Time to Revamp the Indian Foreign Service Selection Process

One of the most awaited examination in India is the civil services examination, wherein thousands of aspirants apply every year to try their luck at the elite government jobs, mainly the IAS (Indian Administrative Service), IFS (Indian Foreign Service) and the IPS (Indian Police Service) among others. Even though the number of aspirants applying for the civil service examinations is really high, one particular division that has been marred by a low count of workforce is the IFS (Indian Foreign Service). The smaller number of IFS officers do pose a significant challenge in terms of how India manages its operations abroad and how it formulates and acts on the foreign policy with regard to different countries. In comparison to other countries like China and the United States, India only has a total of 900 officers whereas China has close to 4000 and the United states has 20000 working officials and diplomats. The fewer number of diplomats is also a problematic concerns in terms of meeting the human resource requirement for over 120 missions and 49 consulates stationed abroad. 

So the bigger question at hand for the foreign service division is to manage the shrinking number of officials. And for doing so there are few problems that need to be addressed. One of the major criticism associated with the IFS is that a lot of people who opt for IFS are those who did not qualify for the Indian Administrative Service. This raises an important question over the ‘elite’ nature of the Indian Foreign Service as such. The restoration of elitism to the IFS division is important if India has to substantially increase the number of diplomats and ambassadors. On the other hand even the applicants need to understand the nature and status of any particular division before they choose to apply for it. Probably this calls for a more mature thinking and understanding on part of the applicants. 

Another important problem that surrounds the IFS division is the lack of diversification in terms of hiring people. As of now there is just one examination i.e. the civil service test that a person needs to clear. The problem with such an examination process is that a lot of people who are hired are on the basis of their performance in the examination process and not on the basis of their knowledge about a particular area. Even the limited amount of training after the selection of the foreign service officers does limited good. The way forward could be hiring people in the way of lateral entries form think tanks, academia and other sources who have shown or made a mark in personal capacity on foreign policy issue.

There is already an ongoing debate among the various sections of think tanks and academic community about reforming the way in which the selection of foreign service officers is done. “Such debates, however, have not shown any desired result because of the adamant posturing of IFS bureaucracy. The IFS fiefdom will lose its purpose and relevance if there will be lateral entry on the basis of merit” as it has been pointed out by Dr Arvind Kumar, Professor and Head at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University. 

The way forward could be to select or hire people who understand the region or particular foreign policy related issues. Such a measure would not only help recruit specific individuals/ researchers on specific geopolitical regions but will also add value to the overall framing and making of the foreign policy decision. The South Block could also integrate and welcome ideas from the academic and think tank community to bring flexibility and maturity to the foreign policy administration. May be what India could do is learn from the United States where the larger strategic thinking comes from academia and think tanks which are integrated in a holistic fashion during foreign policy decision making process.