Brick and mortar of foreign policy

Narendra Modi has shown that he has no hesitation in articulating India’s role on the world stage. But for this, he must start overhauling the foreign policy apparatus.

Updated - June 12, 2015 02:04 am IST

Published - June 12, 2015 01:24 am IST

KOLKATA 22/05/2015:  Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing during Golden Jubilee celebrations of the works of Rashtrakavi Ramdhari Singh Dinkar,in New Delhi Friday May 22,2015. Photo:Sandeep Saxena

KOLKATA 22/05/2015: Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing during Golden Jubilee celebrations of the works of Rashtrakavi Ramdhari Singh Dinkar,in New Delhi Friday May 22,2015. Photo:Sandeep Saxena

The consensus among those evaluating Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s performance at the end of his first year in office is that while the jury is still out on domestic issues, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s performance on the foreign policy front has been praiseworthy. While some of it may be true, it is important to note that foreign policy outcomes are merely the tip of the iceberg when compared to the entirety of a country’s foreign policy architecture. In that sense, Mr. Modi has so far not sought to improve the competence and capacity of the country’s foreign policy establishment. Therefore, let’s move beyond the euphoria surrounding his “spectacular” foreign policy performance to examine the deep-seated inadequacies in India’s foreign policy architecture.

Organisational inadequacies The principal drawback of the foreign policy establishment is that it is miserably understaffed. While New Delhi does have some first-rate diplomats, what we really need are not a few overworked senior officials but more, well-trained personnel. On account of financial constraints, bureaucratic inertia and inter-ministerial disagreements, all we have are around 900-odd Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officers to operationalise India’s ambitious foreign policy initiatives.

Even as the volume and nature of India’s foreign policy workload is steadily increasing and transforming, especially under the new regime, the recruitment of IFS officers has increased only by 3-4 per year despite recommendations to increase the intake. Though the aim is to have around 1,200 officers by 2018, even that will prove inadequate. The fact is that IFS officers are generalists by training, and are routinely transferred around the world to man varied diplomatic and foreign policy assignments. This means that key elements of today’s international relations such as trade diplomacy and climate policy, among others, will be neglected, even as they are the centrepiece of Mr. Modi’s international engagement.

Intellectual weaknesses Diplomacy today is much more than mere courtesies, photo-opportunities and protocols: it is primarily about pursuing one’s national interests in a globalised and highly networked world that is far more complex than before. New-age diplomacy then needs a lot more intellectual agility, in-depth knowledge of specialised issues, and an ability to innovate like never before. Therefore, India’s antediluvian diplomatic and foreign policy architectures should be subjected to radical reform if New Delhi is to make its presence felt in the fast-changing contemporary international system.

For one, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) is hardly receptive to intellectual inputs from anyone other than its own overworked bureaucrats who are almost always caught up in the day-to-day running of the ministry. On issues ranging from trade to climate change to science and technology, all of which are central to contemporary diplomacy, there exists a great deal of intellectual expertise in non-state institutions such as private sector think tanks, public and private universities and the media. But bureaucratic self-importance and the absence of conducive institutional mechanisms have prevented the proper utilisation of such valuable expertise. Indeed, while foreign ministries across the world are exploring innovative means to draw upon outside expertise, the tendency in India is to build barricades against such expertise from trickling into South Block. When the government does engage the strategic/academic community to carry out research for it, “supporting findings” are generally preferred.

K. Subrahmanyam, one of India’s finest strategic thinkers, had this to say about the interaction between the bureaucracy as well as politicians and the civilian policy community: “Our politicians and bureaucrats entertain the illusion that they know more about overall Indian foreign and security policies than the think-tank people and academics in India. Most of our leaders listened to the advice of Western strategists, but would not even engage in serious discussions with Indian thinkers on the subject.”

To make things worse, IFS officers also avoid being posted to other ministries such as commerce or finance and vice versa. Currently, no more than one or two IFS officers are posted in other Union Ministries. This means that various Union Ministers with interests in India’s foreign policy decisions, including the MEA, continue to remain in their cozy enclaves, resulting in suboptimal foreign policy formulation.

