With Indian diplomacy failing to deliver on crucial fronts, the cry for an overhaul is getting louder. The mechanism devised by the British to administer colonies is obsolete today. Designations and functional nomenclatures have changed, but old age has made India’s 650-member diplomatic structure fragile. The Indian Administrative Service Group, which controls the bureaucracy, has added perks and posts, but stopped other services, including IFS, from evolving their own structure. Before Independence, South Block functioned through a Secretary General, a Commonwealth Secretary and a Foreign Secretary. Jawaharlal Nehru retained the British system. Lal Bahadur Shastri decided to Indianise it. He abolished the Secretary General’s post, deciding that one Foreign Secretary and two secretaries could handle geographical divisions. Later, Indira Gandhi added another post—Secretary, Economic Relations. With the demise of non-alignment and marginalisation of Commonwealth diplomacy, India was hardly in a position to influence international confabulations. However, with its growing markets and envious growth rate, the West started perceiving India as a nation to engage with. But our mandarins were neither trained nor equipped to deal with diplomacy’s changing narrative. After 2000, all secretaries were reduced to being stenographers for the PMO and the office of the National Security Adviser.
For four decades, the three-plus-one model is being followed. No secretary has been allowed to take independent decisions, with the Foreign Secretary remaining the first among equals—East, West and Economic Relations. The enormity of each one’s responsibility is affecting performance. The Foreign Secretary deals with the US, Russia, China, France, UK, Japan, India’s neighbours and sensitive countries like Iran and Afghanistan. The Secretary (West) is the next most powerful, as he is lord of diplomatic relations with over 100 countries, including entire Northern Europe, Latin America, Canada and parts of Africa. The Secretary (East) has to look after interests in 80-odd countries in Asia. But the Secretary (Economic Relations) is not in charge of any country but is expected to protect India’s economic interests in the BRICS nations, international food security, energy security and WTO. It is only in India that one expects greying babus to fly almost every second night for diplomacy to survive. Since secretary-level officers remain at headquarters around three years, none are able to visit most countries even once.
Successive foreign secretaries have made serious attempts to induct more senior officers in South Block, only to be stalled by the IAS lobby. It has only agreed to increase the IFS cadre strength from 650 to 1,200 by 2015. It is ironic that the finance ministry has more than half a dozen secretary-level officers. Many other ministries have more than three secretaries but the external affairs ministry has been starved of financial and administrative autonomy. No wonder, India is unable to think and plan in advance when it comes to dealing with complex international conflicts. Former diplomats are mounting pressure on the PM to create an institutional mechanism to handle external affairs and minimise the role of individuals. From Nehru to Manmohan, Indian diplomacy’s journey has been downhill with powerful individuals bulldozing the system for personal interests.
Problem of Plenty
Since the PMO is hardly concerned with making systemic changes in the diplomatic machinery to make it more effective, individuals are lobbying hard to capture sensitive postings in South Block. The shortage of ambassadorial posts has led to numerous senior officers in junior positions abroad returning to HQ to fill secretary and additional secretary-level vacancies and then wait for plum posts abroad. Three officers have already expressed a desire to return to fill two of three posts that will fall vacant on October 1 with the retirement of Sudhir Vyas (1977 batch) and Pinak Chakravarty (1977). They are Virendra Gupta (1977), High Commissioner to South Africa, Dinkar Srivastava (1978), Ambassador to Iran, and Anil Wadhwa, Ambassador to Thailand—the topper of the 1979 batch. If the PM chooses a 1977-batch officer as the next FS, all three aspirants will become eligible for promotions to secretary-level posts. The present dispensation is, however, inclined to clear only Wadhwa and leave it to the next FS to decide on the other two. Sujata Mehta, envoy to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, is also slated to return to Delhi. She is likely to replace Ashok Mukherjee as Additional Secretary (Pol). She will be replaced by Venkatesh Verma, Joint Secretary (DISA). She and Navtej Sarna (1980)—AS (IO)—will be due for promotion in the next few months. If that happens, MEA could end up with more senior officers than it needs.
The PM has reasons to be satisfied with his Tokyo and Bangkok visits. South Block mandarins are giving full credit to the highly effective Deepa Gopalan Wadhwa, India’s first woman envoy to Japan, and her husband Anil Wadhwa, posted in Bangkok. PMO claims that apart from the warmth and ceremonial welcome, both visits registered substantive pluses. If defence and civilian nuclear cooperation start with Japan and the collaborative ventures underway with Thailand take off, this visit will be remembered among the more successful of Manmohan’s recent overseas trips. An interesting sidelight of the Japan visit was when Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai was asked by his Japanese counterpart whether India had lady ambassadors in other countries as well. Mathai proceeded to reel off names, both past and serving. He also inquired politely how many Japanese lady ambassadors there were, catching the hosts off guard. After several minutes, they responded that they have one serving lady ambassador, in an insignificant country. Both Wadhwas will be in line for the Foreign Secretary’s job in 2015 when successor retires.
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