Few issues seem to excite Prime Minister Narendra Modi as much as foreign policy. He seems quite at home schmoozing with the great and good of the world. But beneath all the sharp suits and folksy first names, he sees foreign policy as very central to his job, much like his predecessors Indira Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh did. Modi has come centre stage when the global environment is shifting shape. This means he has to rethink Indian interests and positions. India has to get the balance between the US and China right while cultivating relationships along the latter’s periphery. The Modi government has a chaotic West Asia to contend with while it seeks close ties with Israel. It needs to procure natural resources, attract investment, balance bilateral agendas with multilateral conversations — and keep in step with evolving regulatory frameworks on climate change, space, cyberspace and the oceans. A really tall order, but if the atmospherics are anything to go by, Modi means business.
But Modi needs a few battalions to pull off all the ambitious foreign policy goals. The main has to be an adequate, imaginative, and well-coordinated foreign policy machinery. He has done the easy bit by recruiting civil servants of his choice, installing the highly-rated S Jaishankar as foreign secretary, who will be assisted by a capable set of senior diplomats. The problems, as I understand it, of matching delivery with ambition run deeper. They have largely to do with inherent weaknesses in the MEA’s capacity, principally the shortage of Indian diplomats, which is now common knowledge. The MEA has a little over 900 diplomats, far fewer than Brazil (1,200), the UK (6,000) and the US’ State Department, which has over 20,000 diplomats.
The shortage creates all sorts of bottlenecks. The personnel have unmanageable areas of responsibility. The foreign secretary, for instance, is effectively the principal foreign policy adviser to the PM and external affairs minister; he is the policy lead for all the great powers, the region and key multilateral forums, and also handles the ministry organisationally, managing the personnel home and away while providing strategic direction to the country.
It does not get better at other senior levels. Former minister Shashi Tharoor points out that there is one joint secretary for all of Latin America while the JS for East Asia has to manage the key and multi-layered relationships of China, Japan and South Korea all at once.
Former diplomats like Kishan S Rana point out the problem of the MEA’s “overloaded circuits”. The ministry can at best handle a couple of major challenges at a time. It handles crises well; it concentrates resources for urgent issues like nuclear negotiations, a consular problem or a major summit — but other areas like Africa or Southeast Asia slip down in priority. The MEA is steeped in a hierarchical subculture, which means decision-making is delegated upwards. As a result, Indian officers of the rank of first and second secretary in the MEA are known to exercise far less power than their western counterparts.
The MEA has also not instituted adequate structures for long-term planning, unlike the US and UK, which appoint highly-rated individuals at different levels for such roles. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor, have both, for instance, served as directors of policy planning at the state department. The MEA also lacks spare capacity for inter-ministerial coordination. There are hardly any diplomats on deputation as OSDs in other ministries, which is a necessity nowadays in view of interlocking interests. Such arrangements can be crucial for delivering infrastructure projects in developing countries on time. The governments in Australia, Canada and South Korea have merged their foreign and commerce ministries. That is a debate that is yet to happen, at least as far as I can see.
To be fair, the MEA does very well under the circumstances. Its diplomats have a reputation for being tenacious, well-prepared negotiators in both bilateral and multilateral spheres; the ministry’s engagement with the public, particularly through social media, has improved by leaps and bounds. It consults and borrows expertise from other ministries, it increasingly disseminates its views and sources ideas from thinktanks, including through several Track 1.5 dialogues and is investing more in the midstream training of personnel.
But it needs to tackle the capacity issue. This has hardly happened so far. The ministry has decided to recruit an additional 500 officers “in the next few years”, which is clearly nowhere near enough. The standing committee on external affairs recommended a lateral entry of experts from outside, but so far the increased intake has mostly been at the entry level.
I think we are dealing with two separate issues here. The MEA appears reluctant to draft in specialists from academia and thinktanks at senior levels like in the US. India’s international relations scholarship is of admittedly uneven quality but is not bereft of talent, which the ministry can hugely benefit from. At a time when Chinese investment in policy institutions outstrips Indian efforts, the MEA cannot still insist on protecting turf, retaining structures that manage internal equities which ultimately do not serve the organisation well. The MEA does value secondment of legal and commercial specialists from other ministries and wishes to retain them but owing to regulations by the department of training and personnel, the seconded officials return to a wider DoPT pool after completing their term, to compete again with those from other services for slots in the MEA. These outdated rules have to change.
The prime minister has shown a felicity for unsettling institutions and ended the Planning Commission as we know it. He must pay personal attention to the MEA strand on administrative reform by significantly increasing MEA numbers. There are ideas to act on such as increasing financial incentives for recruits and introducing a separate exam for the IFS to attract the right talent. Modernising the MEA, increasing its numbers and investing in the right set of language and technical skills are an indispensable step for Mr Modi if he is serious about India’s global ambitions. The PM is not one to shy away from tasks. He can surely put his well-shod foot forward on.