Ideational shortcomings The Indian foreign policy establishment also suffers from an acute inability to ideate outside the box. Much of the intellectual energy is spent on routine management of the ministry where adhocism, outdated precedents and pragmatism are the guiding principles. Moreover, our foreign policy establishment, by design, tends to be reactive in nature, rather than proactive or creative.

Such adhocism is a direct result of deep-rooted structural and ideational biases against long-term planning and grand strategic thinking. Successive Union governments have steered clear of articulating a coherent road map for the country’s foreign policy and strategic engagements, of identifying medium- and long-term goals, the challenges to be faced while pursuing them, or the ways to get there. The MEA’s Policy Planning Division hardly engages in any serious planning, nor is it mandated or empowered to do so.

White papers or official documents are rarely issued on key foreign policy challenges nor are independent panels of experts tasked to work on them. And when an independent panel is appointed — a rare occurrence — the recommendations of its members are neatly archived, often classified under the Official Secrets Act, and never referred to. Senior bureaucrats hardly ever refer to research findings churned out by research organisations and think tanks. Given this absence of a competent policy-planning structure within the MEA, policies are often made on the basis of intuition and common sense. Non-official literature dealing with long-term strategic planning is often dismissed as “academic”, meaning, useless.

There is inadequate and inconsistent focus on major policy initiatives. The focus between two prime ministerial visits or crises, is on the mundane. Clearly, major initiatives cannot be undertaken in a sustained manner with a handful of officials distracted by routine matters, and with the political bosses showing neither the aptitude nor the appetite for it. The political leadership under Mr. Modi may make grand foreign policy declarations and promises, but the chances of such declarations translating into outcomes are few, given the establishment’s short attention span.

Walking the talk Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Modi has demonstrated no hesitation in articulating that under his watch, India will play a major role on the world stage. If he is serious about his ambitious plans to be a part of the emergent Asian century, he needs to start by overhauling the country’s foreign policy apparatus. If not, his foreign policy agenda is likely to collapse under its own weight.

First, the MEA’s institutional capacity must be improved by radically altering recruitment patterns and philosophy. The intake of IFS recruits per year should be at least doubled, and the government should consider a separate examination to recruit officers with an aptitude for foreign affairs. Many such proposals in the past were shot down by other bureaucracies, namely, the Indian Administrative Service. Hence, the government should not let the MEA or other self-seeking bureaucracy to decide on how to expand the Foreign Service establishment; this ought to be a political decision. Moreover, there should be a policy decision to absorb outside expertise through lateral entry or deputation.

In its fourth report, the parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs (2014-2015) made some thoughtful recommendations: “The Ministry must engage with the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) and impress upon them about the urgency of providing more staff, including through recruitment from other cadres and the academic and private sector, as per the specialized needs of the Ministry. Recruitment on contract basis from individuals with academic or private sector experience that is directly relevant to urgent needs should be permitted.” One hopes that the government takes the Standing Committee recommendations seriously.

Second, the NDA government should issue a doctrine that reflects the country’s grand strategic objectives. There has to be more clarity on what India wants as a country which, when enshrined in a well-conceptualised official document, will generate a sense of purpose and cohesion in the country’s foreign policy. Modesty and opaqueness are no virtues in contemporary international relations. The MEA’s Policy Planning Division should be empowered and encouraged to draw upon wide-ranging outside expertise to help frame and articulate long-term foreign and strategic policies.

Third, there has to be more inter-ministerial coordination in policy-making. Deputations between the MEA and other key ministries should be mandatory. The government must consider the Commerce Ministry’s proposal to create a separate cadre of commercial counsellors in key Indian missions.

If Mr. Modi does not want the future chroniclers of India’s foreign policy to conclude that his foreign policy initiatives, considered to be path-breaking, were nothing but “more of the same with a lot more noise”, he needs to rescue the architecture from its current disrepair and undertake fundamental reforms to give it the institutional and intellectual wherewithal it so badly needs.

(Happymon Jacob teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. E-mail: )

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