As Relations Cool with Canada, India Looks to Expand ‘Short-Staffed’ Foreign Service

India’s Union Cabinet recently approved a proposal to add 215 positions to the country’s “short-staffed” foreign service over the next five years. On paper, India’s foreign service numbers 1,011, but only 848 officers were active as of March 2023. Those officers are scattered across an estimated 193 diplomatic missions worldwide, including two consulates general and one high commission in Canada.

India, with a population of around 1.43 billion, employs roughly the same number of diplomats as New Zealand, which has a population of 5.12 million. China employs an estimated 9,000 diplomats, while Japan has roughly 6,700. Canada, in 2022, had 2,777 employees posted abroad.

One expert at the Observer Research Foundation, a Delhi-based think-tank, told the South China Morning Post that the upgrade is welcome but noted that “capacity issues have long influenced Indian foreign policy.” Another Indian foreign policy expert was more direct, labelling the country’s foreign service “woefully understaffed.”

Foreign service plateaus while economy powers ahead

Since 2020-21, funding for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, which oversees the foreign service, has hovered around 0.4 per cent of the government’s annual budget, prompting complaints from some former Indian diplomats. India’s own Committee on External Affairs noted in a March 2023 report that India’s foreign service is severely “short-staffed" compared to “many” other countries.

Meanwhile, the Indian economy continues to boom. The country’s GDP grew 7.6 per cent in the July-September quarter, slightly down from the 7.8 per cent growth posted in the previous quarter.

Recent setbacks in Canada-India diplomacy

Ottawa pledged in its 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy to “strengthen Canadian diplomatic presence” in the region. That same document noted, “India’s strategic importance and leadership — both across the region and globally — will only increase.”

Since then, however, Canada-India diplomatic relations have chilled considerably. In October, following Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement that there were “credible allegations” potentially linking agents of the Indian government to the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, India threatened to revoke the diplomatic immunity of 41 Canadian diplomats posted in India for reasons of “diplomatic parity.”

This led Canada to pull those diplomats and their dependents from the country. Now, just 21 Canadian diplomats remain in India — equal, India says, to the number of Indian diplomats working in Canada.