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Revamping the Indian Foreign Service

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  • April 11, 2017

    The Indian Foreign Service (IFS) is one of the most prestigious services in the country and only a few people get a chance to enter it. Those who desire to be a part of this service and become a career diplomat needs to clear the Civil Services Examination (CSE) first. After selection, candidates go through a gruelling training period during which they are taught various aspects of diplomacy. This process has been going on for decades, but it needs to change now. The reason being that diplomacy is not the job of a ‘generalist’, which anyone can try their hands at. It needs specialisation. A diplomat is a representative of his country and a foot soldier of its foreign policy. Good armies fight wars and win. Good diplomats deter wars and win.

    Being a specialised job, diplomacy needs people who have prior theoretical and historical knowledge of the subject before being trained in its practical aspects. Diplomacy involves the conscious pursuit of the national interest through well-designed policies and initiatives. That requires an understanding of international relations including the nature of the state, political systems, international order, among others. In other words, the job of diplomacy demands that its practitioners be first well equipped with the basic knowledge of the subject of international relations.

    That there are quality issues with recent recruits to the IFS was highlighted by a parliamentary committee last year. Pointing to the ‘deterioration’ in the quality of recruits to the IFS, the committee noted that, unlike in the past, when only those with the highest ranks in the CSE were taken into the service, it was surprised to find that even low-ranked candidates are now able to enter the service. ‘This development is both a symptom and a reason for the erosion of prestige in the IFS’, noted the Committee.

    The second concern that the committee highlighted was the low strength of the IFS. It is well known that when compared to India’s global profile and its image as an emerging power in the international system, it needs many more officers in the field with a deeper knowledge and understanding of the areas they are about to serve in. Among the many ideas that have been floated to address such problems include ‘lateral entry’ and ‘revolving door’.

    Lateral entry would involve posting an officer from any other All India service to an overseas mission to execute a specific job. For instance, a railway service official is posted for executing railway projects in a neighbouring country, or a Commerce Ministry official is posted to handle complex trade negotiations. But lateral entrants are not given an opportunity to grow into the service. They have had to return to their parent service after the completion of assigned tasks. The advantage of absorbing such officials into the IFS is that they are exposed to an international work environment and could be valuable assets in carrying out relevant tasks pertaining to the work of overseas missions.

    The other option to revamp the IFS is to introduce the ‘revolving door’ concept. Experts in academia, think-tanks or industry should be given an option to serve in the diplomatic corps. The walls between these fields and diplomacy need to be broken down and inter-operability need to be given a chance. The United States has been following this kind of inter-operability for decades, and with success.

    Another critical area of revamp pertains to the IFS entry rules, which need to be made more specialised. Only those candidates who have an academic background in the subjects of international relations, strategic studies, security studies or foreign policy studies should be allowed to appear for the examination, which could either be conducted by a separate body or be a separate exam conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) itself.

    The clear advantage of such a change is that those who have already done a degree course in subjects related to international relations and foreign policy would have a better understanding of the job requirements prior to joining the service, unlike candidates with an engineering or medicine or management background who have no prior knowledge or very little knowledge of the subject.

    Since candidates with an academic background in the discipline of international relations and allied areas would have already invested in understanding the subject, they would only require training in specific skill sets after being chosen into the service — like language training for instance. That, in turn, would enhance the quality of the service as a whole. The government has tried this method of recruitment in other fields. For instance, getting into the Indian Engineering Services and Indian Geological Services requires candidates to have an engineering and geography/geology background, respectively. The time has come to apply the same standards to the IFS, if India wants to have a large number of quality diplomats. The argument is not that existing IFS recruits are of lesser quality but to highlight the fact that the rank of candidates in a ‘generalist exam’ decide their fate whether they would become career diplomats or not.

    One problem though is that very few educational institutions offer courses in International relations and even fewer provide quality education in the field, with the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jadavpur University being notable exceptions. The government needs to build institutions focused on international relations, defence, security and diplomatic studies in order to get the best skilled talent in the field. This is being practiced by many countries such as Russia and France, among others, where they groom students from these fields to become career diplomats. With changing times and the growing profile of India in the international system, there is a need for a change in the structure and process of recruitment into this very important service.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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