That Indian economy has been growing fairly well over past few years is a given. Even if some dispute the data or it’s interpretation, or even if the non-inclusiveness of such an economic development is a worry.

That the global investor interest in the Indian economy is on the rise is another given. We can see it from investments across the old economy to newer and growing green economic activities.

But to maintain and nurture such high level of investor interest (institutional and governmental) requires constant, hands-on engagement. After all, any democracy requires long term, sustainable and inclusive socio-economic progress.

This is where India has pulled its punches so far, especially in increasing its global trade possibilities despite availability of talent.

Need for specialisation

With the economy poised for faster growth over the next decade, and India already attracting FDI across various sectors, it needs to have its ‘economic ambassadors’ positioned across key global markets and strategic cities.

Expecting its political leaders to lift further weight is not fair. While we aim to push political and strategic affairs impetus as part of diplomacy, we also need to position our scaleable efforts for trade-diplomacy.

In mid 2021, the PM addressed heads of Indian missions abroad and the stakeholders of the trade and commerce sector. He observed that “when the country is moving towards the mission of Atmanirbhar Bharat, one of its goals is to increase India's share in exports manifold”. He observed that to achieve this we have to make sure that we get access to the global supply chain, so that our business could scale and grow. He added that our industry will also have to move towards the best technology, focus on innovation and increased share in R&D. “While encouraging competition and excellence, we have to prepare global champions in every sector.”

It is precisely for these reasons that we need focussed attention on developing our global trade.

It is indeed very common for many countries including the U.K., Australia, European countries to have trade commissioners. Almost all of them are experienced business leaders from private sector who play this role for their country. For example, the Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade) has over 75 global offices. It has diplomatically accredited trade commissioners and teams of experienced local talent. The Canadian Trade Commissioner Service has over 160 offices in Canada and abroad, employing both Canadian citizens and foreign nationals with this title. Even smaller countries like Tanzania have their trade commissioners in India. The U.S. commercial services has its trade officers globally, as well as in over 100 locations in the U.S. They offer business match making and enable ease of business entry and access.

Trade commissioner

Such positions are created by governments with primary duties to promote global trade and facilitate two-way trade movement with and for their country’s industries. They not only promote national trade, but also facilitate global access for their nation’s regional and smaller trade sectors. They also support export opportunities and help in pitching for global inward investments. They offer support for their home country firms to market themselves better in other countries.

Usually these experienced leaders are not career diplomats or bureaucrats. They are from the industry, understand business, regulations, issues that govern multiple industrial sectors. Often they are well networked, and have high energy levels, maturity and tact to deal with official rules of business engagement. They are located in different parts of the world, and push the trade agenda (both inward and outward) of their country. They don’t have the shackles of being part of the officialdom, while they do have their roles, responsibilities covered well and with sufficient non-disclosure arrangements. Some of the non-conflict situations arise when they have to push forward agenda of any company/sector that they had been part of, before their trade commissioner role. The fears of misuse of such appointments by people from large enterprises is misplaced, for those large enterprises anyways have a full team of advisors, market-makers, policy advisors, lobbying power including retired bureaucrats and regulators, etc.

Stretching the over-stretched

In the past few years, the conversations around expanding the Indian Foreign Service to over 3,500 people have been mooted, and yet it's been work in progress. Today, the IFS cadre is just above 600 member strong! Even a smaller nation-state like Singapore has more than this number in its Foreign Service!

It is a tough ask and almost crazy to expect these already overworked (while some may disagree on the ‘overworked’ part) bureaucrats can specialise as trade champions, and attempt to push bilateral trade as a strategic driver for the nation. For, a trade commissioner role is all about starting with data, data collation, data interpretation, packaging them into a pitch for what’s good as win-win for both sides.

The ask

The role of commercial aspects of the Indian diplomacy has not been effective or contemporary, but it had not been designed for it as well. Except some outliers, commercial roles have been probably either feel-good postings or punishment postings! The heavy burden of pushing for trade growth has to be a sustained effort for a long period of time, to enable greater positive outcomes. This is best left for specialists to handle.

Dealing with trade and industries needs specialisation and experience. Apart from the power play and name dropping, this role is a lot of back room work in managing business interactions. It needs understanding of how corporations operate, and what drives business decisions at the board level.

India, with its aspirations, simply deserves to have at least 500 non-IFS trade commissioners, positioned in key markets to help Indian businesses spread their wings, as well as to regularly present ‘investment market India’ as a reality; with a 3-year contractual appointment, without any diplomatic immunity, but with sufficient authority and budgets that a usual CEO has at her/his disposal to help strike deals for the nation!

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