Sunday, May 6, 2018

Indian Foreign Service in desperate need of reform, particularly when it is losing relevance

Prakash Nanda,

Foreign Secretary of India
Emblem of India.svg
Emblem of India
image (not from article) from

[Of] late there has been a huge problem of the foreign secretary [see] facing a loyalty test from his colleagues within the service. It may be noted that foreign secretary is not the only secretary-rank officer in the MEA. He/she is no doubt the “first-among-equals”, but then the fact remains that in the MEA, there are three other secretaries, besides having around 33 Grade-I ambassadors to various countries who, too, are of the secretary-rank. All of them being of the same rank and entitled to have direct access to the foreign minister, there are stories of frequent friction among them. And that is all the more so — and here I am citing from Asian Diplomacy penned by veteran diplomat Kishan S Rana — since the 1970s, when with the rare exceptions, successive foreign secretaries have enhanced the oversight authority in their hands, denuding work from the other secretaries.

Cutting across territorial divisions, the foreign secretary is in charge of relations with all the major countries — the US, UK, Germany, France, Russia, Japan, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan. This means in practice that at least seven territorial division joint secretaries deal directly with him or her, while also working with other secretaries for some of the other countries in their divisions. All multilateral conferences are under foreign secretary’s direct charge. The foreign secretary is also responsible for media relations, public diplomacy [JB emphasis], assistance programmes (a recent addition), consular work and coordination among the secretaries. Besides, the power of initiating the appointment of new ambassadors has always belonged to the foreign secretary, and it is his or her proposal that goes to the foreign minister.

In other words, while the foreign secretary has too much work, other secretaries have relatively lighter charges and are naturally resentful. As Rana writes, consequently, overall supervision in the MEA has suffered. “The MEA has not learnt from its foreign counterparts that it is impossible to run a larger diplomatic network through one individual, especially if the political advice role is not partly delegated”.

In other words, the need of the hour is to do something to improve the quality of internal dialogue and collegiality of decision-making within the foreign office, particularly at a time when the IFS, as I have mentioned above, is struggling to keep its relevance as a service.

No comments: