Restructuring of MEA misses out on basics

Image result for pics of jaishankar in ministry"

[Jaishankar in MEA]

The new standard for career advancement in MEA is now clearly laid down: the success achieved by Narendra Modi’s mass interface with NRIs on foreign tours, particularly to Western countries (US, UK, Australia, et al) and which events, featuring host country notables, are seen by the PM as affirming his personal worth and standing in the world. The ambassadors lucky enough to be posted to countries where they were asked to manage these circuses have been uniformly rewarded. Modi’s interaction with “students” of the Tsinghua University in Beijing mightily helped S. Jaishankar to occupy the Washington ambassador’s post the latter craved and which, in turn, and with a little help from friends in the US government, eased his passage into the Foreign Secretary’ chair. Likewise, Navtej Sarna, who as High Commissioner to the UK impressed Modi by pulling off the massive assemblage of NRIs at Wembley Stadium with British PM David Cameron in attendance in November 2015 was promptly dispatched to the US as ambassador to work the NRI crowd there, which efforts eventuated in the “Howdy, Modi!” event in Houston last year, benefiting his successor Harsh Vardhan Shringla now promoted as Foreign Secretary. True, Rajiv Gandhi installed his favourite PK Kaul, ex-IAS, former cabinet secretary, and paid-up member of the “Kashmiri mafia” that surrounded his mother Indira Gandhi, as ambassador to the US in 1986. But success in arranging big events with a lot of hoopla has only now become a unique standard for promotion to FS-ship. As far as IFS officers are concerned, they have to be in the right place to cash in. That and pure luck with the timing of the PM’s tours!

But why this digression on the MEA promotions policy when the topic is the restructuring of MEA? No reason at all except to put down a marker (because by itself the topic of which diplomats make it to the top and why doesn’t deserve a separate post)!

An administrative shakeup or a reshaping of the decision making schematic is usually undertaken by a government when it finds the previous system failing to deliver. With substantive success in the external realm ranging from thin to scarce in the past 6 years, the Prime Minister, hoping for better results, has approved this restructuring to turn things around. But because in the Modi dispensation Modi alone matters, the contribution by careerist babus, including the incumbent external affairs minister, is limited to filling in the details of policies laid down by the PM. This fact won’t alter with the changes that have been rung in. What will is the process with more people involved in it. The restructuring may just muddy it up some more. How?

Well, the new scheme supposedly emulates the decision making system in corporations with “verticals” in well defined issue areas — cultural diplomacy, trade & economic diplomacy, policy planning & research, Africa, Europe, Indo-Pacific, international conferences, development partnership administration, new and emerging strategic technologies (NEST), etc. But look more closely and this rejigging exercise that has been in the works for some time now, appears to seek to remedy a problem faced mostly by senior ambassador-rank echelon whose members, at the additional secretary-level, found themselves with time on their hands and very little to do. But this was like elsewhere in the rest of the Government of India where Joint Secretaries run the show. The Joint Secretary-level officers are the sword arm with Secretaries being the public face, taking credit for things going right and the blame for things going wrong usually being carried by Joint Secretaries. The Additional Secretaries (ASs) in the middle in this setup end up twiddling their thumbs.

So, essentially the new MEA scheme is make work for ASs. They are being asked to “direct”, be directors of, the policy verticals which means what exactly, especially in the context of Jaishankar’s ambitious idea — taken from the American system — of placing mid-level diplomats in various line ministries — defence, trade and commerce, economic affairs, etc.? This raises questions about the basic problem even the unstructured MEA, with little presence outside its own ambit, confronted, namely, the remarkably small numbers of diplomats in service, just 930 or so. This is so small a figure, it barely surpasses the size (850) of the Singapore foreign service or that of New Zealand (885), a country with a population of 4.8 million (a figure equaling the population of just South Delhi!). Compared to Japan’s diplomatic corps in excess of 6,000 officers and, even more, China’s with 7,500 diplomats, and America’s 14,000, India’s foreign service is so dwarfed it is laughable to consider India and these latter countries as being in the same game. And yet the Indian government expects that somehow — perhaps by some tantra or magic, this small number of personnel available to MEA will be able to produce the outcomes their gigantic counterparts in Japan, China, and the US do. This is madness.

The Modi regime can restructure MEA all it wants, can experiment with this or that, but short of actually enlarging the Foreign Service ten-fold for a start, the results will still be the same — pitiable. That the annual intake into IFS tops off at 35 officers tells it own sad story. Then there’s the problem of entrant level quality. Civil services generally, and the IFS is no exception, have over forty years now stopped attracting the best and the brightest in the country with college graduates, who choose not to go abroad, understandably gravitating towards business schools and entrant level corporate salaries many times that earned by newbie babus and, even more, by the huge responsibility they are asked to shoulder in the very early stages of their careers with commensurate rewards and advancement of career prospects to follow. Other than transnationals, with more and more Indian companies having presence in foreign countries, senior positions abroad are almost a matter of course. So why would any bright, right thinking, young adult want to be a diplomat when he can do so much better in the private sector and hop, skip and jump to high positions — something simply not possible in government service wedded principally to the seniority principle, with merit and performance as secondary factors? Tumhara time ayega. Tees saal baad, ayega!

