On the face of it, the ongoing fracas in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) with six officers filing a suit against the government at the Central Administrative Tribunal is a simple case of internal bureaucratic politics. The complaint, after all, is about the promotion rules for the supporting cadre of IFS (B) officers that allow them to sometimes supercede the elite IFS (A) officers — and the complainants all belong to the latter cadre. But that would be a reductive assessment. The current issue is a symptom; one of the by-products of a deeper problem that has plagued the IFS for decades and is now becoming a crucial stumbling block. That is the severe shortage of manpower faced by the diplomatic corps.
A look at the numbers is instructive. Currently, the IFS numbers about 900 officers spread out over 120 missions and 49 consulates. The US, in contrast, has a massive diplomatic corps consisting of some 20,000 officers. That is something of an unfair comparison, perhaps, given the US’s dominant global role and presence — but a comparison with other major countries isn’t much more flattering. The UK’s diplomatic corps numbers about 6,000, France has 6,250 and Germany has 6,550. Among the countries most directly comparable with India — other developing nations — Brazil has 1,200 and China has 4,000. This difference in strength has very tangible consequences, spreading the IFS thin. For instance, one joint secretary looks after all of Southeast Asia, another handles every Latin American country, a third is responsible for China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Mongolia, Taiwan and so on.
New Delhi might have been able to get away with this in past decades when its global role, stature and interests were all more circumscribed. That is no longer the case. As one of the leading developing nations — a major player at every forum from the World Trade Organisation to the G-20 — and with one of the largest economies in the world, the range of foreign policy challenges that confronts the nation has grown exponentially. Southeast Asian nations are jonesing for an increased Indian presence in the region to offset growing Chinese influence; the country is playing and is expected to play a major role as one of the voices speaking for the global south in climate change negotiations. As the Naresh Chandra Task Force Report pointed out in 2012, the IFS simply doesn’t have enough officers to “anticipate, analyse and act on contemporary challenges.”
What is needed now is a wholesale change in organisation structure and attitude. The IFS officers are supposed to be the cream of the crop from those sitting for the UPSC examinations, but the reality is that they are the bottom of the totem pole, often chosen by those who can’t make the cut for other services like the IAS and IPS that offer more power and prestige. What is needed is a separate entrance process attracting those who are specifically interested in joining the diplomatic corps — and never mind the objections from those within the IFS who feel it will diminish their prestige. Internal processes must be clarified as well, to remove the kind of irritants that have caused the current suit. Clear guidelines for lateral entry must be established, along with improving infrastructure and resources — other major issues — to attract external talent.