By Tridivesh Singh Maini*
There have been numerous debates about the need for a major revamp in India’s diplomatic corps, the Indian Foreign Service. It is not just committees set up by the government, including the Pillai Committee (1965) Sen Committee (1983), Satinder Lambah Committee (2002), but even scholars who have suggested the need for bringing about major changes in the Indian foreign service.
Among the key recommendations that committees as well as scholars have made include not just increasing the number of diplomats, which is currently around 900. Daniel Markey in a report article titled, ‘Developing India’s Foreign Policy Software’, (Asia Policy, July 2009) argued that even the diplomatic corps of smaller countries is around this. In fact, even Singapore’s diplomatic corps is nearly 900; as of 2013 it was estimated at 867.
Apart from improving the tally, there has also been a thrust on the need for improving the quality of IFS personnel. For this reason, for over five decades, committees set up by the government have argued in favor of lateral entry in the diplomatic service, and drawing in on the expertise from outside the foreign service, both from the private sector and academia. This recommendation of the Parliamentary Standing Committee headed by Congress MP, Shashi Tharoor was finally accepted, with Foreign Secretary, S. Jaishankar on June 19, 2015 informing the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs that the government will soon be accepting lateral entrants into the Policy Planning and Research Division of the Indian foreign service. While this is just a start, it is expected that later other diplomatic positions will also be advertised. One of the major positives of this decision will be that it may help in reducing the disconnect between the bureaucracy and academia as well as business.
It would be pertinent to mention, that Tharoor who served as a junior minister in the Ministry of External Affairs, has been batting for reforms to the foreign service not just in his capacity as a parliamentarian, and when he was a minister but also as a PHD student.
Apart from the above reform, in recent years there have been some incremental reforms which have been made to ensure that India’s diplomatic service is in sync with the changing times. For instance in the changing global situation, mid-career IFS officers are supposed to do a course at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad and write a paper on an issue pertaining to economic diplomacy. This recommendation was made in a report written by the Satinder Lambah committee (2002).
Yet a number of other changes need to be made to ensure that the IFS functions more effectively. The first is coordination between the foreign ministry, and other ministries such as home and commerce. Officers also need to spend more time in India’s states to understand domestic politics. In the US, officials of the State Department get an insight into domestic politics through the Pearson Fellowship according to which officials of the State Department are given an insight into legislative functioning of the Congress. In India, currently there is no such provision; institutionalizing a mechanism whereby foreign service officers work closely with a state government for a short period would be a welcome step seeing the increasing connect between domestic politics and India’s foreign policy given the current prime minister’s emphasis on making states important stakeholders in foreign policy – specifically economic relations – with the outside world.
Beyond foreign service reform:
While the Indian Foreign Service has done well to introspect, it is also time that the strategic community and academics working on foreign policy do some introspection to ensure that they can contribute more to the foreign policy discourse as is done in other countries, especially the US.
If one were to pinpoint some of the drawbacks of think tanks working on foreign policy, they are as follows:
Firstly, most think tanks, especially government ones, and to some extent even private ones, are overstaffed with retired bureaucrats. While it is true that policy makers contribute positively to think tanks with their experience, and India is not the first country where they are given importance, their baggage, some of which is totally out of sync with the current world scenario, is not really helpful, and generating constructive discourse.
Second, most think tanks invest heavily in senior analysts, while not enough importance is given to mentoring juniors, as a result of which most think tanks turn into parking lots for both juniors and retired officials; there is not enough scope for growth, or think tanks as a career. While this is beginning to change due to the growth of private think tanks, such as Observer Research Foundation, which is making efforts to create a class of policy professionals, a lot remains to be done in the context of attracting younger talent.
Third, most experts in these think tanks are not country experts, but instead focus on India’s ties with these countries. There are a large number of so- called Pakistan experts, who themselves have not even visited Pakistan once and do not know the language apart from having an understanding of the domestic politics of those countries. For high quality scholarship, it is essential that there is more investment in country experts rather than those who view ties purely from India’s perspective. That should be the ultimate objective but not the only one.
Fourth, there are only a handful of strategic thinkers who have a mastery of both economics and foreign policy. In the current situation, it is important for foreign policy thinkers to have a sound understanding of not just IR theory, but also complex economic issues. While think tanks do have a number of centers and scholars from disciplines, they need to work together.
Apart from the IFS and think tanks, Indian scholarship on foreign policy itself has failed.
First, with India’s increasing clout it is important to popularize Indian strategic thought and even military history and concepts. If Sun Tzu can be quoted by Western scholars, why not Chanakya’s Arth Shastra? If Deng Xioping’s famous dictums can become popular, there is no reason for the observations of India’s leaders quotes not becoming popular.
With the current prime minister’s thrust on promoting Indian culture and soft power globally, and some of his terms “Sab ka saath, Sab ka vikaas’ being popular even amongst foreign leaders including US Secretary of State, John Kerry, many of the joint statements too have sharp Hindi, such as ‘Saanjha Prayaas’; it is likely that Indian strategic thought may find space in the global discourse on strategic affairs.
Second, with the changing dynamics of Indian politics it is also important to have a sound nuanced understanding of domestic politics. Few scholars, whether in think tanks or universities, have looked at this aspect. This is in stark contrast to other countries, especially China and the US, where foreign policy scholars have a sound understanding of domestic politics, and link it to foreign policy. Apart from spending time overseas for fellowships, it is important for scholars of IR to spend greater time in states, which will have an impact on India’s foreign policy. While IR scholars have started spending time in regions like the northeast and Kashmir, it is also important to spend more time in other states. For instance, those studying the phenomenon of ‘constituent diplomacy’ and participation of state governments in foreign policy would do well to spend more time in states which have been successful in reaching out to the outside world and forging links in the economic and non-economic spheres, such as Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu
It is encouraging however to see private think tanks setting up centres in important cities outside the national capital
Apart from the above stakeholders, the private sector too needs to invest more in Indian think tanks. While certain groups have taken the initiative, others prefer to set up chairs in foreign think tanks which does no real favour to the development of India’s strategic thought. Private investment in education has helped in the creation of universities with world-class infrastructure, research facilities and a high quality faculty. Greater investment by the private sector in think tanks too is likely to have a positive impact.
In conclusion, it would be fair to say that for a more dynamic foreign policy it is essential not just for the government to introspect, but all stakeholders. One of the necessary pre-requisites for this is that they all work closely and get over the turf mentality.
*Tridivesh Singh Maini is a Senior Research Associate with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University. He can be reached at [email protected]