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Published: September 2, 2009 - 14:53 Updated: September 18, 2009 - 13:01

Who drives Indian foreign policy? Or is it yet again a 'drafting error'?

The Egyptian sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh and the embarrassment of a botched up India-Pak 'Joint Statement' (JS) show up how India's national interest is not being served well by poor coordination between the prime minister's office (PMO) and ministry of external affairs (MEA). Former foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, serving his last month in office, tried to distance himself from the JS that reversed India's stand after the Mumbai carnage last year. Menon not only blamed the JS to a "drafting error", but gave ample indications that he was not in the loop about the inclusion of Balochistan or de-linking of composite dialogue with action on terror. Thus, the long held secret of MEA no longer driving India's foreign policy came out of the closet in the wake of the JS snafu.

For many years now, Indian foreign policy has been driven by PMO, National Security Advisors, a clutch of NRIs and maybe RAW, but seldom by the elitist foreign office that invariably confines itself to making briefings, background notes and issue-related advises. With barely 600 odd IFS officers, the service is probably the smallest among big/emerging powers. Brazilian foreign service is four times bigger and Chinese seven times. US and Britain work on a larger base of officials. In a fast changing world where recession, world trade, climate change have become part of global negotiations, doesn't  ur foreign service need an urgent beefing up?

The IFS does not want to do anything that undermines its primacy against the IAS. What is routine is the induction of retired officials as special envoys to the PMO to work on policy options. So there is a special envoy on Afghanistan, climate change, the formidable NSA, which handles many bi-lateral issues including sorting out border disputes with China. Invariably, the discussion that NSA or special envoys have with their counterparts is not shared with the officers of the foreign service.

All this adhocism is hurting the IFS that does not have the comfort of having a 'history division' to maintain a thread with the past. In the ongoing dialogue with China or Pakistan, there is little analytical expertise available to collate the past with today. Every one recognises that there is a crying need for a division like this, but the government/IFS leadership seems unmotivated.

Maybe, this ennui has something to do with the nature of the service. Nearly all officers want to get posted in plum western capitals where the quality of education for their children is "world class" and so is the quality of life. Many of these jobs do not factor specialisation. A Chinese-speaking IFS can be posted in Africa or even Bangladesh. Similar mismatches show up all over. There is reluctance among officials to come back and work at the headquarters.

Will the MEA change according to the times, even if it means jettisoning a mindset that has kept it mired in a Cold War era? Will our relationship with neighbouring countries ever creatively change? Take for instance, Nepal: big brothers just don't change. The IFS, especially the current ambassador in Kathmandu, has been roundly criticised for the on-going crisis, crass interference and general arrogance.

Indeed, as for all the bright officers, is the IFS and government letting them down?

Who drives Indian foreign policy? Or is it yet again a ‘drafting error’?

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This story is from print issue of HardNews