Of course, GOI has always had the option of increasing the size of the Indian Foreign Service. This it hasn’t done because of severe opposition from the Service itself as it wants to retain its “elite” status, which is equated by it to remaining small-sized. Why no government has thrust the IFS enlargement decision down the throat of the Foreign Office regardless is a mystery even though the fact of a small and fairly ineffective diplomatic presence being a foreign policy liability has long been acknowledged by the government. Sure, such enlargement plans would require a very large entrant intake and correspondingly large training institutions, such as the Foreign Service Institute, etc.

In the event, collateral entry in massive numbers is the short-term and medium-term answer. To-date the only conspicuous posting in this stream is of a politically connected journalist (who after a stint as media man to President Kovind) was appointed AS in MEA to polish up the Modi government’s public relations (PR). Whether he succeeded in his remit (of improving the perceptions of the Modi regime) is uncertain, but he is now being asked to help promote the country’s cultural diplomacy fronted by ICCR (Indian Council of Cultural Relations). Except, like Policy Planning, ICCR has been good only for providing the Foreign Office with parking slots for officers who wanted to stay on in Delhi pending appointments to better diplomatic stations (than the ones allotted them)! So much for cultural diplomacy.

PR is relatively easy stuff. Not sure if any collateral entrant has been accommodated in any really important position within MEA. This brings up the crucial matter of why manifestly successful persons from the high flying technology sectors or from trade and industry would want to enter MEA using this channel? What job satisfaction could they expect to derive in a situation where IFS(A) officers will be lording it over them and who will, at every turn, try to show them down? After all, one of the reasons the collateral entry scheme has not really taken off is owing to the resistance of the IFS(A) cadre which fears losing ground to technically sound, problem-solving minded, business managers, engineers, and the like, who would do a great job of bringing development assistance projects under the Development Partnership Assistance programmes in Afghanistan, Africa, the immediate neighbourhood, and Central Asia in time and within costs, and who have proved their druthers outside the confines of government and experienced real world problems and solved them (in contrast to UPSC selectees who have known nothing other than serving in government). One can see why such people would be perceived by careerists as threat whose influx in large numbers and regularization in service is to be prevented by any means and at all cost. The intention of IFS officers is to preserve their seniority, perquisites and promotion prospects which, of course, will be disturbed by the collaterals should they want to make a career of it, as some of them might, whence the determination to keep out the interlopers, failing which to minimize their flow into MEA and, in any case, to deny them a receptive and helpful eco-system lest they show success in endeavours where they failed.

The fixing of seniority, etc to ease IFS’ ill will towards collateral entrants have not been addressed by the Department of Personnel & Training or the GOI. It is easier to reconcile the lateral entry of 60-odd officers from other services who have joined the MEA because the presumptive condition is that these other service-wallahs will after short stints or eventually return to their respective cadres, services and ministries, hence, will not mar the promotion prospects of the IFS(A) officers, and therefore can be tolerated.

The seriously troubling matter facing GOI is regarding the collateral entrants. How to get top drawer talent, especially from the technology sectors (artificial intelligence, cyber, bio-engineering, genetically modified foods, quantum computing, robotics, experimental physics, etc.), in particular, into MEA to man the NEST vertical, for instance. There may be the occasional IIT-ian or engineer in the ranks of the IFS but it is unlikely these officers, given the pace of transformative technological change, will have kept up with the cutting edge in their engineering/scientific fields. This renders them as a cohort just as useless as the generalists bulking up the IFS in assessing technology trends, the country’s proven strength in these and allied spheres, etc., and puts them at as much disadvantage when negotiating with, say, Chinese and American diplomats specializing in these fields, as their generalist colleagues. It is the sheer disparity of knowledge and competence that will do in India’s national interest. And what India will end up with is a regular production of unequal treaties that MEA will get GOI to sign on. Realistically, the country will be faced with serial iteration of the 2008 “civilian nuclear cooperation” deal with the US-type of transactions that gut India’s sovereignty and the national interest.

Jaishankar, Modi’s pointman in MEA, will not resolve these issues because as an IFS(A) veteran he will do nothing to hurt his cadre. The MEA collateral entry scheme will, in the event, continue to attract only pliant journalists, media commentators, thinktankers, and such other generalists, who have failed to make a mark. Consequently, MEA is destined to remain grossly undermanned and institutionally incapable of carrying out an activist and comprehensive diplomacy on a global scale of the scale and intensity Modi has apparently in mind.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Afghanistan, Africa, asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, Central Asia, China, civil-military relations, Culture, Cyber & Space, Decision-making, Europe, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's strategic thinking and policy, MEA/foreign policy, Myanmar, Nepal, SAARC, society, South Asia, space & cyber, Strategic Relations with the US & West, United States, US.. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Restructuring of MEA misses out on basics

  1. Shaurya says:

    Apart from GOI apathy to understand foreign relations and its role to exercise power, how come there is not a clamor to expand IFS from the bureaucracy or civilians?

    • Because IFS wants to remain “elite” which is equated with remaining small. This is important enough point for me to include it in the text. The post text is hence changed. Thanks for raising this issue.

  2. Old Crow. says:

    They, namely IFS wallahs, actually talk a lot about need to increase the strength of the service manifolds but won’t do anything serious about it to retain the cohesion and other benefits of a small clan. And all said and done, bureaucracies, at one level, are nothing but clans.

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