On June 28, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj announced at the 16th World Sanskrit Congress in Bangkok, Thailand, that a Joint Secretary level position had been created in her ministry to further the cause and reach of Sanskrit and to help revitalise the ancient language. Swaraj said this move was a part of the government’s "3C mantra" of commerce, culture and connectivity.

Successful influence of soft power in diplomacy is a well-documented aspect and one which has shown great success for India in countries such as Afghanistan and further beyond in Africa, thanks to Indian developmental projects, immense popularity of Bollywood cinema and music etcetera. However, devoting high ranked diplomats to promote individual cultural aspects of soft power such as Sanskrit does not auger well for a ministry that is already grossly understaffed and is lagging behind to acquire the expertise and bandwidth required to tackle modern diplomacy, specifically the aspect of commerce within the 3C mantra. (It is a different matter that Joint Secretary Mridul Kumar is in charge of both Hindi and Sanskrit, and even handled the "Gulf" till some time ago.)

Staff shortages

The challenges of modern day diplomacy are intense and the ministry of external affairs' existing personnel are stretched thin with the tasks at hand. The current hiring systems in the ministry need to go through a steady and planned reform before it would be equipped to best project India’s political and commercial interests abroad.

Until recently, the ministry was constrained by the fact that it could supplement its staff strength only by taking personnel on deputation from other government ministries, which in turn did not have people to spare. Even though the ministry is now more open to hiring researchers and consultants from outside its bureaucratic ambit, the full impact of these reforms will not be felt unless the persisting problem posed by the cartelisation of Indian Fo reign Services ranks is addressed.  For example, some of the best linguists cannot be deployed to missions abroad just because they did not come via the Civil Services route.

At a conference on international energy security some months ago where the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project was part of the discussions, an executive of a major international energy company asked on the conclave’s sidelines about how many trans-continental pipeline experts had the ministry deployed for negotiations related to the project. While the exact answer to this question was not known, the fact is that a crucial mission such as energy security has only one Joint Secretary level officer heading the department.  For a country that imports 80% of its oil and 40% of its natural gas, only one officer (with some consultation help from time to time) was taking care of such a vast issue. Not just that, according to some former officials, a crucial post such as Energy Security is seen as an extremely undesirable and “unglamorous” position which often takes months to fill in between the desk’s change of guard. It makes very little sense that a vast and critical topic such as Energy Security and a cultural or soft power promotion issue such as Sanskrit seem to have equal level capacity deployed, at least when it comes to joint secretaries.

Needed: Drastic reforms

Even as the ministry has done well till now under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Swaraj, the fact remains that to fulfil a lot of Modi’s wishes of economic prosperity we need a far more strenuous effort. Even for something as obvious as Inviting foreign investors, especially under the flagship "Make In India" campaign, the required expertise to convince foreign firms about the readiness of Indian economy and market has not been deployed to many of our embassies around the world.

Both recently retired and serving Indian ambassadors say that it sometimes takes months on end for new first and second secretary posts to be manned, let alone any chance of getting commerce and economic expert posts being filled diligently across new regions and countries, barring some crucial seats such as the US, UK, China, Japan and a handful of others.

Even though in recent past the ministry has doubled the annual intake of officers from 12-15 in the 1990s to 36, the core of the IFS comprises of 800 officers with an additional 1,000 officers making up other posts such as defence and economic personnel on deputation, translators, legal experts, consultants from think tanks and so on.

Calls for drastic reforms in the ministry of external affairs are not new. In fact, in 1965 former ministry Secretary General NR Pillai, in a report commissioned by then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, identified short-staffing as a chronic weakness of the Indian foreign policy establishment. Other such reports also followed in subsequent years, but without many significant outcome. The general careerist approach of the IFS is also seen as a factor that slows down any sort of radical reform. Experts with experience at the top level in foreign policy and its associated government offices tend to find career opportunities in other outlets within countries such as US, Russia, UK and even China much more easily than their Indian counterparts.

If an institution has excess capacity, or at least does not have notable shortages of both expertise and personnel, it would make sense to have top-level diplomats dedicated to cultural and soft power branches. However these posts should not be prioritised unless a reform system, specifically in hiring of experts for the ministry with IFS ranks is initiated to prepare a good base of diplomats who bring with them prior industrial, economic and academic experience, tools vital for tomorrow’s diplomatic manoeuvrings.