone into limbo. This ill-suits a government that works.

The only real resource for a foreign ministry is its staff at all levels. Training and managing human resources has risen to the top, a priority of priorities. Do we understand and act on this reality? Alas, MEA still views training as a standalone function, partly even outsourced to other entities. Some improvements have taken place at the Foreign Service Institute, including trimming of what had become a bloated and lengthy entry-level program, but much more attention is needed for mid-career and senior level training, and the development of ‘whole of government’ foreign affairs training programs that also extend to the key non-state constituencies.

The same applies to human resource management, which personally devolves on the foreign secretary, given his special status among Indian civil services as the head of the IFS. But in the midst of vast and real responsibility as the master-executor of political diplomacy, and continuous travel, the foreign secretary finds scant time for this role, which cannot be delegated to anyone else. A way has to be found out of this conundrum.

We can look at practices followed elsewhere, such as France and the UK (the secretary general and the permanent undersecretary concentrate on MFA management tasks and core policy issues, seldom travelling abroad, delegating execution tasks to other senior officials); the US (administration is not the responsibility of the under secretary for political affairs); or China (work shared equitably among several vice ministers who work autonomously, even though one of them carries the title of ‘senior’). Simply put, prolonging the current major mismatch in work distribution among MEA secretaries, is in fact a serious limitation on MEA’s diplomatic capacity.

This does not exhaust the list of do-able actions to improve MEA’s functioning. That needs an exhaustive, objective study, with findings made public, of the kind that many countries have undertaken in recent years. We must also understand that at the heart of many current challenges is the need to increase the financial allocation. It is false economy to assume that India can achieve its external policy goals on the cheap. Equally, MEA needs to review its processes to trim fat and produce its own economies.

One area that MEA partly neglects is economic diplomacy, not that Indian embassies and the large ‘Economic Division’ at MEA (in effect a department, but not treated as such) do not work at this, but this area deserves greater priority, across the entire government. Let me save that for another commentary.

Kishan S. Rana, a former diplomat, is Emeritus Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.