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How Modi can make our diplomats more effective

By Vivek Katju
May 26, 2015 20:17 IST
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Has the Modi government ensured that the MEA keeps abreast of the times, asks Ambassador Vivek Katju.

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Almost all neutral analysts have given Prime Minister Narendra Modi high marks for the clarity and energy with which he has conducted India's foreign policy in the first year of his term.

The substance of his external engagements and their direction and purpose have attracted comment. However, there has also been extraordinary focus on his novel and personalised diplomatic style and his communication methods; no previous prime minister had taken to using social media to convey his views on his meetings with his international peers.

What has remained without meaningful assessment so far is his handling of India's foreign policy-making machinery.

As global complexities increase and as India's international involvement becomes deeper and wider, national interest demands that the conduct of foreign policy is led by institutions and not left to individuals howsoever knowledgeable and capable they may be.

This is not to downplay the importance of personal leadership in governance; but it is an obvious truth that it is now impossible for a single administrator, diplomat or security expert to be able to provide the range of opinion and advice to the prime minister and the cabinet that is needed on global, regional and bilateral issues that impact on India's interests.

It should be acknowledged straightaway that the Modi government has appointed experienced and competent persons as official heads of the institutions connected with foreign policy-making and implementation. It must also be acknowledged that it is the prerogative of the political leadership to appoint officials in whom it has confidence to senior positions in these institutions. This prerogative extends to replacing officials if they, for whatsoever reason, lose the confidence of the leadership.

What has not received attention is the institutions themselves to ensure that they achieve the competence and develop the capabilities that will be increasingly needed to secure the country's interests in the coming decades.

If Modi proceeds to ensure that such institutions are fostered he will be truly making a great contribution to India's national interest.

All prime ministers/heads of governments have necessarily to take an interest in foreign policy-making. More than in times past they have to take more and more of a role in the actual conduct of foreign policy.

In the globalised world order top political leaders are constantly in touch with each other and also frequently meet with each other in summit-level conferences and bilateral visits. To handle foreign policies issues prime ministers have strengthened their offices through appointments of advisors and officials. They often interact with their international counterparts directly, often creating confusion in the bureaucratic systems. This comes in the way of policy implementation, if not short-sightedness in diplomacy too.

It is to Modi's credit that despite his active diplomacy and the publicity surrounding his foreign interactions the Prime Minister's Office is not attempting to overawe the external affairs ministry. There is the usual interplay between the PMO and the MEA as it occurred in the past except that decisions are now implemented.

The MEA is the repository of information, knowledge and experience of foreign affairs and diplomacy. It has to play the central role in policy-making and its execution. Indian diplomats have a reputation of skill and competence and are respected among their international peers. But the question is if the Modi government has paid attention to the need of ensuring that it keeps abreast of the times and for this purpose examined its organisation and structure.

It is noteworthy that Modi places great emphasis on economic diplomacy and even here the MEA has an in escapable role which cannot be undertaken by other ministries and departments.

There are credible reports that Modi has shown concern about policy-making structures within the MEA and it is a consequence of his thinking that efforts are being made to strengthen the policy-making apparatus which will be distinct from those that manage day to day relationships. This is a step in the right direction but it should not lead to over centralisation of policy-making.

Indeed, the present foreign secretary seems to have become Modi's principal foreign policy advisor. This is not a negative in itself, but there are clear signs that he is eroding the position of the other MEA secretaries who are his co-equals. This will do the institution great harm. In fact, there is an urgent need for a formal departments to be set up in the MEA as in the finance ministry and a formal committee of secretaries is established for better integration.

A committee to go into the MEA's restructuring after examining all aspects of the ministry and the foreign service is urgently required. It will give the government options on how to proceed further. Committees have been appointed in the past, but no radical changes have come over the years, but Modi with his decisiveness can ensure the implementation of his choices.

Attention also needs to be given to the Indian Council of World Affairs so that it becomes a true think-tank with its own scholars and issue specialists. This will help the government with independent foreign policy options. The council is currently neither fish nor fowl and only helps in arranging seminars and commissioning books and publications, but is simply not equipped to give policy suggestions in a dynamic manner.

One last thought: External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has led the MEA quietly and efficiently. Her vast political experience is an asset as is her articulation. She needs to be more forthcoming in given an overarching view of India's approaches on the broad global issues of our times so that a holistic view of Indian foreign policy is communicated to the world.

While communication styles may be changing, a focus on the world order and India's vision of its position in it is the task of the EAM and no one can do it better than Sushma Swaraj.

Image: Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embraces India's Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, right, as her husband former US President Bill Clinton greets Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New York, September 29, 2014. Photograph: Reuters

Ambassador Vivek Katju was India's ambassador to Afghanistan, Myanmar and Thailand.

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