India’s new foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, seems to be running the busiest ministry on Raisina Hill ─ the area of Lutyen's Delhi that houses key government buildings ─ for the regime led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Modi's decision to invite all the heads of state in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation group to his swearing-in ceremony, widely hailed as a good and forward-thinking move, meant that Swaraj had to be on her toes from the get-go. In no time at all, Swaraj and Modi embarked on trips to neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal, which an Indian head of state had not officially visited since 1997.

Swaraj has had her hands full, visiting neighbours such as Bangladesh and Myanmar in quick succession while overseeing the successful evacuation of hundreds of stranded Indian citizens from hotspots such as Iraq and Libya and formulating India’s position on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territory of Gaza. She has just returned from Vietnam and was set to go to Beijing for a trilateral meeting with the Chinese and Russian foreign ministers but the government called off her trip, perhaps in deference to the sensitivities of Japan, where Prime Minister Modi arrived on Sunday for a summit.

On Israel, despite the BJP's highly favourable stance towards the country, India eventually stuck to its historical position by voting in favour of Palestine at the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Many BJP supporters questioned the government’s move, with some saying it was unable to break out of a Congress-era mindset.

The new order at the Ministry of External Affairs has a spring in its heels. From looking to invite all heads of state in the African Union to New Delhi to attracting mixed responses for allowing Modi to cancel talks with Pakistan after its high commissioner met Kashmiri separatist leaders from the Hurriyat Conference, the ministry has been hogging the limelight on Raisina Hill.

More specialisation

Before winning the general election, Modi had said that the foreign ministry's goals should change. Long gone is the era in which espionage and information-gathering were seen as the main jobs of a foreign mission, he said. He saw its activities revolving around trade and economics.

In line with this vision, the ministry is thinking of moving the increasingly important Directorate General of Foreign Trade to South Block, where the foreign ministry is located, from its current home in the commerce ministry. It is also considering similarly moving departments that help India deal with crucial international negotiations, such as ones on climate change, such as the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, which produces reports that influence the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the main international treaty on climate change.

The ministry has also been working towards expanding its expertise to tackle some challenges thrown up by modern-day diplomacy, which in today’s globalised world includes specialised fields such as energy security, international law and disarmament. Executing such changes has not been easy, as is the experience of most bureaucracies the world over.

However, the ministry itself has said that rules needed to be further liberalised via the parliamentary system before it could attempt bringing in a more reformist culture to enable hiring from outside the Indian Foreign Service, get expertise in fields such as inter-continental pipeline engineering and defence technologies. This has not been easy to achieve.

A central criticism of the Ministry of External Affairs has been that it is too small in relation to the number of Indians it represents. The ministry employs only around 1,800 people, of which about 800 make up its core Indian Foreign Services Officers ranks. The rest are a mix of the second-rung officers, attachés, translators, lawyers and so on.

More expertise

The ministry is today looking to tap experts in sectors such as energy, law, climate change to keep up with the demands of modern diplomacy. But under current rules, it can use resources only from other ministries and cannot hire from outside the government system. Many view the rules as a major hindrance, while others also blame the IFS for being protectionist and resisting the entry of outside experts into their turf.

To solve this, some have even suggested that the foreign ministry move away from hiring via the civil services examination route and set up its own specialised hiring process. But some officials have raised the red flag on such an idea, suggesting the careerist nature of governmental posts make it harder to get people from outside the exam route: people join the civil services more or less hoping to retire from it, unlike in other countries, where a stint in government is often just a part of someone's career.

"Like all bureaucracies, executing reforms is tricky," said Srinath Raghavan, senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

Reviving historical division

"Outside experts have only limited use for the day-to-day operations of a foreign ministry," Raghavan said. "Like all small units, such as in the armed forces, the IFS can also come off as elitist. For example, the foreign secretary is also head of the IFS, but such structures don’t exist in other similar services. But there are areas where the changes would benefit the ministry. Reviving the historical division would be a good move and more hires in increasingly important specialised sectors such as law would help.”

The historical division used to hire top historians, who maintained an extensive archive, and this gave invaluable information to new IFS officers that was unavailable in government files, said Raghavan.

In an increasingly globalised world, the foreign ministry ought to become a crucial part of a government's decision-making, whether on issues of security or economics. While the ministry wants to keep evolving, it will require a lot of political will to change the status quo and shake up the bureaucracy in the ministry and outside.

Tectonic shifts in the bureaucracy could, after all, lead to a loss of jobs, offices and entitlements. Yet reforms must involve bureaucrats in decision-making, not just execution; otherwise they are destined to fail. The new government seems to be on the right track and so far bureaucrats in the ministry seem to be going along with the tide.

To read all Kabir Taneja's pieces evaluating key ministries 100 days after the formation of the new government, click here