On his trip to Bangladesh, PM Narendra Modi gifted Sheikh Hasina a tapestry from Andhra Pradesh woven in jamdani style, a tradition that owes its origins to Dhaka.
He also gave her a rare audio recording of a 1972 speech in Calcutta by her father, the late Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, founder of Bangladesh, besides a recording of India’s parliamentary debate pertaining to the historic land boundary agreement.
Mr Modi’s gifts to heads of states are carefully thought through: last month, for Xi Jingping, he took replicas of relics that were found in a stupa outside Vadnagar, one of the places in Gujarat that Hiuen Tsang is believed to have visited in the 7th century; and for Mongolia’s president, he took a copy of a 13th century Persian manuscript (the original is in a library in Rampur) on the history of the Mongols.
Mr Modi’s foreign trips are as well calibrated as his choice of gifts.
He tries to get the maximum bang from each trip - making four or five stops on each; throwing in at least one spectacle-like event that is an opportunity to meet ordinary people who are often members of India’s ubiquitous diaspora; and transcending protocol to strike a personal rapport with his counterparts.
Even his critics, particularly the foreign media, who didn’t give him superlative grades in his first year’s report card, mostly agree that when it comes to foreign relations, Mr Modi’s record so far has been impressive.
His trips - he’s been out of India for 52 days and visited 17 countries in his first year as PM - have been very visible and it is clear that he wants India to play a more decisive and leading role in the world with an emphasis on economic development. That can happen only with the help of India’s diplomats. But that’s also where there’s a problem. India has too few diplomats.
It has 182 missions (high commissions and embassies) and posts (consulates and assistant high commissions) across the world but only 917 Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officers.
China has more than 4,000 career diplomats, Japan 5,000 and Brazil 1,300. As for the US, it has 11,000 and another 7,000 civil servants who are part of the state department, which is the equivalent of a foreign ministry in other countries.
India’s officials underplay the weakness in numbers, arguing that it’s not about how many but about how they work and blame ministries other than the foreign office for slowing down decisions. An Indian diplomat who was once posted in Washington DC and was tasked to officially lobby in the US Congress says how he was the only person doing that while China had 15 in a similar job.
India wants to be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council but at its United Nations Permanent Mission in New York, there are only eight diplomats, far fewer than what its other BRICS partners have - Brazil has 45; China 60 and Russia 70. India’s diplomatic outreach is expanding.
Later this year, India will be hosting the India-Africa Summit, to which it has invited all the 54 African heads of states; it has stepped up its engagement with nations in the Pacific Islands and the Indian Ocean; the government’s Make in India Programme has increased the workload of Indian missions abroad; and, of course, Mr Modi has ratcheted up his government’s foreign policy activities.
All of that will need to be followed through by India’s diplomats. But adding to their ranks is not easy. Many believe lateral entry to the diplomatic corps is a solution but so far the powerful IFS lobby, which is keen to protect its turf, has resisted that.
To be sure, there is a plan to add 50 staffers each year to India’s foreign office but that may not be enough. Also, in recent years high rankers in civil service exams are more inclined to join the IAS or IPS, a trend that, some say, affects the quality of officers that the IFS gets.
If Mr Modi truly wants to make India a power that matters on the world stage, he will need to expand the cast of characters with whom he can hope to do that.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)