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Experts, not generalists, should man the foreign service

opinion Updated: Apr 14, 2017 13:27 IST
Martand Jha
Martand Jha
UPSC,foreign services,IFS

The UPSC building, New Delhi (File Photo)(Mint)

The Indian Foreign Service is considered to be the most prestigious of the civil services in India. To become a career diplomat in this service one needs to clear the Union Public Service Commission’s examination. This single-window system of clearing a general examination being followed for decades needs to change.

Diplomacy is not a generalist’s job — it’s a high-stakes one which needs specialised understanding and delicate handling. A diplomat is a representative of her country and is a foot soldier of its foreign policy. As good armies fight wars and win, a good diplomat deters wars and wins.

Given the specialised nature of the job, theoretical understanding before an on-the-job training is an advantage — a prerequisite, some would argue.

In August, a parliamentary panel expressed concerns over the “deterioration” in the quality of recruits to the IFS. The panel noted the low sanctioned strength (912 officers) of the IFS as one of the lowest among the all-India/central services. It also noted that while the sanctioned strength was 912, there were only 770 current officers.

For an emerging power like India, which is expanding its global presence, its diplomats need a deeper understanding of the areas they are serving. Many ideas have been floated to address this, one of which is a lateral entry into the service.

Lateral entry means giving crucial postings in the foreign service to an officer from any other service, say railway, revenue, police, etc. This is an option that hasn’t been tried effectively. It has both advantages and disadvantages.

While the advantage is that the official who is given a lateral entry into the foreign service is already trained in the civil service environment, the officer would lack the diplomatic prowess the job demands.

To solve this dilemma, the government could introduce the ‘revolving door’ concept in the foreign service.

Subject-matter experts working in different fields of international relations, be it in academia, think-tanks, etc, should be given the option to work for the service. The walls that prevent such inter-operability need to be pulled down. The United States has been following a similar model for decades now.

Another change that could improve the profile and efficacy of the foreign service is to rework the entry rules. Only candidates who have an academic background in subjects of international relations, strategic studies, security studies or foreign policy studies should be allowed to appear for the examination, which could either be taken by a separate body or can be a separate exam within the UPSC . This will mean that every fresh IFS recruit will have a theoretical understanding of a relevant area. This would improve the quality of the foreign service.

It’s not like the government hasn’t tried specialisation in other fields. For getting into the Indian Engineering Services or Indian Geological Services, candidates need have an engineering or geography/geology background respectively.

It’s high time the rules for entry into the Indian Foreign Service changed. With changing times and the evolving stature of India in the international system, there is a need for revamping the structure of these services.

Martand Jha is junior research fellow at the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Apr 14, 2017 13:27 IST