Global Affairs Desk

Tue Jun 18 2024

India wants to be a Vishwaguru- But IFS gets very few diplomats to be there

~ By Aarush Joshi on 10/9/2023

India wants to be a Vishwaguru- But IFS gets very few diplomats to be there

In the civil services exam of 2020, the Union Public Service Commission has picked 354 candidates for the top three services — the Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Police Service and the Indian Foreign Service. The number of candidates selected for the IAS was 180, while that for the IPS was 150. And for the IFS, whose officers are mandated with making and implementing India’s ever-changing and complex foreign policy, the number is 24. The number of IFS officers recruited annually remains really low, as compared to India's counterparts. Given the size of India's economy, it is important that India has adequate manpower to position itself at the top of the global order.

Under the Narendra Modi government's maxim of 'minimum government, maximum governance, all civil services in India have been reducing recruitment since 2014. But the fall in recruitments for the already short-staffed IFS has been both steep and glaring.

Initially, the Modi government had picked more IFS officers than in the preceding three years' counts of 30 (2012), 32 (2013) and 32 (2014). In 2015 and 2016, 45 officers each were selected for the IFS, but in the next two years, the numbers fell to 42 and 30, respectively.

“The IFS is one of the smallest cadres in the country. The government recruits more officers in most other civil services…What does that tell you about the country’s priorities when it comes to foreign policy?” said a retired diplomat.

India's Global footprint and the size of IFS

According to the Ministry of External Affairs, India’s sanctioned IFS cadre strength is 850, as against 6,500 for the IAS and 4,843 for the IPS, as of 2017.

In 2016, briefing the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, then foreign secretary S. Jaishankar, now the External Affairs Minister, said India has 2,700 diplomats. Breaking it down, he told the committee that it included 912 IFS (A) grade officers, 252 Grade 1 IFS (B) officers, 33 of the Interpreters Cadre, 24 of the Legal and Treaties Cadre, 635 attaches, 540 diplomatic officers from sectorial staff, and 310 diplomatic officers for other ministries.

Compare this to other world powers — South Korea has over 1,250 diplomats, New Zealand has over 1,300, Brazil has over 2,000, China has over 4,500, and Japan has over 5,700. Even a small island nation like Singapore has 800-850 diplomats — nearly as many as India’s IFS ‘A’ cadre.

The numbers are glaring because of the size of New Delhi’s diplomatic footprint around the world. According to Australian think tank Lowy Institute’s Global Diplomacy Index, India’s diplomatic network ranks 12th in the world — behind smaller countries such as Turkey, Spain, and Italy.

A more micro-level comparison between China and Brazil sheds light on India’s relatively smaller global footprint — China has 276 total diplomatic posts around the world, Brazil has 222 and India has 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 implies that a country like Brazil, whose economy is less than India's, has a larger global presence. While the scale of China’s global presence is in line with the size of its economy, looking at some particular criteria further highlights Beijing’s mammoth foreign service capacity.

Other than foreign embassies and high commissions, China has 12 permanent missions across the world, as compared to India’s five. The gulf in Indian and Chinese capacity becomes starker when one looks at the internal structure of some of these permanent missions.

India’s Permanent Mission at the United Nations has 14 officers, while its Chinese counterpart has 12 separate divisions, with many more officers serving in each of them. Similarly, at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), India has eight officers, while China is believed to house a staff of 1,000.

Overburdened officers

Many argue that the division of the diplomats into IFS (A) and the various other groups hide the reality of India’s understaffed core diplomatic corps. IFS (A) officers are the only trained diplomats India produces, as opposed to other officers, who play ancillary roles or have been promoted to the position of diplomat, such as a part of the IFS (B) cadre.

“The problem is very grave,” said Congress’ Shashi Tharoor who, as chairman of the Standing Committee on External Affairs in 2017, had authored a detailed report on the issue.

“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,” Shashi Tharoor added.

IFS(A) officers are recruited by the UPSC directly while IFS (B) officers are recruited through the Staff Selection Commission (SSC) for the posts of assistants, lower division clerks (LDCs) and section officers, among others.

“As an outsider, it is obvious to us that MEA officers do a lot of work,” said a foreign diplomat in India. “Often, one under-secretary is handling multiple countries, and is overburdened.”

The problem is so grave that experts point out how the foreign secretary alone is tasked with managing at least 9-12 of New Delhi’s key international relationships, while the four secretaries below him manage the rest. This creates a structure where all five secretaries who sit on the top of the MEA structure are chronically overburdened.

It is a poignant issue that some MEA officials too acknowledge. Sources in the Ministry said it is widely known that India’s diplomatic corps is understaffed, and even as the demand grows due to changing geopolitics, India hasn’t been able to fill some key positions, unlike other countries.

While there are many reasons for this, the most important is that a “serious cadre review of the foreign service has not been undertaken”, an official told ThePrint.

According to Harsh Pant, head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation, the reason behind the neglect of the IFS is bureaucratic inertia.

“One can argue now that the country is facing fiscal problems, and cannot expand the cadre, but this is a recent phenomenon,” he said. “What were we doing before that?”

Pant said the bureaucracy’s first instinct is to protect itself by maintaining the status quo. “Mr Modi’s government is known to be firm when it comes to pushing administrative reforms, and yet even he is facing such a problem. They get concerned about their promotions, career progressions, etc. and the issue remains where it is.”

K.C. Singh, former ambassador to Iran, argued that the career progression concerns are real. “The government has to work keeping in mind the pyramidical 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.”

In addition, there are budgetary constraints too. “If the MEA budget is reduced, which it may very well have been due to COVID-19, then you cannot recruit so many people,” Singh said.

He insisted there was no direct correlation between the number of officers recruited and India’s foreign policy ambitions. “During our time, the number of officers recruited was 26, and that was a high number,” he added.

It is necessary that the Government of the day focuses on increasing the number of diplomats to harness India towards becoming a "Vishwa Guru". There should be a separate exam for people willing to take up the job of a diplomat and represent the country on various international platforms. Since the qualities needed by a diplomat are different, it is logical that the candidates take a separate exam which tests their ability in foreign languages, interest in world politics etc.

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