By Rajitha Swaminathan

Prime Minister Modi is upping the ante of solidifying India’s role in international affairs. Recent developments indicate a concerted focus on external relations. This makes for an opportune time to introspect India’s internal mechanism to manage foreign relations – Indian Foreign Service (IFS).

As of today, in the words of former External Affairs Minister, Shashi Tharoor, “India has the smallest diplomatic corps for any major country.”

A snapshot of the IFS shows a total headcount of around 1200 officials that comprise of around 850 Grade A and 250 Grade B IFS officers, a few desk officers, translators, secretaries and other clerical staff. They provide coverage for 121 embassies, 53 consulates, and 5 permanent missions.

Compare this to the US’s behemoth 20,000-strong Foreign Service force.  For a more apples to apples match, here is a look at some of the BRICS countries: China is estimated to have around 6200 officials (official numbers not revealed), and Brazil around 3000. If comparisons are to be made with younger nations, Singapore has around 850 diplomats present in 43 stations abroad. Lastly, an economic indicator-based comparison brings us to Europe: France and India both rely on foreign trade for more than 50% of their GDP, yet France has 6 times as many diplomats as India.

Foreign service inforgraphic (1)

India is no longer the inward-looking, ‘non-aligned movement’ (NAM) nation that it once was. It seeks to have closer ties with the outside world than ever before; and play a more active, influential role in shaping world policy. Complementarily, the world too, has welcomed and respected India’s participation, adherence and potential leadership in some areas of world policy. India has displayed its intentions and potential quite clearly in the recent past: a seat at the UN Security Council from 2011-12, founding member of the BRICS Development Bank to rival the monopoly of the World Bank, a renovated visa policy for foreign visitors, and constructive engagement with its Asian neighbours for economic benefits among other agenda items.

While the Prime Minister plays a strategic CEO-like role in forging new relationships, strengthening ties with old allies, and rebuilding broken ones, only a strong and effective Foreign Service force can sustain and nurture it. They are the boots on ground with eyes on the ball – much the same reason that large multinational companies have a strong regional sales management workforce.

So the first step to have a stronger presence abroad is to well – be present.  This means an increase in the number of diplomats, ambassadors, embassy and consular officials, and even clerical staff.

India’s scarce and sparsely populated Foreign Service contingent can be attributed to its intake mechanism. The IFS is one of the most elite services in the country which maintains its elitism by admitting only 0.01% of its applicants each year. While this competitive and highly selective process ensures that the country’s Foreign Service representatives are the crème de la crème, it also indirectly burdens the small task force with heavy responsibilities.

There are two realistic ways to increase the manpower of the IFS:  firstly, increase the diameter of the funnel to admit more candidates. The increases in positive impacts by admitting 0.02% of the applicants vs. 0.01% will far outweigh the risk of lowering the quality of new officers. Overhauling the civil service admission process is in itself a herculean task, one that requires buy-in from multiple parties. But, increasing the number of admits is a low-hanging fruit which is doable yet effective.

Secondly, absorbing lateral hires into the IFS.  Growingly, there is a need for specialists and experts who can take on additional responsibilities of diplomacy and negotiations. Issues are handled at a more technical and scientific level – from the trade talks at the WTO, debates on carbon emissions, using economics to drive a relationships with foreign nations, partnerships for space exploration, medical advancement, to military operations. Accepting experienced scientists, industrialists, economists, military strategists, academic intellectuals can bring such domain expertise to the table. An early win to implement this may be through the setting up of task forces or working groups that comprise of a good mix of traditional IFS officers and laterally hired experts. Eventually though, a structural change to the system which invites these experienced laterals is much required. The US has seen much success by getting technical experts to play important roles in world and foreign affairs.

Increasing the manpower of the Foreign Service is an important step in strengthening our foreign relations. As a therapist would advise, a successful relationship requires regular communication, constant nurturing, and more importantly, showing up –  whether it is a couple’s long distance romantic relationship or India’s long-term foreign relations.


Rajitha is a policy enthusiast and aspiring writer. She is passionate about the intersection of policy, business, innovation, and development. Her topics of interest include global economic governance, international affairs, economic policy, and emerging markets. Rajitha has a multidisciplinary educational background – an advanced degree in International Affairs from Columbia University, an MBA from the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, and an Engineering undergrad.

Posted by The Indian Economist