While it is well known Indian diplomacy was at an all-time low under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime, especially in the last two years, over 45% scholarship slots offered to foreign students to study in India remained unutilised in 2012-13.
There were relatively more takers in 2011-12 when only 37% slots were unutilised.
According to Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) annual report published recently, of the 3,334 scholarships on offer in the year, only 1,863 (or 55%) were utilised. This is significantly lower than the 67 per cent utilisation in the previous year.
The scholarships, routed through ICCR (an autonomous body under the external affairs ministry), cover the cost of education at central or state universities, together with boarding and lodging.
These scholarships are offered by countries to strengthen their cultural relations with others. Education is believed to be a soft power instrument and all major powers like the UK, the US and China try to widen their influence the world by offering scholarships to overseas students.
Except Bhutan, the slots for even SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries remained largely vacant. Till 2012-13, India didn't have any scholarship to Pakistani students. The story was the same with African countries, Mongolia and Malaysia.
While a large number of self-financing foreign students come to India every year, the consistent drop in number of takers for fully-funded education indicates poor diplomacy of high commissions abroad, which are entrusted with popularising the scholarship schemes.
"Besides the bureaucratic approach of our embassies, the application process is tedious and there is a lack of transparency which deters students from applying," said a foreign service official.
Neelam Deo, who has been ambassador to Denmark and has also served in missions in Washington, New York and some African countries, said: "India's image outside has been very good. It is not failed diplomacy but administrative delay that is the cause of this poor show."
She explained that since scholarships are offered on a yearly basis, by the time the government makes budgetary provisions and embassies announce schemes, the year will be almost over.
Ninety per cent of the scholarship India offers are for Indian languages, ayurveda, yoga and social sciences when the demand is for technology, modern medicine and management.
It's also been suggested that poor quality of education at many Indian varsities also jeopardies the country's image abroad.
"Foreign students want to study in Delhi, Kolkata, Osmania and Pune universities. If they don't get admission to these varsities, they will opt for other countries. A large number of scholarships are offered by countries like China, which offer them better options," said an official in the ministry of human resources development.
Dr Karan Singh, chairman, ICCR, and Satish Mehta, director-general, could not be reached for comments.