A Public diplomacy strategy for India

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In a recent speech - Why Foreign Policy Matters - An Indian Perspective, - Dr. Shashi Tharoor, Minister of State, Foreign Affairs, Government of India observed that there is a need to “develop and exploit India’s considerable soft power, by making this integral to the work of (the) territorial divisions” within the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and called for the development of a “coherent public diplomacy strategy” that can bring together efforts of diverse institutions like the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) and the Public Diplomacy Division within the MEA. He called for an effective diplomacy strategy and public diplomacy planning to increase India’s influence abroad. Nirupama Rao, India’s new foreign secretary who took charge in August, too, stated that Public Diplomacy should receive more attention from South Block.

India needs to be seen, heard, felt and India needs to woo, engage and ideate. Policy makers seem to have recognized this. Readers would recollect that I had written about the need for a Public Diplomacy strategy to promote brand India better abroad much earlier. In the 2008 Anholt’s Nation Brand Index India ranked a lowly 27th and was ranked low in all categories like perceptions of culture, tourism, governance, Investment brand etc. At a time when India is aspiring to be a global power and when the focus of India’s military doctrine happens to be “power projection” there is a need to complement these efforts with an effective soft power strategy.

Dr. Tharoor, in his speech, took a limited view of Public Diplomacy and confined it to areas like music, culture, literature, food etc. Any strategy for India, should in fact try to widen this definition of Public Diplomacy and also include elements like foreign aid, bilateral co-operation especially in Southeast Asia, media relations, leveraging Indian media conglomerates, using social media etc. The goal should be to project power and dominate the sphere of ideas and increase mindshare among global audiences.

A limitation for India is the lack of strong think tanks, universities, thinkers practicing Public Diplomacy. The Indian Foreign Service (IFS) too, for long, has operated in silos with lateral entry & exchanges between government and academia being few and far between. Scholars of International Relations and Diplomacy in India have focused overwhelmingly on studying conflict and security rather than public diplomacy, dynamics of north-south relations, developing area expertise other than on Pakistan or South Asia, international relations theory, multilateralism etc. Coupled with this is the lack of good communication schools in India with interdisciplinary focus. The number of communication schools can be counted on finger tips and not all of them are engaged in communications research. If one looks at US, some of the leading Public Diplomacy schools like University of Southern California, Syracuse University etc. run their public diplomacy programs in collaboration with the communication schools in those universities. Indian foreign policy establishment should understand that that the theory and practice of public diplomacy is as much a function of communications as it is a function of diplomacy.

Suggestions/Critiques welcome.