Originally Published 2015-12-08 05:46:34 Published on Dec 08, 2015
New Indian Ambassadors to a host of key countries have recently been appointed. Also a new Permanent Representative to the UN. These appointments reflected the stamp of the Foreign Secretary. Will the government do the same kind of tweaking in the case of domestic bureaucracy too?.
Shuffle the Babu pack on performance basis

New Indian Ambassadors to a host of key countries, including Pakistan, China and Japan, have recently been appointed. A new Permanent Representative to the United Nations headquarters in New York has also been named. Some unusual but meritorious choices have resulted, reflecting the stamp of the Foreign Secretary and the willingness of the Narendra Modi Government to tweak the system just that much.

What are the trends that have emerged? Broadly, an attempt has been made to send younger Ambassadors to the neighbouring countries. Generally speaking, Ambassadors in the neighbouring capitals used to be senior diplomats with only a two or three-year service period remaining. Many illustrious and first-rate Indian Foreign Service officers retired as Ambassadors or High Commissioner's in the neighbouring countries.

Of course, this was not always the case, JN Dixit and Shivshankar Menon, to pick two names at random, moved from the High Commission in Islamabad to the Foreign Secretary's office in South Block. There are other examples as well. Even so, neighbouring and major non-neighbouring countries were usually regarded as pre-retirement posts, awarded on the basis on seniority.

While this worked in some cases, in others it didn't. There have been cases of exemplary officers, with a distinguished record over decades, who have simply seen energy levels and enthusiasm drop in their final posting, as retirement beckons and other concerns take over. At this point in life there is nothing left to prove, no prize to aspire for. As such, innovation and new ideas that the individual officer may have brought to previous jobs suddenly goes missing when it comes to perhaps the most important diplomatic mission of his career.

What the recent transfers have done is opened up the system. Many neighbouring capitals will now have Indian Ambassadors who will have time to go for retirement after a three-year stint in their new jobs. The new Permanent Representative at the UN, Mr Syed Akbaruddin, is only an additional Secretary-level officer, donning a mantle traditionally reserved for Secretary-rank diplomats at the cusp of retirement or even on extension.

The only recent analogy one can think of is the PV Narasimha Rao Government sending Mr Ronen Sen as Ambassador to Moscow in 1992, at the age of 48.

That an informal system of fast tracking - which formally exists in certain other diplomatic services - had begun in the IFS was clear a few months ago, when relatively young officers were named as Ambassadors to Seoul and Tehran.

What is the upshot of this? While the shuffling of the pack - without losing sight of the criterion of merit and performance - will take some time to be internalised and clarify itself, gradually, in a two to four-year time frame, it will mean the race for Foreign Secretary will not be limited to two or three people from the same batch.

The political leadership will have a much wider choice, and deep selection - or selecting an officer from a batch that is junior to the most senior one in service - will not merely be a question of seeking out that one individual who is regarded as exceptional or is favoured, but driven by robust empirical and performance-based evidence.

The position and age at the time of making it to the Union Public Service Commission list some 30-35 years earlier will matter less and less. It could also lead to longer terms for truly deserving officers, even without the need to give them an extension beyond the normal retirement age.

The tantalising question that emerges from this is: Can the Modi Government achieve something similar with the domestic civil service? After all, reforming the delivery system and restructuring India's bureaucracy are surely expectations generated by the mandate of 2014. To be fair, this is far more challenging than what is being sought to be done at the Ministry of External Affairs.

There are reasons for this. The IFS is a comparatively small service, with almost everybody in the cadre either knowing most others or being able to make a reasonable assessment of professional and inter-personal skills, strengths and weaknesses, on the basis of a couple of phone calls.

While rivalries are not unknown, for the most part the IFS is a friendly cadre and there is a mutual respect and understanding between officers, incorporating a nodding if unstated acknowledgement of the better ones.

It is very different in the Indian Administrative Service, and for good reason. The IAS is much larger and spread over 29 States and the Union Territories cadre. Interests, specialisations, geographical distance: All of these can vary widely and there are obvious information gaps officers have about each other.

That apart, IFS officers, when appointed to a job, deal with foreign diplomats and foreign Governments. Their designation, rather than their seniority in the Indian Civil Services list, is important. Further, when an IFS officer is appointed to an Embassy, care is taken to ensure nobody, his senior or of the same batch is required to serve under him. In a service with so few members and with the MEA's expansive diplomatic portfolio, this is relatively easy to do.

In the case of IAS officers, it is not as doable. Particularly in the upper echelons of the Union Government or even a State Government, there is constant need to interact with peers and fellow officers in other departments. So, for instance, if an Additional Secretary officer is asked to head the Telecom Ministry, it would be awkward if he were to attend a meeting with Secretary-rank seniors who head the permanent executive in say the Commerce and Defence Ministries.

This is not to suggest the current system should be allowed to remain as hidebound and tight as it is. It is only to point out that the challenge in the IAS/domestic civil service, as compared to the IFS, is of a different order.

An anecdote would help here. Some months ago, there were murmurs that retired IAS officers were being asked to serve under or concede ground to other retired IAS officers of a junior year, or even - heavens - a retired Indian Revenue Service officer. This issue arose when it came to appointing people to commissions, post-retirement from Government service. It triggered a motivated campaign in the op-ed pages of newspapers.

Matters were resolved when the Prime Minister put his foot down and emphasised that after retirement, everybody was on an equal footing. The year of joining the IAS or the rank in the UPSC examination could not be held as supreme, Mr Modi said, even after the age of 60 and following retirement!

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy: The Pioneer, September 26, 2015

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Arnaz Shaik

Arnaz Shaik

Arnaz Shaik Fellow The Antara Foundation

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