Global Talk on Opportunities and Challenges (September 9, 2013)
A bewildering array of opportunities beckons the young people of India today. Making the right choice of discipline in the University, choosing a career in the public or the private sector and deciding to live in India or abroad are options they face. Ability, aptitude and inclination are crucial factors in making these choices. Equally important is the awareness of the merits and demerits of each option.
Even after the advent of immense possibilities in the private sector, the fascination for serving the Government has not abated. A fair and transparent method of selection, the sense of security, the assurance of equal opportunity and the prestige of authority attract young people to the civil services. There too they face a difficult choice of services, particularly those who secure high ranks in the examination.
As someone who spent 37 years in the IFS and still following developments in diplomacy, I have become an evangelist for the IFS and I have no hesitation to say that for a young person with talent and a spirit of adventure, the Foreign Service can be an exciting career. When I see the diminishing enthusiasm for the IFS, I remember a story of my days in the Soviet Union.
If you asked anyone in the Soviet Union what he thought of Pasternak’s Dr.Zhivago, he would say it is a horrible novel. If asked whether he had read the book, he would say no. In other words, he simply parroted an opinion fed to him without checking it himself.
The same thing happens when I ask young aspirants to the civil services as to why they do not opt for the Indian Foreign Service. They admit that they do not know much about the IFS, but they know it is not for them. They like the authority and glamour of what they have seen of the IAS and the IPS, but do not realize that greater opportunities await them in a diplomatic career.
As a result, the top service of the country has no takers among those who are on the top of the civil services list. From a time when those below the 20th position could not aspire to the IFS, we have come to a stage when even those below 200 can get in. A lack of awareness and the fear of the unknown are responsible for this sad state of affairs at a time when foreign policy has become more complex and we need our best brains to run our diplomacy.
The greatest charm of the IFS is the opportunity it affords to represent our nation in the chancelleries of the world and at the United Nations and other multilateral organizations. No one can aspire to a finer moment than the one you get to speak for India at the General Assembly or the Security Council. Your individual identity merges with the identity of a nation and your voice becomes the voice of a billion people.
A diplomat, they say, is an honest gentleman, who lies abroad for his country, but after the information revolution, one can hardly lie, but living abroad in different countries, getting exposed to different civilizations, learning the nuances of languages, customs and manners and savoring the flavors of multiple cuisines are delights that only a Foreign Service career can offer. One has to live in rich and poor countries and different climatic conditions, but they average out to comfortable living in mean temperatures.
To drive past the imperial palace in Tokyo, the Dzong in Thimphu, the Kremlin in Moscow, the Empire State Building in New York, the White House in Washington, the Hoffburg Palace in Vienna, the golden pagodas of Yangon, the lion sanctuary in Nairobi and the lovely beaches of Fiji every day to work, as I have done, is exciting. People spend their earnings of a lifetime to have a glimpse of these attractions, but you are paid to live in their vicinity. You dine with Kings, Presidents, Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers and do business with the high and the mighty on a daily basis. You get to play golf in Scotland, tennis in Queens and soccer in Brazil. Every one will agree that this is a life that dreams are made on. At the same time, each of these activities eventually help the diplomats to build constituencies to serve the vital interests of India.
But the questions that haunt our young people are more mundane. Are we paid enough to live in such exotic places? Will we have savings? How do we cope with the culture shock and stresses and strains of moving from country to country? How about family life and children’s education? What about the threat of terrorism and other dangers? How about the temptations of various kinds in western societies? Is there enough important work to do in our missions? Will we be alienated from India and lose our roots?
The one answer to all these questions is that none of these is a matter of concern. IFS officers are paid a foreign allowance and an entertainment allowance calculated on the basis of the living index of each city fixed by the United Nations, in addition to fully free and furnished accommodation and totally free medical assistance. Reasonable savings are possible from the emoluments. Strength of character is essential as much in the IFS as in other areas to withstand the strains and to resist temptations. Facilities for families are provided, except at a very few non-family stations and the Government bears the cost of educating children in the best schools in every city. Diplomats are only as much exposed to terrorism and other dangers as their counterparts in India.
As for the nature of work, it is true that professional achievements are more nebulous in the IFS than in domestic services. Diplomats cannot point to a bridge or road that he got built or an institution he created. But diplomacy entails tough negotiations, demanding the deployment of your speaking and drafting skills. When your argument prevails and your mission is accomplished, the sense of fulfillment is immense. Risking life to defend the rights of Fiji Indians, upholding the right of India to develop nuclear technology, negotiating climate change with industrialized nations and getting India elected to important international bodies are as important to the nation as the best feats in administration.
Most diplomats live abroad in Indian homes with Indian décor and cuisine, thanks to the Indian domestic help provided free of cost. Moreover, they have opportunities to come to India between postings and once during the three-year term. In other words, most diplomats maintain strong links with home and invariably return to India and even to their hometowns. They are much sought after for their exposure and expertise to write on global issues, to provide advice to global operations and even to reform education.
On balance, the challenges in the Foreign Service are no more than those in other walks of life and the charms are many more. The more you know about the Foreign Service, the more comfortable you feel about choosing it as a vocation. Ultimately, it is a matter of taste and talent. If you are looking for a glamorous, exciting and meaningful life with infinite variety, if you are willing to learn languages, history and civilizations all your life, if the trappings of power do not fascinate you, IFS should be your choice. You may have reasons not to choose it, but it should be an educated and informed choice. I must confess that my choice 40 years ago was not well informed. I went by a role model, an IFS officer, who did well, but fell victim to the bullets of a deranged person at the prime of his career. But if I am faced with the same choices as I did in 1966, I shall have no hesitation to choose the Foreign Service. The charms far outweigh the challenges and very often, the very challenges turn out to be the charms of the diplomatic service.