IFS: A Service without a Soul
(Unedited version of a TOI article)
Chatting with a serving IFS colleague on the sidelines of a meeting, I said that the current theories on the weaknesses of the Foreign Service were widely off the mark. What ail the service are not bad recruitment procedures, inadequate training or unsatisfactory living conditions. It is not even that the best brains are not attracted to the service. “The service has no soul”, I said spontaneously as I described the fundamental flaws in the Service. He agreed with everything I said, but his conclusion surprised me: if he could rewind his life back to the days of the UPSC examination, he would not opt for the IFS. There I disagreed. I would join the Foreign Service itself if I ever had the choice again. No other profession could match the challenges of the Foreign Service.
Like the Keralites discovered Kathakali after it was staged at the Lincoln Centre, people inside and outside the IFS have begun to analyze the state of the IFS after an American analyst, Daniel Markey, came out with a critique. But Markey had nothing dramatic or novel to say. He stated the obvious that the IFS was small and that it was hobbled by the selection process, inadequate mid career planning and no outside expertise. Much of his paper was devoted to the importance of the other actors in policy making, such as think tanks, universities, the media and private business. He was of the view that the “software” of Indian foreign policy was not equipped to lead India to great power status.
Those who are in the service or those who have just come out of it know well that IFS is the least integrated of the civil services. By its very nature, IFS is scattered all around the globe, often in isolated pockets. There is little interaction with the rest of the service except in large missions, where a number of officers may be posted together. In many missions, which may be characterized as “one man and his dog” missions; there is no opportunity to work with other officers. In the Ministry of External Affairs, the official responsibilities are such that no one has the time to consult each other. It is a mad race to get the attention of the political masters. More time is spent in the corridors of power rather than in lunch rooms. As a result, every officer is an island, without any support system. The IFS is, therefore, not conducive to collective thinking or action. A recent effort at cyber communication within the service has revealed more fissures than bonds. Only a couple of voices were heard when false accusations were hurled at a colleague.
In no other service is one man’s meat another man’s poison. If one officer gets himself an attractive posting by any method, it follows that his peers have to be content with a less attractive assignment. The upward mobility of the service is such that waiting out for a particular posting is not practical. There are no established criteria for selection and being insensitive to the needs of others, the competition is most often unequal and unfair. The situation is compounded by the recent tendency to blur the gradation of posts in relation to the grades to which the officers belong. There are too many instances of a Grade I officer being replaced by a Grade III officer. Promotions become irrelevant as both in terms of work and compensation, stations matter rather than Grades.
In fact, the posting policy is the most contentious matter in the IFS, making its members run from pillar to post to secure advantages. While promotion policy is fairly established, there are no rules at all regarding postings. Successive Foreign Secretaries have insisted that postings should be an art rather than a science. Proposals for a scientific method like a points system for postings have been set aside. Promotion becomes meaningless unless it is matched by a commensurate posting. The rat race is intensified by this situation and each one is unto himself or herself in the quest for choice postings. In the case of heads of missions, there is not even a system of making known the availability of posts, not to speak of applying objective criteria. The soullessness is evident everywhere.
Specialisation is one of the victims of the heartless postings policy. After the Government and the officers have invested much in language training, many do not get any opportunity to use the languages, particularly one country languages, as the exigencies of the service keep the officers in areas where the language is not used. Multilateral diplomacy demands special talents, but New York, Geneva and Vienna are given as rotational blessings. Even those who have special talents for multilateral diplomacy are moved away thoughtlessly. Career planning is left to the officers themselves. Those who have remained in the neighboring countries or in multilateral posts for long have done so by hook or by crook and not by any deliberate design.
Politicians play havoc with the service because of the general atmosphere of self promotion. “Blue- eyed” boys and girls are a curse of the service as no rules seem to apply to them. They go from one good posting to another and they even move out without completing their terms if they find the famed attractions of the post are unreal. Ministers with feudal backgrounds and tendencies have a field day in the Foreign Service. No Minister can know every officer and those whom the Minister knows get undue advantages. The attraction of life in Government after retirement is another reason for officers to get themselves politicized. How do officers, who have been the beneficiaries of political largesse, set things right?
Training at any level in the IFS means listening to a series of lectures. These lectures vary in quality and usefulness. The probationers were virtual gypsies, moving from institution to institution before the Foreign Service Institute was established. At no time is any training given to do two of the most important functions expected of the officers at every level—political and economic reporting and recording of conversations. Of late, even proficiency in English is not insisted upon. When it was suggested that those who did not write their papers in English should not be considered for the Foreign Service, it was argued by some that it would be unconstitutional to be discriminatory! Language is an important tool in diplomacy, but we will soon have Indian diplomats without proficiency in English. It would be unpatriotic to exclude Hindi or Malayalam scholars from the Foreign Service.
A strong character is essential for anyone to survive for nearly forty years in the IFS with its culture shocks every three years. There is no safety net for those who fall by the wayside. The casualties in terms of physical and mental diseases, alcoholism and family dislocations are as common in the IFS as in the fighting forces. Even victims of armed attacks and robberies get no compensation of any kind. But if someone gets into trouble on account of any indiscretion, every one throws stones at them till he is completely destroyed. His solid service to the nation is never set off against a temporary weakness of the flesh. The lack of a support system is compounded by the heartless treatment of victims of professional hazards.
The truth remains, however, that, with all these deficiencies, the IFS has coped with its responsibilities and has done better than many of the more equipped diplomatic services around the world. Even if much of Indian diplomacy is conducted in person or on the phone, as Markey claims, it has served the nation well. Living conditions have also improved, though they are nowhere near to the standards of even other developing countries like China, Indonesia or Malaysia. If the Foreign Service has lost its luster for new entrants, it is because the other services have greater avenues of securing power and wealth. Young people seem to be motivated more by those than by idealism or desire for adventure.
The South Block has its cupboards full of reform proposals by many ignited minds. But as long as the service does not get a soul, a sense of belonging, arising out of a sense of fairness, equality and justice, no reform, no expansion will transform the software of Indian diplomacy.