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In defence of the IFS

May 16, 2006 18:15 IST
The media had a bonanza with puns and witticisms when a few alleged misdeeds of our diplomats came to light recently.

One newspaper called the IFS 'the fallen service' while another added 'Interpol' to protocol and alcohol as ingredients of diplomacy. More serious cases that surface often in other services do not seem to attract the same kind of attention and censure. Perhaps it was the past reputation of the service and the rarity of corruption cases in it that prompted attention.

In fact, corruption has never been an issue in the Foreign Service, not because it consists of angels, but because it has little power to help or hurt others. There are only a few favours that diplomats can dispense and if at all there is speed money in passports and visa services, it should be small and inconsequential.

Fewer aspirants to the civil services have begun to opt for it, not because its perks and privileges are unattractive, but because there are few opportunities in it for illegal gratification. Most in the service can say in all honesty that they have never been offered a bribe.

Diplomats around the globe are considered targets of foreign intelligence agencies and it is the temptations offered by them that the Ministry of External Affairs guards against.

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A strong vigilance unit, complemented by counterintelligence specialists, keeps an eye on our diplomats. Honey traps have come to light in some cases and minor financial improprieties are not uncommon. But the damage done to the nation in terms of compromising situations or loss to the exchequer should be much less in the MEA than in other ministries.

The punishment given to the IFS officers is also far more severe in the MEA than elsewhere.

A middle level officer was dismissed from service for undervaluing a government car he sold to a diplomatic colleague. His argument that it was a deal to help the purchaser fell on deaf ears. An ambassador was denied a posting commensurate with his seniority for charges ranging from finding a job for a relative to making a false medical claim for an un-entitled daughter. In fact, the sum total of the contribution of the concerned officer to the country is never weighed against his alleged crimes when the vigilance unit deals with aberrations.

Since most of these cases do not get publicised, except for stray reports, which do not get followed up, the cases that come to light are seen as the tip of the iceberg and the entire service gets tainted.

For a service that is put to the severest tests in terms of culture shocks every three years, it deserves to be treated with some understanding. The officers have to necessarily move in high circles of millionaires and models and it is only men and women of strong character, who can withstand the temptations.

The casualty rate in the IFS in the form of illnesses, alcoholism and divorces is as high as in the fighting forces, if not more.

The four cases that have come to light in recent days are by no means minor, but those who throw stones at the IFS should pause to look at the facts as we know them.

If K Natwar Singh is found guilty of the oil-for-food scam, it will indeed be the biggest case in the MEA so far, but Singh crossed over from the IFS to the elitist political circles long ago and his field of activity was not open to the other members of the service. To categorise this case as an IFS skeleton is to do injustice to the IFS.

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case of Rakesh Kumar, a Grade I officer, who stands accused of abetting human trafficking is perhaps the most sensational one because of his seniority and the nature of the crime. Some thrill was added to this case by his being found in Brazil when the story broke and his entering a hospital in Munich for medical treatment on his way back home.

But non-performers getting included in performing groups is not an unusual phenomenon. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations takes the declarations of group leaders about accompanying artistes as true and faces embarrassment when some of them stay back or get lost in foreign countries.

The key to this case is whether the director general of the ICCR was a party to the wrong declarations made or he was misled, like some of his predecessors, who unwittingly authorized such travel.

Harish Dogra has a history of indiscretion and petty squabbles rather than corruption, though he has disgraced the country by making a public issue of his 'quiet withdrawal' that the MEA had planned.

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A transfer is not a punishment and he could even have retired gracefully after an enquiry. But his reported success in staying on in Istanbul even after the MEA had ordered his transfer must have encouraged him to engage in some antics in New Zealand. He may well have a case for denying visa to some people, but his open defiance of the government and maligning a highly regarded foreign secretary has sealed his fate. He is known more as an exception rather than the rule in the IFS and should be treated as such.

An unfortunate instance of bad judgment has come to light in the case of Chandra Mohan Bhandari, ambassador in the United Arab Emirates, who has a good record of service in other parts of the world.

He was our ambassador in Kampuchea at a difficult time and he not only helped the reconstruction of Angkor Wat, but also defended India's role against irrational criticism. He has also authored an authoritative volume on the ancient temples. To combine a private event with the celebration of the National Day was indeed a serious indiscretion and the reprimand he has received should suffice to close the case. It is not a crime that should be added to the list of IFS misdeeds.

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The truth is that there are any number of cases of hard work, sacrifice, outstanding accomplishments and heroism in the IFS for every case of corruption or indiscretion.

The general approach of the public to the IFS is a mix of envy and unrealistic expectations of courtesy, efficiency and integrity. The IFS is nothing but a microcosm of India and, therefore, it should have the same attributes as the nation itself. Just because an Indian has crossed the seas, we cannot expect him to be immune to Indian weaknesses and become a paragon of perfection.

The real test should be whether the IFS has stood up to the best diplomats in the world. The success of Indian diplomacy in the United Nations and elsewhere is sufficient testimony to the competence and competitiveness of our diplomatic service.

As for the sins of the service, 'let him who is without sin, cast the first stone.'

T P Sreenivasan, who retired from the IFS, has served as India's ambassador in many nations.

T P Sreenivasan