As an unabashed evangelist of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), I feel gratified to find that three youngsters, two men and one woman from Kerala, who secured the three highest positions in the UPSC list have given IFS as their first preference. Last year, four women had joined the IFS, even though their first preference was not IFS. These are welcome developments as many Kerala candidates, who secured the highest positions, used to shy away from joining the IFS. Some of them even preferred to join the other central services rather than opt for the IFS.
The IFS was considered the prime service soon after independence because of the importance attached to it by Jawaharlal Nehru. He personally interviewed every recruit before confirming the selection. He himself selected princes, scholars and journalists without putting them through any examination. The recruits used to be sent to Oxford for training. When the common examination was set up by the UPSC, those on the top of the list invariably joined the IFS. It became an elite service, with trappings of pomp and splendor.
Over the years, however, the toppers in the list stopped opting for the IFS. In 1967, when I joined, only those above rank 20 were selected. Some who got selected to the IAS discarded it and took the examination again. But till last year, some officers who joined the IFS were from ranks below 200 on the merit list. The IFS seemed to have lost its luster as a result of relaxation of travel restrictions, availability of comforts in India and increased opportunities for IAS officers to travel abroad. It was realized the IAS will provide the best of both worlds, while the IFS officers will be working abroad throughout. Some may have also been attracted by examples of accumulation of wealth by some unscrupulous IAS officers. Possibility of corruption is much less in the IFS than in the other services.
The establishment of the Kerala State Academy of Civil Services in 2004 marked the beginning of a broader interest in Civil Services in Kerala. Since then, more than 20 Academies have come up, some of them owned by people outside the state. But the only academy headed by a former ambassador is the NSS Academy of Civil Services, which recently celebrated its fifth Anniversary with governor justice (Rtd) P. Sathasivam as the chief guest. The NSS Academy encourages aspirants to learn about the charms and challenges of the IFS before making a choice of services. The new interest in the IFS is on account of the information provided. The academy also organizes special courses on international relations for aspirants from all academies.
Other than the special interest in the IFS that the NSS Academy takes, there is nothing much to choose among different academies. The faculty is more or less the same everywhere. But more candidates go to the State Academy because of the mistaken notion that the concessions given by the state for travel to Delhi for the personality test are available only to the aspirants at the State Academy. In actual fact, anyone who passes the mains exam can avail of air travel and other facilities offered by the government.
The NSS Academy admits only a small number of aspirants as it is important to give individual attention to each of them. Special classes are given to the IFS aspirants. This has generated interest in the IFS and more and more aspirants have begun opting for the IFS.
The lowering of the ranks of those who joined the IFS was a matter of concern as the time had come for us to attract the best to the IFS. The global situation is such that the need of the hour is to have a top class IFS. The facilities available to the IFS have progressively improved, but many aspirants are not even aware of the facilities like free first class accommodation, foreign allowance to compensate for cost of living, entertainment allowance and 100% medical cover.
More important than all these is the fact that the IFS has the proud privilege of representing India abroad. There is no greater honor than the privilege of speaking on behalf of more than a billion people. Which other service will provide the opportunity to serve in the glamorous cities of the world and drive past the White House, the Kremlin, the Hoffsburg and Imperial palaces? Others spend their life’s savings to spend a few days in these cities. Moreover, the experience of living in different countries is enriching, even if challenging.
The aspirants are concerned about the plight of the IAS and IPS officers in Kerala and this may be another reason for them to choose the IFS. Political interference is more common in the domestic services. In the IFS, the distance between the diplomats and ministers lends charm.
This is for the first time in recent years that aspirants belonging to high ranks have given IFS as the first option, marking a resurrection of the interest in the IFS. Let us hope that this will be a new trend and more and more bright youngsters will opt for the IFS and more Keralites will occupy senior positions in the diplomatic service. Malayalees abroad, particularly in the Gulf, have been demanding ambassadors who knows Malayalam, but this has not been possible because of the dearth of such officers. The new situation will end this shortage and more Malayalee officers will be sent to the missions in Hthe Gulf.
(The author is a former diplomat who writes on India's external relations and the Indian diaspora.)