In the Ministry of Eternal Affairs

As India grows in international stature, its diplomatic corps is increasingly outclassed, outnumbered and out of date

01 July 2012
South Block, the country’s seat of power in New Delhi which houses the Ministry of External Affairs.
South Block, the country’s seat of power in New Delhi which houses the Ministry of External Affairs.

BACK IN 1977, as a 21-year-old doctoral student, I found myself prowling the corridors of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) at South Block in New Delhi for the first time, researching the thesis that was to become my first book, Reasons of State. I was callow, curious and opinionated—a useful combination of attributes in one who hopes to break new ground in scholarship—and my analysis was, with hindsight, overly critical of the received wisdom about Indian foreign policy-making. Thirty-two years later, I found myself, after an election victory, seated in South Block as a minister of state, with an insider’s view of the issues I had written so boldly about. It was instructive to realise how much had changed, and how little.

The principal governmental instrument for the formulation and execution of policy—the ministry of external affairs—had struck me at the time as a flawed institution staffed by superbly qualified and able diplomats. I concluded in 1977 that problems of structure, coordination, personnel and planning in the ministry prevented the bureaucracy from developing the professional expertise and authority that could compensate for the failings of individual dominance by the prime minister in policy-making. That was an unduly critical judgement, which even at the time needed to be somewhat qualified. But three decades later, many of the weaknesses I had spotted in the ministry as a student came back to strike me as surprisingly still relevant.

All those years ago, while ferreting into the interstices of India’s foreign policy making, I learnt that recruits to India’ s diplomatic corps were given a picture of the ‘ideal foreign minister’ during their training lectures. I have no idea if that is still the case—and I thought it politic not to ask, given my own recent departure from the ministry—but the earlier conventional wisdom struck me as pretty sound. According to the 1977 lecture notes of a distinguished (and already then retired) ambassador, IJ Bahadur Singh, the ideal foreign minister (and in those days it was assumed it had to be a ‘he’) must possess the following attributes:

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    Shashi Tharoor  is a Member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram and a former minister of state for external affairs.

    Keywords: India diplomacy Shashi Tharoor ministry of external affaris