top of page

IFS: The Indian Frugal Service?

A little more than a year and a half ago, former Ambassador to both the United States and China, and ex-Foreign Secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar was chosen to lead and steer Indian foreign policy. Modi’s choice of Jaishankar-one of India’s toughest diplomats and most perspicacious realpolitik strategist- won him some curses from senior party members and plaudits by many (even outside the party), but is putatively regarded as the perfect man for the job.

In February this year, the IFS undertook one of the most profound administrative reforms and restructuring in independent India’s history, authored by Jaishankar himself, some say. The major overhaul of the structure will change departments and reporting structure which will empower seven different Additional Secretaries who will focus on long term solutions rather than fire-fighting.

“The problem is very grave,” said Congress’ Shashi Tharoor former Minister of State for External Affairs and former under-secretary-general at the UN who, as chairman of the Standing Committee on External Affairs in 2017, had authored a detailed report on the issue. He echoes the concerns that are pervasive in India’s diplomatic circles.

Amidst these concerns about, and bids to augment the capacity and capability of the External Affairs Ministry, it will be instructive for us to look instead at the big picture.

The Problems

First let us look at the people, or the lack thereof. This year, the Union Public Services Commission(UPSC) selected 180 candidates for the IAS and 150 for the IPS. And for the IFS, whose officers do everything from formulating policy and strategy at the highest levels in South Block to implementing the nitty-gritty of the policies on the ground around the world, the UPSC chose 24 candidates. According to the Ministry of External Affairs, India’s sanctioned IFS cadre strength is 850. Let’s juxtapose Indian numbers with others’ and see how we size up with different countries. We, a nation of 1.3 billion people have as many diplomats as New Zealand and Singapore, countries with around 5 million people each. Our diplomatic corps is veritably and woefully understaffed and really can’t be compared with Japanese and Australian services of around 6,000 people, the estimated 7,500 diplomats of rival China and the US State Department’s service of nearly 14000 officers.

For instance, India’s permanent mission to the UN houses 14 diplomats, while its Chinese counterpart has 12 separate divisions with many officers serving in each of them. A stark contrast can also be seen at the World Trade Organisation, where India has eight officers whereas China is believed to house a staff of 1000. The understaffed and overburdened MEA is deleterious to Indian ambitions. As Manjari Chatterjee Miller writes in an article in Foreign Affairs, “New Delhi’s foreign policy decisions are often highly individualistic -- the province of senior officials responsible for particular policy areas, not strategic planners at the top. As a result, India rarely engages in long-term thinking about its foreign policy goals, which prevents it from spelling out the role it aims to play in global affairs”. Officials at both the PMO and MEA described their roles as too often consisting of either putting out fires or getting bogged down with the mundane, with little time or inclination to indulge in grand strategic thinking.

“We have such few diplomats that we don’t have embassies in several countries, and in most countries, our counsels are manned by the second rung of IFS officers — IFS (B) — who are not trained to be diplomats”, says Tharoor. "India has been unable to reciprocate the opening of embassies in many Latin American countries because of a shortage of Spanish-speaking officers”.

The paucity of funds and officers(especially those who speak the local languages) is most evident in the African continent, where the Indian diplomatic network is quite weak, and the extant embassies remain headless for want of diplomats and most of the diplomats serving there has no knowledge of the local language.

The size of India’s diplomatic footprint around the world is also nothing to write home about. According to Lowy Institute’s 2019 Global Diplomacy Index, India ranks 12th, behind smaller countries like Turkey, Spain and Italy.

A more nuanced look at the rankings is all the more a cause for concern. China has a total of 276 diplomatic posts, USA 273, Japan 243, Turkey 235, Brazil 222 and India 186. In terms of embassies and high commissions, China has 169, Brazil has 138, and India has 123, while in terms of consulates and consulate-generals, China has 96, Brazil 70, and India 54. This means Brazil, whose GDP is about $1.8 trillion, almost a trillion less than India’s, has a larger global presence than India.

The quality of the overall cadre has also atrophied gradually, but considerably. People in the top rankings have stopped choosing IFS as the glamour of foreign travel has reduced, and also due to difficulties in uprooting your life and that of your family for a new posting. An officer also observes that another reason could be shifting demographics. Earlier most civil servants used to be recruited from urban centres but now comparatively more are from tier-2 and tier-3 cities, who don’t prefer to go abroad. As Tharoor notes, “It seems appalling that we have to make do with a diplomat who is only there because he couldn’t fulfil his dream of being a police superintendent or customs official”.

Another issue that warrants our attention is the glaring insularity of our policy from outside influences. Our policymaking remains immune from think-tanks and public intellectuals. Officers don’t turn to extraneous sources for advice and stratagems that can sometimes help fill in the gap of long-term thinking inside the government.

Solutions Galore

A myriad array of solutions have been opined by various people for the numerous problems plaguing the Indian foreign service.

