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How the IFS is finding its soul

By T P Sreenivasan
Last updated on: October 17, 2011 10:38 IST
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A number of younger diplomats have begun to search for the soul of the foreign service, to give its members a sense of belonging and pride, observes former ambassador T P Sreenivasan.

Every service or institution has a foundation day, which becomes an annual event every year. The day is invariably celebrated with varying degrees of enthusiasm, depending on the mood of the leadership or its loyalty to the originator or to the set of events that founded the institution.

But the Indian Foreign Service, which was created by Independent India without a model from the colonial era, rarely celebrated an IFS Day, though old hands recall an odd cocktail party or a tea get-together hosted by the foreign secretary in certain years. Till recently, many IFS officers did not even know which day was celebrated as the IFS Day.

The absence of regular IFS Day celebrations had more to it than meets the eye. It was not simply a matter of forgetfulness or apathy to needless ceremonies and unnecessary expenditure.

The ministry of external affairs and individual officers entertain even inside the country, accustomed as they are to the representational grant as an instrument of winning friends and influencing people.

More fundamentally, the IFS has been the least cohesive of services, because of the very nature of its composition and deployment.

The majority of missions are 'one man and a dog' missions and very few missions have more than a handful of IFS officers working together. In the past, it was not essential for officers to serve at headquarters, where officers have an opportunity to get to know each other.

But even at headquarters, the officers tend to meet only those in their divisions or their bosses, as there is no time for interaction outside their own sphere of work. Constant travel and demands from foreign missions leave them with little time to get to know their colleagues.

These factors turn IFS officers into single palm trees on islands known only to their families and close friends. They may serve in the IFS for nearly forty years and still never set their eyes on some of their colleagues. They merely become names on the seniority list or bylines on papers and notes that get circulated.

The unique deployment pattern of the IFS makes its members insensitive to the needs and aspirations of their colleagues and gives them a sense that they must fend for themselves by fair or foul means, depending upon their sense of propriety and innate character. They tend to help themselves without concern for others as they rarely see for themselves the frustrations they may have imposed on their colleagues by advancing their own careers, to the detriment of others.

Many of them have no qualms about utilising a chance opportunity of getting to know their political bosses to get a prize posting even beyond established norms. In the IFS, promotions are a science while postings are an art and, therefore, juniors in lower grades can do better than their seniors by securing plum postings.

The IFS has begun to look like a service without a soul, though it has a strong mind and a heart to serve its national purpose.

Things have begun to change in the IFS, but not because of imaginative initiatives of the leadership or even the rather moribund IFS Association, which has to research its annals to find instances of heroic action like when a foreign secretary was fired unfairly or when a subsidiary service began to do better than the senior service.

A number of younger recruits have begun to search for the soul of the service, to give it cohesion and to give the members a sense of belonging and pride.

The IFS Day celebrations on October 9, 2011 and a decision to mark the day every year are part of an 'IFS spring'.

The information revolution and the advent of social media played a part in the awakening. Unlike many senior people, who got their e-mails printed and dictated replies to their private secretaries even in the initial years of the 21st century, the young men and women who joined the service in recent years realised the potential of the new technology and began to put it to use to bring the service together.

It began with the establishment of a Google group to exchange ideas, to share strategic and literary creations or simply to circulate notable writings outside the circle. It soon developed into a lively, frank, creative and useful forum as more and more members, young and old, signed up.

From the veterans in their nineties to the youngest recruits, everyone found a level ground to speak out, differ and even agree. From nuclear strategy to table manners, from policy directions to directions to settle back in India after living abroad, there was no topic untouched or unembellished.

It did not take long to move from discussions to formulation of ideas and setting up of data banks. How many in the IFS had written books?� No one had a complete list, not to speak of a complete collection. How did the IFS Association originate and why is it stagnant? No one could answer.

Does the IFS have a foundation day, and if so, why is it not celebrated? Do the members get an identity card, and if not, why not? These questions and many others came up and we began to find answers. Nothing frivolous, indecent or undiplomatic came up. A group of young moderators remained vigilant against the least invasion of privacy or breach of secrecy without being accused of censorship.

In future, promotions and posting policies may come up. Right to information will be raised. More transparency may be imposed on the administration. Blue eyed boys and girls may become a rarity. Merit may be recognised and self confidence may increase.

The IFS may find its soul. India may become less of a reluctant superpower. The possibilities are endless.

"You have shown us the way," said Shyam Saran to the young diplomats, "creating a modern networking platform which has brought us all together, from all corners of the world, first as digital identities and now in flesh and blood."

The IFS spring may well have been an offshoot of the advent of public diplomacy. A ministry, which had prohibited the use of official computers for social media and witnessed a minister falling victim to the temptations of Twitter, today not only has multiple Web sites but also Facebook and Twitter accounts to project its policy.

This liberation led to the extension of social media to the needs of the service and its members. A paperless web of information now envelops the service and encourages greater interaction and action.

Like blogging turned hackers into commentators and literary geniuses, the New Media has turned retired bureaucrats, who were destined to baby sit their grandchildren in high-rise buildings in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, into writers, thinkers and even poets. Making a contribution to the collective wisdom of the IFS is a compulsive instinct for the oldest and the youngest.

Technology alone cannot explain the difference that the young officers are making to the service. They are imaginative, ambitious and motivated. Instead of accepting the status quo, they are seeking a change for the better. They are lighting candles instead of cursing the darkness.

A poignant moment came when the dangers to diplomats in these days of international terrorism was dramatically displayed by Malathi Rao.

She is the young widow of V Venkateswara Rao, a diplomat who lost his life in Kabul. But she spoke not in sorrow, but with pride of the IFS, which stood by her in her hour of tragedy.

In contrast, in an earlier era, young widows had complained bitterly that the service had left them high and dry. IFS has had its share of casualties in untimely deaths and grievous injuries, which have remained uncompensated and unacknowledged.

Those affected nurse their injuries in body and spirit, taking them in their stride. "We recall those who have paid a price, some with their lives, some with serious injuries. Should not gate number 4 have a list of names on display," asks Leela K Ponappa.

The IFS spring, alas, is still in its dawn and it is yet to infect sections of the old and the young. The attendance at the IFS Day event could have been better, particularly of retired officers who were in town. Veterans like Pammi Sahay, Shyam Saran and Shivshankar Menon came and spoke in praise of the initiative and the initiators. Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai was away in Sri Lanka.

But with better planning and certainty of an event on every October 9, attendance may be better in the future years. The administration and the association may well be less reluctant to lend a helping hand. The IFS spring must infect the seniors even if their stakes in the service diminish over the years.

T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India to the United Nations, Vienna, and a former Governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna. You can read more of his writings here.

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