India’s road to free trade with the world has been bumpy and slow. Partly, this is because the Doha round of the World Trade Organisation negotiations, while still technically alive, is pretty much on life support. However, it is also true that bilateral and multilateral negotiations with big trade blocs like the European Union (EU) and the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) have faced many hurdles. Some of these are the product of domestic political exigencies that come in the way of attempts to open up trade everywhere. But much of the reason is that, simply put, the Indian state’s lack of capacity hampers its ability to move forward speedily with delicate negotiations. That’s partly why the agreement with Asean to extend free trade to services and investment took several additional years to be concluded, although the broad principles were largely agreed upon early on. And it’s also partly why trade with the EU continues to stagnate, as the India-EU free trade agreement still waits for finalisation. Meanwhile, India’s exporters continue to suffer from collapsing markets, adversely affecting domestic growth and employment.
This problem extends beyond trade negotiations. At climate talks, for example, India finds itself struggling to take the lead in breaking the impasse between the United States, China, and the at-risk developing world because its negotiating team, while expert and well-briefed, is not as deeply staffed as many others.
This is partly why India has been unable to avoid being bracketed with the positions taken by the team from China, where state capacity in multilateral negotiations has never been a problem. Meanwhile, examining the composition of various G20 working and expert groups – the numbers fluctuate, but there are usually about seven or eight, dealing with such things as corruption, energy and financial reform – can serve as a reality check. Where most other major economies send teams of officials as part of their delegation, India usually has a single officer, who often represents the country in more than one working group. In previous G20 summits, India was the most frequent choice to chair a working group; that tendency has declined, perhaps in part because it was seen how it slowed down the process.
The human resources problem within the Indian central government is well known. But it is in such matters where domain knowledge, attention to detail and focus are required that it pinches the most. The Indian Foreign Service (IFS) is, frankly, stretched beyond breaking point. There are less than 4,800 officers in the IFS currently; less than there were a decade ago, even though India’s responsibilities over the past decade have risen considerably. This is about as many officers as New Zealand has at present. If major desks in the foreign ministry are run with fewer than a dozen officers, is there any chance that complicated issues like international negotiations receive the attention they require? National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon reportedly told a parliamentary panel a few months ago that “for every Indian diplomat there are four Brazilian diplomats; for every Indian diplomat there are seven Chinese diplomats... The strain is telling on us.” Out-of-the-box solutions – in particular, lateral recruitment from outside the government, regardless of what the Indian Administrative Service feels about it – are needed, and urgently.