A case for the separation of the IFS in the UPSC

The Union Public Service Commission is in charge of recruiting India’s administrators, diplomats, policemen, tax officials and other governmental officers in charge of running the executive branch of government.

While I am personally an advocate of all services being separate, what stands out the most according to me is the Indian Foreign Service which consists of India’s diplomatic corps.

After independence, the system was that all services had different exams, including the IFS. The government at that time amended this procedure to allow for an integrated exam for all the candidates of all the services. From then on, it became a question of ranking and how one scored in this competitive exam in the competitive pool. The justification for this was that many candidates were writing several exams for different services, therefore this would be streamlining the process and making it convenient for the candidates so that their exam dates wouldn’t clash.

At the beginning, the IFS was the most coveted service with the Prime Minister personally taking the interviews of the IFS aspirants. However, trends have changed over time with the IAS overtaking the IFS in terms of the preference of the candidates. This has occurred due to several factors, one of which is the booming of opportunities within India itself after liberalization reforms in 1991.

India is not the only country which has integrated exams. France and Brazil also are known to select their diplomats through similar means though a vast majority of countries prefer a more direct form of recruitment. Nevertheless, there is a case to be made for the division of services.

First of all, let us try and understand our diplomatic corps. The IFS contains no more than 800 diplomats. The world’s second largest country in terms of population has a diplomatic force equivalent to that of Singapore’s. The State Department of USA has 20,000 officers, UK has over 6000 officers and China has around 3000. A mere 800 diplomats to manage a global presence of over 150 missions abroad is grossly inadequate. Not only do we require diplomats abroad, but also within the country to act as coordinators, planners and strategists.

As a result of this shortage in numbers, the diplomatic corps is overworked and is not able to work the full potential of its diplomatic power. Further, since diplomats are few, it creates a pool of generalists than specialists. This is detrimental to foreign policy because certain facets of diplomacy requires the element of specialization. This is augmented by the fact that there are no recruitments made from the outside, so there is a lack of specialists that can help formulate policy within the IFS itself.

The UPSC needs to conduct separate exams for the IFS for these very reasons.

First of all, it is not fair to conduct an exam and subject the same content to administrators, policemen, diplomats, tax officials and others. They have very different roles to fulfill in the course of their careers and one can’t have the same criteria for all of them. For example, the subject of Public Administration may not be of much use to a diplomat when he is posted abroad, but that could be his choice of subject when he writes the UPSC exam. This is exacerbated by various coaching institutes which push Public Administration on candidates calling it a ‘scoring subject’.

An examination for a diplomat should be more on the lines of the subjects that the candidates will be dealing with in the course of their careers. Subjects such as foreign policy, international relations, international law, international trade and the like should be prioritized. These are skills required in diplomats and this would be a test of true competence for the job. The IFS then becomes more efficient because it would be people who are genuinely interested in the profession who would get in. It wouldn’t be an accident of the rank that determines your entry into the service. Given the kind of trend established by the preference for the IAS, it is likely that a lot of people are joining the IFS may not have an interest in the service and are joining it because that was what they got after the allocation of the rank. This is detrimental to the quality of the officers.

Secondly, given that there are only 36 or so diplomats that actually make it to the service each year, this would help in boosting the numbers of diplomats which is desperately needed to bolster India’s diplomatic presence. Numbers can be driven up and it can provide a more qualitative approach to how India’s diplomats are chosen for service.

If the IFS were to be conducted separate from other services, it would attract talent from people who genuinely are interested in international relations. There are many graduates in India who go abroad to study international relations and diplomacy but don’t really come back to India due to the nature of the exam which requires a different mindset altogether. These graduates would be more fit for a career in the IFS than say for example, a graduate in zoology.

Besides, a separate exam would truly be a level-playing field. Even if a graduate in Zoology were to write this exam, if the candidate has genuine interest in the field, he or she would still stand to be qualified through it.

Thirdly, it is ridiculous to conduct an integrated exam for the sake of convenience of the candidates who want to have a finger in every pie. This drives the whole ‘Chalta hai’ mentality where skills and expertise isn’t valued. The services need to be more professionalized. With separate services, candidates will have a single-minded focus on improving themselves in areas concerned with the services which they choose. This will greatly contribute to the professionalization of the services and bring about an improvement in the quality of the executive branch of government.

India cannot continue to stretch its resources thin. They need to expand in order to justify its current presence and also of any other expansion it may choose to do so in the future with the expansion of its economic and political clout in the international community. It must also make provisions for the entry of specialists that may provide an in-house expertise of subjects that are relevant to Indian diplomacy.

It is imperative to professionalize the IFS to address the mismatch in its diplomatic projection and its diplomatic strength.

This article was originally published in The Indian Economist. It can be also be read here.

Ashwath Komath
An article by:
Ashwath Komath

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