Monday, August 11, 2014

Constraint to long-term strategy: Understaffing in the Indian Foreign Service

By Padmini Gopal*

India’s GDP of US$1.8 trillion[1] and an expected growth rate of 6.4per cent in the year 2015[2] is a testament to India’s present status as a rising world power. Moreover, India’s present nuclear competence and clout, with almost 90-110 nuclear warheads[3], makes India’s current status unequivocal. Despite that, India seems to be plagued with ‘interstate rivalries that resemble 19th century Europe’[4]along with a myriad of challenges that beset the 21st century, such as terrorism, cyber security, climate change and maritime piracy. These challenges are only amplified by the uncertainty omnipresent in the international arena, with Pakistan reluctant to assure India of security from future terrorist strikes, China unwilling to let go of its claim over Arunachal Pradesh, and a Sinhalese led Sri Lanka refusing to give legitimacy to the wishes of the Tamils. So is India capable of living up to its title given the uncertain international arena it is a part of? Can India be taken seriously as a world player when such hurdles bog it down? Lack of a long-term national strategic plan addressing these issues and the role India should play as a world power will soon make India’s status just a dream.

So has India developed a long-term strategy in its foreign policy? Analysis of interviews conducted with Government officials suggest that India has not been able to do so as the officials, in this case the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officers, are overburdened with multiple responsibilities and portfolios. The problem seems to be attributed to an understaffing problem inherent within the IFS system, which can affect India’s capability of creating a sound long-term national strategy.

This civil service, assigned with the task of conducting diplomatic relations with other countries for India, is one of the most prestigious and powerful government bodies in India. While being a part of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), the IFS also works with several other bodies that are tasked with formulating India’s foreign policy, namely, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the National Security Council (NSC). Ithas been recruiting a meagre number of 36 officers every year, double than what it used to be 30 years ago. The IFS have been struggling with the problem of short staffing for decades now, so the problem is not something new. However, India’s rise in the international arena has brought this problem to the fore.
As of 2013, around 930 professional diplomats staff India’s 120 missions and 49 consulates, smaller than any of the BRICS countries[5]. Despite being the second most populous country in the world, India’s diplomatic strength pales against that of world powers such as China and the US, which have 4000 and 20,000 diplomats respectively.

The small strength of India’s diplomatic cadre can prove to be a significant constraint to formulating long-term national strategy when officers end up getting encumbered with multiple responsibilities and dealing with present challenges, leaving little or almost no time for proactive strategizing. One can only wonder how five diplomats in charge of more than 30 Latin American and Caribbean countries can possibly have the time for long-term strategizing.

The obvious solution to this problem would be to recruit many more diplomats to ease each officer’s burden.  The division of labour that would result from hiring more IFS officers would allow for some officers to solely focus on the formulation of India’s long term strategy. However, this may not strategically be the best way to go about addressing the issue. The IFS would run the risk of further decreasing the quality of its workforce, another issue the IFS seems to grapple with as a result of its lack of lucrativeness and power in comparison to other corporate and government jobs, if it hires more diplomats. Moreover, it may not be the best strategic move to rapidly recruit more diplomatic personnel as it may compel other countries to stand on their guard.
So what is the alternative solution to the problem? While India may consider slowly increasing its diplomatic personnel, it could also take the consultation of national strategic expertise from Indian think- tanks to fill in the capacity gap that seems to put a strain on the IFS’s capability to long-term strategize. However, the IFS’s culture of privacy and security impede the ability of think tanks to conduct useful policy research. Most Indian foreign policy and military archives are classified and inaccessible to the public. ‘IFS officers are quite candid about their lack of reliance on think tanks’[6], writes ManjariChatterjee Miller in an article for the India Review. It is imperative that the IFS change its attitude. It needs to become more transparent and engaged with foreign policy think tanks. Consultations with think tanks can facilitate the IFS in developing a long- term strategy while the IFS recruits more officers dedicated to developing the same. And with a group of IFS officers designated to long-term strategizing, India may be able to live up to its title as a prominent global power.

* The Author worked as Research Intern at CPPR and is currently pursuing her Bachelors in International Relations from Trinity College, CT, USA

[1]World Bank, 2013
[6]ManjariChatterjee Miller (2014) The Un-Argumentative Indian?: Ideas About the Rise of India and Their Interaction With Domestic Structures, India Review, 13:1, 1-14

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