The Times of India
IFS: Service Without A Soul
T P Sreenivasan23 October 2009, 12:00am IST
Just as Keralites discovered Kathakali after it was staged at the
Lincoln Centre, the state of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) began to
beexamined after an American analyst, Daniel Markey, came out with a
critique. Markey had nothing novel to say. He said the IFS was small,
and hobbled by the selection process, inadequate mid-career planning
and lack of outside expertise. He highlighted the importance of other
actors in policymaking: think tanks, universities, the media and
private business. He believed the "software" of Indian foreign policy
was not equipped to lead India to great power status.
Those with experience in the service know the IFS is the least
integrated of the civil services. It is scattered around the globe,
often in isolated pockets. There is little interaction with the rest
of the service except in large missions. In the ministry of external
affairs, official responsibilities are such that no one has the time
to consult each other. More time is spent in the corridors of power
than in lunchrooms. Every officer is an island. The IFS is, therefore,
not conducive to collective thinking or action.
In no other service is one man's meat another man's poison. If one
officer gets himself an attractive posting by any method, his peers
have to be content with a less attractive assignment. There are no
established criteria for selection and the competition is most often
unequal and unfair. A recent tendency is to blur the gradation of
posts in relation to the grades to which officers belong. A grade I
officer can be replaced by a grade III officer. Promotions become
irrelevant as both in terms of work and compensation, stations matter
rather than grades.
IFS's contentious posting policy makes members run from pillar to post
to secure advantages. While promotion policy is fairly established, no
rules govern postings. Successive foreign secretaries have insisted
that postings should be an art rather than a science. 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 a casualty. Though government and officers invest in
language training, many do not get any opportunity to use the
languages. Multilateral diplomacy demands special talents but New
York, Geneva and Vienna are given as rotational blessings. Even those
with special talents for multilateral diplomacy are moved
thoughtlessly. Career planning is left to the officers themselves.
Those who have remained in neighbouring countries or in multilateral
posts for long have done so by hook or by crook, not by the
government's deliberate design.
'Blue-eyed' boys and girls are a curse of the service, as no rules
seem to apply to them. Ministers with feudal backgrounds and
tendencies have a field day. 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 officers get
politicised. How do officers, themselves the beneficiaries of
political largesse, set things right?
Training at any level in the IFS means listening to a series of
lectures. These vary in quality and usefulness. At no time is any
training given for two of the most important functions expected of
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 foreign service,
some argued that it would be unconstitutional to be discriminatory! We
will soon have diplomats without proficiency in English.
A strong character is essential for anyone to survive nearly 40 years
in the IFS. There is no safety net for those who fall. Casualties in
terms of physical and mental diseases, alcoholism and family
dislocations are as common here as in the fighting forces. Even
victims of armed attacks and robberies get no compensation. If someone
gets into trouble for any indiscretion, everyone throws stones at him
till he is destroyed. His solid service to the nation is never set off
against a temporary lapse. Lack of a support system is compounded by
the heartless treatment of victims of professional hazards.
However, with all these deficiencies, the IFS has coped with its
responsibilities and 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 improved, though
nowhere near to the standards of even other developing countries like
China, Indonesia or Malaysia. If the foreign service has lost its
lustre for new entrants, it is because the other services have greater
avenues of securing power and wealth.
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
The writer is a former ambassador.