Tharoor book raises MEA hackles

Ex-minister suggests lateral entry of professionals to deal with understaffing

Two years after his exit from the South Block, Shashi Tharoor created a flutter in the Ministry of External Affairs, as he questioned in his latest book not only its approach to deal with the problem of “chronic understaffing”, but also the way diplomats are recruited, trained and posted.

Two days after Vice-President Hamid Ansari launched Tharoor’s new book “Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century”, Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai sought to subtly counter criticism made by the former Minister of State for External Affairs.

“We have been hearing repeatedly about how small the ministry (Ministry of External Affairs) is and how we are unable to cope with challenges of our time due to shortage of resources,” Mathai said on Friday, apparently referring to the comments made by Tharoor and by Rajya Sabha member, Karan Singh, during the launch of the book last Wednesday.

“I would like to say that we have not let the acute shortage of resources, which is a reality, stop entirely the efforts to be proactive,” the foreign secretary added on Thursday, after releasing another book –“India’s Neighbourhood: Challenges in the Next Two Decades”, which has been brought out by the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses.

Tharoor in his book “Pax Indica...” pointed out that though India was not just the most populous democracy, but had one of the world’s largest bureaucracies, its diplomatic corps of 900 Indian Foreign Service officers was “roughly equal to tiny Singapore’s 867”.

He noted that though the Government had agreed to increase the IFS cadre strength by 320 officers and 200 additional support staff, the “hierarchy-minded bureaucracy” had “immediately stepped in to forestall any dramatic expansion, which would have required, for instance, the infusion of external professional talent at all levels of the MEA by mid-career recruitment from the other services or even (perish the thought!) from the private sector.”

Tharoor, a Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, was the Minister of State for External Affairs since May 2009 till April 2010. He had to resign in the wake of a controversy over his role in promoting the Kochi IPL team.

The former Under Secretary General of the United Nations has since long been advocating lateral entry of non-IFS professionals into the MEA.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, too, in a report tabled in Lok Sabha last May favoured lateral entry of external applicants with relevant expertise into the MEA up to the Joint Secretary level.

Tharoor, who is a member of the parliamentary panel, took a dig at the MEA and noted in his book that the South Block had stretched out the implementation of the Union Cabinet’s decision to raise the strength of the diplomatic corps, as it had simply increased the annual intake into the IFS, instead of allowing external professionals to fill in the gaps in the service.

Many in the South Block, however, felt that Tharoor’s prescription of lateral entry of external experts into the MEA was an “elitist approach”. They pointed out that the Union Public Service Commission’s way of recruiting officers for Indian Civil Service rather gave equal opportunity to all sections of the society.

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