Foreign policy appears to be the leitmotif of the Narendra Modi government with the Prime Minister visiting 19 countries in a little over a year of assuming office. So it would only be appropriate for him to have the back end help that framing a new policy requires. And this is exactly where the foreign office is falling short. So the ministry of external affairs’ decision to bolster its ranks with lateral entries from the private sector and academia comes not a moment too soon.
With a mere 917 officers, the task of reshaping India’s engagement with the world in any significant manner is well nigh impossible. As a column in this newspaper mentioned on Sunday, China has over 4,000 career diplomats, Japan 5,000 and the United States 11,000. In the US, the government adopts a bipartisan approach when inducting talent into its foreign affairs cadre. And this is something that should be emulated when bringing in people to craft India’s foreign policy. The temptation to push the names of party favourites must be resisted for far too much is at stake.
The challenges of diplomacy are growing by the day and India has to lay greater emphasis on issues like cyber-terrorism, climate change and trade regimes, among others in its outreach. The shifting contours of economically vital areas like West Asia necessitate the expertise of individuals familiar with the area’s politics and also proficiency in local languages. With the government focus critically on trade and economics, the inputs from people from India’s vibrant private sector could be the game-changer. All the best intentions of the government on improving relations and securing deals will come to naught if they are not accompanied by diplomatic heft. India’s performance on the diplomatic circuit has often been compared negatively even to Pakistan. The job of the diplomat has changed enormously in recent times. The gracious days of cocktails and canapés are long gone. Today’s diplomat requires sharp lobbying and sales skills and extensive knowledge of the country she is posted in.
The PM is on the right track when he is reasserting India’s role on the global stage and its natural spheres of influence like South Asia and the Indian Ocean. That these are also areas where powers like China are diplomatically active necessitates deft diplomatic footwork on our part. The political backing certainly is there in this government. Once there are more diplomatic suits on the ground, the PM’s task of selling Make in India or Visit India becomes all the easier. The litmus test of the new initiative will be in ensuring that merit alone is the criterion for the new entrants into the foreign service.