|New Delhi, Feb. 27: India’s foreign office is going back to school – not to learn new tricks, but to try and ignite allure for diplomacy in young minds at a time a career once among the country’s most coveted is struggling to compete for bright minds with better-paying jobs.
The external affairs ministry has decided to collaborate with the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan (KVS) in an unprecedented move to try and coax early interest in foreign policy among school students, senior officials familiar with the plan have said.
The plan, a part of the foreign office’s “public diplomacy” initiatives, will start with a national, multi-stage essay-writing competition among the over 10,000 students at the central schools, but could then be expanded to other educational institutions as well, officials said.
“The idea is to get school students thinking about international issues, get them to do research, to discuss among themselves, and hopefully, to think about India’s positions on key subjects,” a diplomat said. “It’s never been tried before, but it’s about time.”
Officially, the project – the KVS has agreed, officials at the central school organisation said – will not be linked directly to the foreign office’s future recruitment plans, still strict and solely dependent on the civil services examinations.
But several Indian diplomats concede that the foreign office increasingly needs to adopt measures like the outreach to schools, to try and compete for mind space from an early age with better-advertised professions.
“There’s this thing that some of us jokingly call the ‘parent test’. When we joined the Indian Foreign Service, parents thought we were entering the best thing possible,” a veteran diplomat close to retirement said, before breaking into a chuckle. “Today, the brightest joining the IFS do so because, apart from being brilliant, they also have a slightly maverick streak.”
Former foreign secretary and national security adviser Shivshankar Menon, those who know him well confirm, wasn’t too keen on rushing into a career in government service after he completed studies in history at St. Stephen’s College. A motorcycling enthusiast with long, wavy hair at the time, Menon wanted to take time before deciding on a career.
But pressured by his family, Menon took the civil services examinations and joined the IFS in 1972, going on to extend an unparalleled family tradition.
His grandfather K.P.S Menon was India’s first foreign secretary from 1948 to 1952, and then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi would later summon his uncle, K.P.S Menon (Junior), from Beijing just before his retirement to replace A.P. Venkateswaran as foreign secretary. Rajiv Gandhi had announced days earlier at a media briefing that he would be sacking Venkateswaran. Menon’s father Parappil Narayana Menon was also a career diplomat.
“And it wasn’t only families like that, with lineage in the IFS,” a serving Indian ambassador in Europe said. “You didn’t earn that much more as a doctor or an engineer – and the pride of serving as a foreign service officer more than made up for a small gap in income.”
But while many of the toppers in the civil services examination still prefer the IFS over the police, customs and other central services, officials said several of them have to today battle parental pressure to take up a career not viewed as lucrative enough.
“I was a doctor trained at a top medical school, and my parents… they were really taken aback when I told them I wanted to switch careers and join the foreign service,” a younger diplomat trained as a medical doctor said. “It took time to convince them – and because it was a new idea for me too, their concern meant I too went through moments of self-doubt.”
For the essay-writing competition, the external affairs ministry will declare a set of topics. Students will be given time to write their essays, which will be scrutinised by panels of experts – including diplomats. Selected essays from each region will then compete before a national panel, officials said.
“For too long, we’ve viewed the foreign service as the reserve of a few,” an official said. “We’ve tried to break down those boundaries in recent years. This is the next step.”
CHARU SUDAN KASTURI