Rescuing the Indian Foreign Service

foreing serviceThe Indian Foreign Service (IFS is a critical component of the nation’s governance. Unfortunately for decades it is getting rotten due to the political interference and mediocre people in managing the system. The talented people who want to serve the country through IFS are getting frustrated due to the petty politicking. It is high time to rescue the important state arm from the clutches of bad governing people.

Saira Karup writes in The Times of India (2 August 2009)

The Indian Foreign Service (IFS) has been the focus of much attention and criticism in recent years. The latest to take a potshot is Daniel Markey, 
fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations in the US. In an article last month, Markey pinpointed the IFS’s four main weaknesses — it was too small; shared its selection process shared with the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and other central services; offered inadequate mid-career training and was reluctant to utilize outside expertise.

Markey’s observations have left many livid. Former deputy national security adviser Satish Chandra says, “Who is Markey to say this? He should be looking at the diplomatic service in the US, which is partly responsible for it being one of the most hated countries.”

But even Chandra agrees the IFS has failings, not least its lack of specialization. “IFS is run like the IAS, with diplomats getting transferred, say from Latin America to South Pacific, to the Arab world. There’s no specialization. In many countries, diplomats are posted to a particular region to specialize about that region,” says strategic analyst and former civil servant K Subrahmanyam.

Then, there is the question of inadequate training. “The situation is better now because there’s a Foreign Services Institute. But we have a long way to go,” says Salman Haider, former foreign secretary. The lack of mid-career training hampers talent development because the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has too few diplomats to spare. “In many countries, diplomats are allowed to go back to university after working for 10-15 years,” points out Subrahmanyam.

This could be tackled by drawing on lateral talent. Haider says the option of short-term recruitment of qualified people from outside the Service, as happens in the UK, France and the US, is worth inspecting. “But to do that, we should have lateral resources available. There aren’t enough talented people in our universities. The number of think-tanks in India is inadequate and there’s a paucity of talent there too,” says Subrahmanyam.

What is particularly intriguing is the size of the service. India, with over one billion people, had just 669 diplomats in 2006-07 across 119 resident missions and 49 consulates around the world; Singapore, a city-state, had 487, the UK 3,600 and the US 19,667. “The service is too small. Even medium-sized countries have a larger service,” admits Haider.

There’s no question the IFS needs to expand — and fast. “The commercial work is increasing in missions, a lot more Indians are traveling abroad, adding to consular work; India’s political role in the word is rising,” says Subrahmanyam. Work may be piling up but the staff numbers are not. Former ambassador Kishan S Rana, who has constantly pointed out lacunae within the IFS, wrote in a 2002 article that the cadre should be at least 1,000-strong. He suggested reducing the numbers of support and logistical staff strength, which currently outnumbers the professional diplomats by a huge margin.

But the situation remains as bad as in 2002. That’s probably because increasing IFS numbers is not easy. “The foreign service is no longer an attractive career. In earlier years, only the top ranks in the civil service exam joined the IFS. Now, they don’t. People still associate the IAS with prestige, power and clout, though that’s diminishing. Even income tax and customs services are preferred more. The IFS batch comes from the lower ranks,” says Subrahmanyam.

There have been many good workable ideas to improve the IFS, but little action. In 2000, the then external affairs minister Jaswant Singh wanted to create a foreign service inspectorate, which would visit missions and suggest improvements. “It’s a good idea. There used to be one much earlier but it was discontinued,” says Haider. Singh’s plan didn’t take off after he swapped jobs with finance minister Yashwant Sinha later that year.

So far, so disappointing. Is the IFS changing at all? Is it ever destined to change? Yes, say experts because there is belated realization that India’s rising global prominence requires an improved diplomatic corps. “The doubling of IFS’ current strength has been sanctioned, thanks to the efforts of the current foreign secretary,” says Subrahmanyam.

The upside is that the service has remained apolitical. But that may hardly be enough to deal with the rising tide of foreign policy challenges for an India surrounded by failing states, unstable governments and new economic and political forces.


  1. chandra chud said,

    +00002009-08-13T22:03:35+00:00312009bUTCThu, 13 Aug 2009 22:03:35 +0000 2, 2008 at 7.27 p08

    i want to do the ifs please suggest me and finished my under graduation cource and i am planning to MBA in correspondence via IFS please guide me

    thanking you

    • prabaharan said,

      +00002009-09-30T11:46:56+00:00302009bUTCWed, 30 Sep 2009 11:46:56 +0000 2, 2008 at 7.27 p09

      Gud to hear your IFS interest. You must give full four years for preparation and realisation of your goals.

      all the best

  2. Dr Praveen Kumar said,

    +00002009-10-29T01:57:32+00:00312009bUTCThu, 29 Oct 2009 01:57:32 +0000 2, 2008 at 7.27 p10

    Hello Sir,

    I am a medical graduate with some 3 years of business consulting experience. I am preparing for UPSC civils 2010..Do you think my work for 3 years after my MBBS will act as an impediment during the interview process. The fact that a sizeable amount of trade and commercial activity has started to be done via our trade consuls have made me attracted towards the IFS as a career choice..
    Will be grateful if you can share your wisdom on this..

  3. Dheeraj Kumar said,

    +00002010-04-14T17:30:48+00:00302010bUTCWed, 14 Apr 2010 17:30:48 +0000 2, 2008 at 7.27 p04

    I have done BBA, after experience of two years i am going to do MBA. I am interested to go for IFS. Please suggest me.
    Thanking You.

    • prabaharan said,

      +00002010-04-22T16:24:29+00:00302010bUTCThu, 22 Apr 2010 16:24:29 +0000 2, 2008 at 7.27 p04

      Now you must appear for the UPSC exam in 2011 May. Look for the application in Jan 11. If you are serious then involve with complete dedication. All the best

  4. sarang said,

    +00002010-08-10T22:48:15+00:00312010bUTCTue, 10 Aug 2010 22:48:15 +0000 2, 2008 at 7.27 p08

    i want to be an ifs officer.
    i am currently in second year of bachelor of engg.
    what should i do from now to be fully prepared when i attempt this exam and join the elitiest indianss

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