The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Two failed attempts to reform the Indian foreign service

Next year, it will be 40 years since the Pillai committee submitted its report on reforming the Indian foreign service. The committee, which gets its name from N.R. Pillai, who was secretary-general of the foreign ministry in Jawaharlal Nehru's time, undertook the only comprehensive exercise since independence to reform one of the most high profile institutions of government.

Other elements of government ' even the cabinet or parliamentary system of administration ' and the country's Constitution itself have been periodically debated and examined as needing reform, but not the IFS or the ministry of external affairs. Even more amazing is that very little of the Pillai committee report has been implemented in these four decades, when the IFS has been crying out for reform. In few other democracies would taxpayers tolerate such a situation. Especially when they are told ad nauseum that their country is globalizing and becoming more integrated with the rest of the world or that India is the rising power of this century. The demands of such a growing global role also demands a South Block ' and its embassies abroad ' which can rise to that challenge.

Unfortunately, there has been very little discussion in India about this challenge in the last decade-and-a-half, when the present prime minister and some of his colleagues in the present cabinet opened India to the world in a way that was familiar to Indians only in a bygone era that preceded the country's colonization. Ironically, though, this was a subject of lively discussion last week in Washington, of all places. It was a discussion in which several veterans of the US state department took part, as well as journalists who write on diplomacy, members of think-tanks with an interest in south Asia, and most interesting of all, young diplomats from south-east Asia posted in the US, but eager to get an inside look at the IFS. It has, with all its shortcomings, one of the best and most organized diplomatic cadre among countries which went through the process of decolonization and enjoy a huge reach all across the world.

The discussion took place at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, where Kishan S. Rana ' an Indian diplomat for 35 years, former ambassador to Mauritius and Germany and a part of Indira Gandhi's PMO ' is currently a public-policy scholar. Rana is engaged in a comparative study of the diplomatic process in five Asian countries ' China, India, Japan, Singapore and Thailand ' focussing on their foreign ministries and their diplomatic networks, their structures, methods and performance.

The foreign secretary, Shyam Saran, has been making waves in South Block doing things which many foreign offices would think of, in the first quarter of the 21st century, as inconsequential. But, for the IFS, which is looking up to the Pillai committee report for guidance four decades after it came out, Saran's small steps are actually giant leaps forward. For instance, the foreign secretary has resumed a practice, long defunct, of having a daily meeting in MEA of secretaries and additional secretaries. This practice ' or similar daily exercises ' were discontinued because, intermittently under some of Saran's predecessors, the foreign secretary was not on talking terms with the fellow secretaries while additional secretaries would not cross the paths of the secretaries.

In the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office or at the US state department, the very idea that the MEA could have gone on for years without daily meetings would be incomprehensible. The FCO and many other foreign offices have gone way beyond the wildest imagination of N.R. Pillai, and have shed their stiff-upper-lip image on which a lot of fiction around diplomats and diplomacy have been created. But not the MEA.

The FCO's top decision-making body is called the FCO Board of Management, and it includes two executives from the private sector ' at present, Alistair Johnston, who is vice-chairman of the consulting firm, KPMG, and Alison Platt, director of the United Kingdom's BUPA hospitals. If this would be inconceivable in India, look at this. Tony Blair's government had advertised the job of ambassador to the Vatican and applications are being taken by a private recruiting firm, Capita Resourcing, which will shortlist and interview candidates for the highly sensitive government post. The FCO is not alone in this trend in foreign offices worldwide, whose ripples are felt nowhere near South Block. Simon Murdoch, who is the equivalent of foreign secretary in New Zealand, goes not by that designation, but by his official title of chief executive of the ministry of foreign affairs and trade.

During last week's discussions in Washington, it came as a surprise to many participants that MEA does not have a mission statement. Nor does it have a published strategy which can tell the public of the direction India's external affairs is taking. The US state department, on the other hand, has a strategic plan for the five year period from 2004 to 2009.

Interestingly, this strategic plan was prepared in August 2003, when there was no certainty that George W. Bush would be re-elected president at the end of 2004 or that a Republican would remain secretary-of-state during the period when this strategic plan would be implemented. For that matter, the current strategic plan outlines the state department's mission till the end of 2009, by which time Bush would no longer have been president for two years.

In France, a new law has gone to effect, as a consequence of which every agency that receives state money has to go before the national assembly in the following year and justify the use of those funds. The finance minister, P. Chidambaram, said in parliament recently: 'For too long in this country we were carried by the outlays ' how much has this department spent, how much does this minister have in the Plan and Non-Plan, how much has been given to such and such project, etc. We are now measuring outlays. We have to measure outcomes.'

Chidambaram envisages steps in India on the French model, although not as sweeping as the demand for accountability by the French national assembly. He hopes to 'convert the financial outlays into physical outcomes with quarterly targets' for each ministry and department 'so that at the end of the year, parliament will be able to ask the government, 'What have you delivered for the entire country'

It would be interesting to see how the MEA can deliver its outcomes report when it does not even have a mission statement. Even if it did, it would be a curious spectacle how South Block would get around the many holy cows associated with foreign policy ' third-world objectives which are no longer India's foreign policy priorities, to which lip service is still mandatory for reasons of political correctness, especially by a government for which loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family is paramount.

Meanwhile, the Pillai committee report, which still makes fascinating reading because many of its laudable proposals remain unimplemented, is most likely to continue to languish. Ironically, even as many of its recommendations remained unimplemented, the government, in its wisdom appointed the former diplomat, Samar Sen, to prepare another report on reforming the IFS and MEA. Sen completed the exercise in 1982-83, but his report ' un- like Pillai's ' has not been made public.

In 2003, the National Democratic Alliance foreign minister, Yashwant Sinha, asked the retired civil servant and Planning Commission member, N.K. Singh, to produce a report on India's economic diplomacy with a deadline of two months. Singh could not stick to the deadline, and before his report could come out, elections were held to the Lok Sabha and the government changed in Delhi. Nothing has been heard of the N.K. Singh report.

Similarly, Sinha's predecessor, Jaswant Singh, initiated an attempt at reforming South Block in 2000, but before that effort could really get off the ground, he swapped cabinet positions with Sinha and nothing more was heard of that initiative. If Rana's project, which is now getting some attention in Washington, is completed, it will hopefully start a public debate on an issue which can no longer be brushed under the carpet if only because of what many Indians believe is the country's global destiny.

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