Maharajakrishna Rasgotra, who was India’s foreign secretary from 1982 to 1985, records that in 1948, contrary to the popular perception, the wealthy “Doon School wallahs” preferred to join the domestic services, where they could keep an eye on their assets, and that the IFS boys were at a premium only amongst the urbanised, “sophisticated girls of marriageable age and their even more pretentious socialite mothers”! Things have changed considerably since then. Ambitious Indian girls and boys now routinely choose to work and live abroad, on their own steam, rather than as “diplomatic baggage”.
But true to nature’s rule, when one door shuts, another inevitably opens. Losing out in the marriage market place is not compensated by being wooed post-retirement by the major Indian corporate groups. Just-retired foreign secretary S. Jaishankar has been picked up by the Tatas to head the group’s overseas operations, reporting to Mr N. Chandrasekharan, the executive chair of the board of Tata Sons, the holding company of all Tata enterprises. The board already has two retired civil servants — Ronen Sen, a retired Foreign Service officer and former ambassador to Washington, and Vijay Singh, a retired IAS officer who had served as defence secretary. But unlike these directors, Mr S. Jaishankar will be more substantively involved, with a hands-on role as the head of a business vertical as its president. “Descent from heaven” is how Japanese business describes the practice of absorbing retiring senior bureaucrats, who have held key positions, to cushion them from a hard landing in the real world.
Mr S. Jaishankar is reported to have said he was happy to join “the Tata Group… India’s most respected brand globally”. Just this simple endorsement of the Tata business leadership, from a recently retired foreign secretary, who was selected personally (unusually) by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015, to replace a serving foreign secretary, Sujata Singh, is sufficient to justify the Rs 6 crores that he is speculated to be earning per year. As far as value for money in advertising goes, it can’t get any better for the Tatas.
Despite the 1991 liberalisation, Indian business has by and large continued to remain constrained at home by unnecessary red tape. Overseas, it is an orphan with little support from its home government. Blame our perverted colonial legacy for this. The British came to India to trade, profit, export and rule. They used every trick in their mercantilists’ book of “free trade”, including the selective use of state power and the law, to benefit British companies. But, in a classically hypocritical stance — which incidentally appealed greatly to the convoluted sensibilities of upper-caste Indians, the average British officer feigned a horror of being in bed with business interests. The “boxwallah” was an inferior being as compared to his Army or civil service brethren, who were on a morally superior mission of civilising India.
This “red line” between government and business, which Free India inherited, though always surreptitiously porous, has long since dissolved within India’s domestic service cadres — except for odd cases of the most particular officers. The Foreign Service, however, has only recently taken to these new commercial roles, as the overseas business interests of private Indian corporates have expanded. This is a welcome outcome of liberalisation.
Talk of being a market-led economy is hollow, unless the government works actively to grow the Indian private sector at home and abroad. At the most minimal level, this involves opening doors abroad for our businessmen. This is what retired Indian Administrative Service or revenue service officers having been doing for business interests at home. But opening doors is low-level stuff, albeit with high returns. More potentially transformative is the opportunity to develop an institutionalised public-private partnership, around the human resources required, by India to become an A-level international player.
With 162 missions overseas, the Indian Foreign Service looks extremely stretched, with just 600-plus serving elite officers. Expanding the service — using the existing generalist skills-based platform on which it is recruited and trained — would be a costly mistake. It would be far better to add the human resources, specifically needed in the ministry and in the missions overseas, through multiple entry options – lateral contracting, deputation from other services based on relevant skills and selective promotion from within.
The origin of an exclusive service for external affairs, as opposed to a combined one for political and external matters lies, in the Government of India Act 1935. The idea at that time was racist. A separate “political” wing to deal with Asiatic powers — namely the Indian princes (there was already a separate home department for police and security matters) and a “foreign” wing to deal with the European powers.
Is it time now to end this farcical divide. “India unlimited” should have a seamless, internationally competitive and standards compliant architecture. inside out. An integrated, elite Indian Civil Service for the Government of India, consisting of no more than 3,000 officers, could be a targeted support mechanism. Selected meritocratically, at mid-career, with a minimum experience of 10 years, it would provide the specific position-based skills and expertise in formulating policy and representing India at technical negotiating fora in trade and intellectual property; fiscal management, including tax; economic development and technology; social protection; human development and human rights.
A foreign secretary has boldly and transparently opted to step directly into an executive role in an Indian corporate entity. It could spark off a trend of more frequent interplay between public and private human resources. But till it becomes common to see retired foreign service officers jostling amongst the corporate crowd, it will be odd to see an “Ambassador” parked at Bombay House, the Mumbai headquarters of the global Tata empire, rather than at Birla Building in Kolkata, which owns the brand.