Reforming India’s foreign policy apparatus

As India moves towards its seventh decade of Independence, it faces a defining period and its future is increasingly intertwined with developments in the international arena. As the world’s biggest democracy and the world’s seventh largest economy, membership of the G-20 and BRICS, increasing clout in international financial institutions, growing acceptance as a nuclear-armed state, and impressive UN peacekeeping credentials, India’s status as a global power is not just recognized but increasingly institutionalized.

Additionally, geopolitical and geo-economic shifts have created simultaneous opportunities and challenges: the opening with the US; the rise of China and Beijing’s efforts to block India’s global accommodation; the so-called Arab Spring and its aftermath; and the growing international tussles over climate, cyber, energy, food, the oceans and outer space.

India, particularly under the Narendra Modi government, has sought to influence global developments through a series of initiatives, such as Neighbourhood First, Act East, Think West, SAGAR and the India-Africa Forum. India’s foreign policy apparatus, particularly the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), has so far done a valiant job to follow up these initiatives. But is the IFS fit to serve India’s interests for the next decade and beyond?

The short answer, according to the latest report of the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs chaired by Shashi Tharoor, is: probably not.

Consider the following: First, India’s foreign service has the smallest number of diplomats among the G-20 and BRICS countries. While the foreign ministry argues that its “pool of about 2,700 diplomatic rank officers” (which includes attachés, diplomatic secretarial staff, officers from other ministries and interpreters) is comparable to the 4,500 diplomats of China, 2,000 of Brazil, and 1,300 of New Zealand, this is a clever fudge. Were attachés, secretarial staff and other officials included in the figures of China and Brazil, their numbers would be much higher.

In reality, according to the report, the total number of IFS officers is 772—140 short of the sanctioned strength of 912 officers, making it one of the smallest.

Second, there is a serious disconnect between the foreign policy requirements of the country and the language skills of India’s diplomatic corps. For instance, of the 772 IFS officers, only 569 have proficiency in any non-Indian language, leaving 203 diplomats with no foreign language ability whatsoever.

The report cites “anecdotal evidence of Indian Ambassadors in Arabic-speaking countries being handicapped by their lack of knowledge of Arabic, and similar examples in a variety of countries”.

Worse, there is an even greater disconnect between the foreign policy priorities and language skills. While the government has prioritized its Neighbourhood First policy, there is not a single diplomat with proficiency in either Bhutanese, Dari or Nepalese and a mere two with knowledge of Pushtu and only three diplomats with ability in Sinhalese.

Similarly, both the Act East and Think West initiatives are poorly served by the lack of local language proficiency. This will, doubtless, adversely impact India’s ability to advance its interests.

China is the only priority country that is adequately served by language-proficient diplomats. As many as 75 Indian diplomats have proficiency in Chinese, but even this is the result of a bias within the IFS towards five UN languages—French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Chinese. Here too, Chinese is the least-known language among the five UN languages.

The lack of numbers and inadequate language is most evident in Africa (a continent of increasing import for India), where over two dozen embassies remain headless for want of diplomats and most of the diplomats serving there have no knowledge of the local language.

Clearly, the numbers and skill sets of India’s foreign service are woefully out of sync with the global role that the political leadership envisages for the country.

The committee’s report offers a series of practical and evolutionary steps to remedy the existing situation.

Until the recommendations are implemented and the situation is rectified, India—and the foreign service—will keep punching well below its weight.

This article was originally published by LiveMint on August 15, 2016

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Aug 15, 2016
WPS Sidhu
South Asia, India