The Ministry of External Affairs needs to reassert its primacy in coordinating and articulating India's foreign policy decisions

Formidable challenges await Sujatha Singh as she takes over as Foreign Secretary. The most difficult of these is to restore to the Foreign Office its place of primacy in the formulation and execution of India’s foreign policy. Since many years the perception has grown — stronger by the year — in the country’s foreign policy establishment as well as among India’s interlocutors that the foreign office’s contribution to critical foreign policy decisions has been substantially eroded.

Many Ministries are seeking to pursue virtually independent external initiatives and, in doing so, are cutting into the foreign office’s domain. Other government institutions, especially the office of the National Security Advisor, are coming to occupy a place of pre-eminence on core foreign policy issues. This has affected the morale and élan of the Indian Foreign Service not just at the middle and senior levels, but even among junior officers, who are worried about the future relevance of the foreign office.

Time to adapt

It can be no one’s case that the foreign office is or can ever be the repository of all information, expertise and wisdom through the full range of India’s international interaction. This is especially so as issues have become more complex and multidimensional and as India’s interests have expanded in geographical reach and become more intense on matters of global and regional significance.

However, the imperative of coherence in policy formulation, implementation and articulation requires that the foreign office does not remain a bystander to external initiatives and actions of various agencies of state but weaves them into an integrated whole to optimise national interest.

Sadly, this is happening less and less. The latest example is the Bhutan subsidy case where the Indian Oil Corporation seems to have informed the Bhutanese side without a final clearance from the foreign office that a change in the oil and gas supplies regime will be made. The India-Bhutan relationship is crucial to India’s national interest, including our security concerns, and such action can cause long-term damage.

If the foreign office is to effectively perform its mandated functions, it has to inspire confidence and respect in other organs of state that it has the expertise to do so. For this purpose it has to look within to impart a greater degree of area and issues specialisation to Indian diplomats and also optimise human resource utilisation at its senior-most levels.

Some initiatives have been taken in the past few years. The intake of officers has been heavily increased to address manpower shortages. There is a greater emphasis on in-house training. A Public Diplomacy Division has been set up to coordinate the projection of India’s soft power. A Development Partnership Administration (DPA) has been established to coordinate and execute India’s assistance programmes.

Pool of experience

More has to be done. One priority area is to make maximum use of the pool of experience available at the Secretary level in the foreign office through a reordering of work among Secretaries, including the Foreign Secretary, who is first among equals.

In his book, Inside Diplomacy, Kishan S. Rana, a retired IFS officer, who is an authority on the institutions of diplomatic management including foreign office s and Diplomatic Missions, notes: “There is an enormous concentration of authority and responsibility, to the point where it becomes almost impossible for him (the Foreign Secretary) to do justice to all the demands of his work. In contrast, the other Secretaries are relatively under-worked...”

If this was the situation in the year 2000 when Mr. Rana’s book was published, it has now become “worse”. The workload of the Foreign Secretary has increased rather than come down. Some of the work that was earlier with the other Secretaries is now with the Foreign Secretary.

Balance workload

The Foreign Secretary is the administrator of the foreign office and also handles critical bilateral relationships as well as multilateral work. He is also responsible for media relations, public diplomacy, assistance programmes (a recent addition), consular work and coordination among the Secretaries. All this work leaves him no time to plan and execute a vision for the foreign office or the IFS. Indeed, sometimes senior colleagues are kept waiting for months before they can meet him.

The other Secretaries have important but relatively lighter charges.

The imbalance of work among the Secretaries, including the Foreign Secretary, can be addressed by studying the Foreign Offices of the major powers, all of whom utilise the experience of their senior personnel better. Once work allotment is rationalised, it should be formalised through the establishment of Departments as in other Ministries, in which the work is distributed among two or more Secretaries.

Consensual view lacking

In addition, a formal Committee of Secretaries, chaired by the Foreign Secretary, should be set up for coordination purposes. The current informal arrangement of Secretaries’ meetings is completely dependent on the inclinations of the Foreign Secretary and does not work. Consequently, the Secretaries retreat into silos and the political leadership does not get the benefit of a consensual view of the Secretaries.

A balanced workload among the Secretaries can only be the first step to enhancing the effectiveness of the foreign office.It is, though, an essential measure for it will invigorate its senior management and leave the Foreign Secretary time to undertake long-term planning. Area specialisation will be increasingly required as India has developed important political and commercial stakes in almost all parts of the world. Crosscutting issues relating to the environment, security, terrorism, trade and intellectual property, among others, will dominate the international discourse and the IFS has to develop specialists, as other Foreign Services are doing. With increased officer strength, this will now be possible.

Involve academia

An area which requires especial focus is enhanced dialogue with the academia. A process has begun in this regard but has to be carried forward purposefully.

Above all, Sujatha Singh has to convince the political leadership that India’s critical dialogues and interface with the international community need to be done through the foreign office . Other parts of government, including the National Security Advisor’s Office and the National Security Council Secretariat, should not become the instruments of India’s diplomacy or indeed the government’s main advisors on foreign policy, which is increasingly happening.

It will require Sujatha Singh to show vision, tenacity and confidence to pursue all this to fruition. If she does so, the foreign office will no longer be bypassed or ignored as it is currently perceived to be.

(Vivek Katju is a former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan and Myanmar)

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