One apocryphal and piecemeal reform that can be implemented without ruffling too many feathers is increasing the number of officers recruited each year. However, it brings with it, its attendant problems. The cadres inducted now will be trained and become diplomats after a few years, and further become experienced and occupy key positions after 20-30 years: we can’t wait that long. Also, we can’t ignore the quality of the recruits: going down the rankings even further to increase numbers would lead to substandard recruitments.

According to Dhruva Jaishankar(Director of the US Initiative, ORF) and Harsh Pant(Professor of International Relations, King's India Institute), bureaucratic inertia and maintenance of status quo are the two biggest forces working to thwart attempts to reform the cadre. Right now, almost every officer has an assurance that s/he will find himself at an ambassadorial position in the future. More candidates would mean more competition. As a vindication of the career progression concerns, KC Singh, former ambassador to Iran, argues that “The government has to work keeping in mind the pyramidal structure of the cadre,” he said. “You cannot recruit hundreds of people in one go since that would cause frustration when it comes to promotions.”

It is also necessary that diplomats are recruited through a specialised examination, one that tests knowledge of international affairs, an aptitude for diplomacy and different languages, instead of the common UPSC exam. The present exam prepares good bureaucrats, not good diplomats. However, since the possibility of such a radical reform being accepted in the near future veers on the impossible, Shashi Tharoor advocates that people who choose IFS in their preferences be made to sit for an extra paper.

In this era, we also need specialists in the field of technology, trade, defence, environment, public health etc and can’t just rely on traditional diplomats to articulate India’s point of view to the world, and negotiate for us. For this, the lateral entry has been touted as the perfect solution. There have been lateral entrants from other ministries (not nearly enough), but what is more acutely needed are subject domain experts from academia, corporate world and think tanks who have been part of, and contributing to global conversations, and can bring a fresh perspective into the government machinery. These proposals have also received some pushback from orthodox, career diplomats.

At the heart of this quagmire of issues are budgetary constraints. As Dhruva Jaishankar points out, the powers that be, including the Finance Ministry and also the rest of the civil services aren’t going to accept and finance an IFS cadre of 4000 officers pending a wholesale civil service reform and increase in the size of the bureaucracy. Shashi Tharoor has also criticised the MEA’s ‘failure to convince Ministry of Finance for higher allocation in consonance with the ever-increasing foreign policy mandate…(and) the mismatch in demand and allocation and further recurrent budgetary cuts imposed by the Ministry of Finance at all stages of budgetary allocation’.

Paths of Glory

In this highly globalised era, nations face what former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan calls ‘problems without passports’, problems such as climate change, health epidemics, cybersecurity, migration, drug trafficking and nuclear disarmament cannot be tackled by individual nations independently. These challenges require what Shashi Tharoor and Samir Saran call ‘blueprints without borders’: responses that are coordinated by many different actors in the international arena. Whether we acknowledge it or not, increasingly many facets of our life are impacted by what’s going on outside our country and how we interact with it. As a corollary, increasingly what happens inside the country influences outside events too. One has to only look at the foreign reactions elicited by seemingly internal matters such as Kashmir’s lockdown, the anti-CAA protests, the urban migrants or the controversial farm laws. This begs the question: what is really internal anymore? and blurs the differences between external and internal matters.

This period is also marked by India’s ascendance in importance among the global comity of nations. We now have a larger share of the pie, but with that, we also have much more at stake. The world’s second-most populous country with one of the leading economies and the largest diaspora ever cannot afford to be lackadaisical about its foreign policy. The welcome personal engagement of Prime Minister Modi has also underlined the need for a more robust foreign policy infrastructure which can implement the actual policy decisions beyond the rhetoric of foreign trips and announcements. Our peripatetic wander-lust PM alone has visited approximately 60 countries, trying to elevate India’s image around the world (and also maybe make up for the lack of foreign travels in his childhood).

“This is a time for us to engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia, bring Japan into play, draw neighbours in, extend the neighbourhood and expand traditional constituencies of support”, as Jaishankar points out in his book The India Way: Strategies For An Uncertain World. At this time, India is angling for a seat at the UNSC, NSG and also being invited for the G7. We have also offered solutions to the world and helmed initiatives like the International Solar Alliance, Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure and Leadership Group for Industry Transition. Increase in our raw military power, along with our cardinal position at the top of the Indian Ocean has made us an integral part of policies of different nations’ Indo-Pacific policies and international strategies. Our economic prowess trajectory has been watched with much awe by the rest of the world. Our average age is 29, and we are set to become the youngest nation with 64% of our population falling under the working-age category. Thus, it is all the more significant and pertinent at this point in time that we talk about efforts to revamp and reform our foreign policy cadre. It is reassuring that the upper echelons of the government are cognizant of the situation and are working to ameliorate the situation.