Foreign secretary S Jaishankar took over at the ministry of external affairs on Wednesday after his predecessor Sujatha Singh’s tenure was summarily “curtailed”. Mr Jaishankar comes with impressive credentials, including a PhD in nuclear diplomacy and tenures in Moscow, Tokyo and Colombo, besides being an envoy to Beijing and Washington. He has a lot of experience in handling the great powers, which will demand a lot of MEA attention. South Block now has the rare instance of having a capable foreign secretary being backed by a strong prime minister. Manmohan Singh had rated thinkers like Shyam Saran and Shivshankar Menon as foreign secretaries but did not have the authority to drive through the changes that the MEA needs to match the demands of today’s diplomacy. The PM and Mr Jaishankar have a packed calendar ahead but they must pay particular attention to our woefully inadequate diplomatic capacity. Analysts have pointed out that India has around 1,000 diplomats which is far fewer than Britain, that has over 6,000, and China that has around 7,500 diplomats. The MEA has increased intake recently but only at the entry level. Secondment of specialists from other ministries to the MEA occurs but also does not correspond to need.
The lateral entry of experts from other spheres up to the joint secretary level is an idea that has been around for a while but has not taken off owing to resistance from other services. The PM, who swiftly jettisoned the Planning Commission, must cut through this inertia and take on the task of building the MEA’s capacity. The civil service may need to consider crafting a special entrance process for the IFS that selects candidates with suitable competencies — and will have to introduce incentives that can attract both young and experienced professionals.
MEA engagement with the public on social media is good and its outreach to academia has improved; it now uses think-tanks more effectively to socialise policy positions and source ideas. But the ministry is some way away from efficiently appropriating available expertise from beyond its corridors. The MEA should streamline engagement with academia and in turn develop India’s foreign affairs scholarship by declassifying the diplomatic archive more expansively and quickly. There is an ongoing declassification process but the quality and volume of material is yet to create a buzz among historians. The West, in particular, has used the public record to encourage debate and ultimately strengthen its democracies. We must too.