External aptitude

We need diplomats, not bureaucrats, in the Foreign Service: young people with an interest in world affairs, an aptitude for languages...

When my new book Pax Indica was launched in New Delhi last week, a good portion of the discussion on it focused on my recommendation that the Foreign Service be strengthened, enlarged with the addition of new personnel, and reformed in significant ways. Last month, in this newspaper, I argued the case for increasing the numbers in the service. Today I’d like to turn to recruitment — what kind of diplomats do we need?

The Indian diplomatic corps has long enjoyed a justified reputation as among the world’s best in individual talent and ability. It includes men and women of exceptional intellectual and personal distinction who have acquired formidable reputations in a variety of capitals. Indian diplomats over the years have won in print the admiration of Henry Kissinger, Strobe Talbott and other distinguished memoirists who have dealt with them professionally; several have distinguished themselves not only in India’s service but in international organisations and conferences. My critique is not in any way meant to reflect on any member of this capable and widely respected corps. My book seeks instead to examine institutional failings which are evident despite the quality of the individuals who operate within them.
The Indian Foreign Service is recruited by competitive examinations held by the Union Public Service Commission across the country, followed by a personality test. The diplomatic corps is selected from the same examinations from which emerge the domestic services, like the Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Police Service, the Indian Revenue Service, and so on. The examinations have always been firmly grounded in the generalist tradition; it’s overall talent that is sought, not specialisation.
For decades the cream of the examination crop opted for the Indian Foreign Service: in the years after Independence, when resources and foreign exchange scarcities made travel abroad a rare privilege, a job that took you frequently abroad was prized by the middle-class families whose sons (and sometimes daughters) took the civil service examinations. From the 1950s to the 1970s, it was customary for the foreign service to draw its entrants almost exclusively from the top 10 finishers in the annual examinations.
This has now changed dramatically. Not only has the far more powerful Indian Administrative Service supplanted the IFS as the service of choice, but even the more lucrative Indian Revenue Service — which places officers in the customs and tax administrations, where financial incentives are considerable — is preferred over the IFS by many applicants. As a result it is now common for the IFS to find itself selecting officers ranked below 250 in the examinations, something that had been unthinkable to the officers currently heading the MEA.
The decline in prestige of the foreign service has also been enabled by the relative ease of foreign travel, which has negated what used to be seen as the IFS’ principal perquisite, and the widespread perception that diplomats neither wield as much clout nor have as many opportunities to salt away a retirement nest-egg as their domestic counterparts. The further complication of this problem is that several civil service aspirants are thrust unwillingly into the MEA while their real ambition is to serve elsewhere — a far cry from the glory days but one that does not produce a dedicated and proud foreign service.
The mandarin-style approach to recruitment — which requires all entrants to come through one-size-fits-all civil services examination, the same one that produces generalist administrators, tax officials and police officers — has evident limitations. Since working abroad for the government has lost some of its allure, this is no longer the best way to find the most suitable diplomats; indeed, for many applicants the IFS is a third or even fourth preference among the career options available to those who do well in the exams. I feel strongly that a diplomat should not be someone who fell short of his or her “real” goal of becoming an administrator, a customs official or a crime-busting sleuth.
We need internationalist-minded young Indians who see the chance of serving the country abroad not only as a privilege, but as something indispensable to India’s growth and prosperity. A separate foreign service exam, with a greater emphasis on international relations and languages, is one possibility. Another would be to recruit bright students, with an extrovert orientation, adaptability and curiosity about the world, directly from universities, and then train them in diplomatic skills before gauging their aptitude and confirming their appointments. In any case, we need diplomats, not bureaucrats, in the Foreign Service: young people with an interest in world affairs, an aptitude for languages and an engaging personality, who know how to talk to foreigners. It’s by no means clear that a majority of our recent recruits would fill the bill.
Not every diplomat emerges from the current training process well-enough equipped in the “soft skills” required in international diplomacy to function effectively, though their mastery of their assigned foreign language is now usually impressive. But then language training, too, is not always reflected in assignments: I have frequently come across Indian diplomats in non-Anglophone European capitals whose foreign language was Chinese, a number of ambassadors in Paris who could not speak French, and (as I pointed out in a Parliament question in 2011) not one of India’s nine ambassadors stationed in the countries of the Gulf at that time spoke or had learned Arabic. Surely we can aim at a time when every national language is spoken by at least one Indian officer and an eventual time when every one of our missions is headed by an ambassador who knows the language, be it Khmer or Korean, Spanish or Swahili?
When I presented my book to external affairs minister S.M. Krishna, he seemed receptive to my thoughts on staffing and language skills. I hope he will grasp the nettle. Whatever is decided, the time for reform is desperately overdue — though little of the urgency required is visible in the corridors of South Block, once known, in the early 1960s, as the “Ministry of Eternal Affairs”.

The writer is a member of Parliament from Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram constituency

Comments

i am completely in agreement

i am completely in agreement with mr. shashi tharoor. UPSC CSE exam has became a joke especially after the introduction of CSAT in 2011. before the CSAT, people used to stress over their optional and also a lot on GS as if you don't perform good in GS, you might not make it even after scoring 90% in optional. but after CSAT especially because there is no sectional cut off, what you need is 190 in aptitude(which is easiest thing on this planet as level of aptitude test is even below SSC exams.) and just 20 out of 200 in GS. So it doesnt matter even if you don't know anything about india, what you need to know WHOSE FATHER IS X, WHOSE WIFE IS Z, WHO IS WEARING RED SHIRT etc. CBSE 10TH standard has better RC passages than UPSC APTITUDE. Last year 90% of those who made through pre were engineers/MBAs etc as they rocked the aptitude test (because it doesn't even come closer to CAT or AIEEE/IIT entrance exam.) then what happend in MAINS was obvious. 45% of candidates who passed pre didn't even appear in mains becuase mains is NOT ABOUT WHOSE FATHER/ WHOSE MOTHER/ BLUE SHIRT. but the thing is that when you have made exam easiest for only specific category of candidates with specific graduation background, at the end of the day you ll have to choose among them only because through first gate you have given them entry and rest are ousted. and onlt those will make it to final list who have crossed the first gate. ALL BLAMES NEED TO BE GIVEN TO UPSC and D P AGGARWAL who being a technocrat (computer engineer)has made biased decision for the benifit of his academic community candidates. CSAT is crap and need to be scrapped. or you better be ready to be a witness to fall in the quality of CIVIL SERVANTS in coming future.

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