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Economic considerations must take primacy in foreign policy. This is the message from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and explains why the ministry of external affairs has summoned its envoys posted in the neighbourhood for a conclave on India’s regional policy. External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj engaged ambassadors posted in the Saarc countries, Central Asia, China, Myanmar and Iran and discussed ways to advance India’s priorities. Improving regional cooperation and connectivity are the key thrust areas even as diplomats are expected to be mindful of the wider security challenges. Such meetings are useful for acquainting the new government with the perspective from posts; for identifying policy priorities and for the government to discern where political intervention is required to make progress.
The envoys have hopefully spelt out the need for confidence-building initiatives, such as a long overdue prime ministerial visit to Nepal, the Teesta water-sharing agreement with Bangladesh and pressing on with India-Pakistan trade. The envoys will have alerted New Delhi to China’s increasing footprint across the region. China’s trade volume with Bangladesh is more than India’s as are its investments in Myanmar, Afghanistan and Central Asia. The MEA envoys will convey to New Delhi that India’s presence in the region fades in comparison with the number of personnel that Beijing devotes at home and away on foreign affairs. India’s lack of capacity in this area has been well known for a while but the situation has barely improved.
The MEA has around 900 officers on its rolls; China is said to have 4,200, while Britain, Germany and France each have more than 6,000 officers. Indian diplomats plod on with unmanageable remits as a result. Joint secretaries handle several key countries at once. When they deal with one major visit or a crisis, like the one currently about Indian nationals being abducted in Iraq, every other issue ceases to become priority. The MEA does remarkably well under the circumstances but the tendency to always operate in a frantic mode is hurting its ability to effectively and thoughtfully pursue India’s interests.
Mr Modi and Ms Swaraj must cut through bureaucratic resistance and ramp up IFS recruitment. They should focus particularly on inducting professional talent through lateral entry. The MEA must have a range of mid-career and senior specialists in its ranks including strategic analysts, economists, linguists and experts from other fields. The United States has done this for decades, enriching both government and academia.