Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Indian "Peace Corps" - Can it be an effective Public Diplomacy tool for India?

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The updates in my twitter account recently had this really interesting bit of information about the launch of "World Friends Korea" (Source: Syracuse University's Public Diplomacy Blog). According to The Korea Times, World Friends Korea is - "a group of volunteers to strengthen (Korea's) goodwill activities in underdeveloped or developing countries around the world in an effort to become a more responsible member of the international community." The report further mentions that, "The volunteers will work with governments, schools, non-profit organizations and businessmen in various areas, including education, the environment, agriculture and information technology. They will also play an important role in promoting Korea's culture and food around the world." The UN has welcomed the launch of World Friends Korea which it believes will help to expand Korea's role in the global stage, build visibility, credibility and promote goodwill. Interestingly, it is modeled on the US Peace Corps.
The US remains the only country to send numerous volunteers abroad - under a state backed initiative - to work in numerous areas ( Education, Health & HIV/AIDS, Environment, Business Development, Agriculture, Youth Development etc.) The underlying objective is to promote peace & friendship and also build a positive perception of the country overseas. Currently the US Peace Corps has 7,876 volunteers and a dedicated Federal budget of USD 340 million for 2009.
The news made me think if it is possible to have something on similar lines in India. Such a move will complement India's global aspirations and can make India more visible globally. I feel this can be very relevant in India's neighborhood, including the Indian Ocean area, where India remains and will remain the dominant power. South Asia & Indian sub continent is a problem area of the world be it human development issues or terrorism. India, with its resources, know how and skilled personnel can definitely play a role in helping countries in the neighborhood by sending trained volunteers overseas. From the perspective of strategy, it will help counter some of the animosity harbored towards India by its neighbors (Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar etc.) because of India's alleged "Big Brother" attitude. It will increase people to people contact, will benefit India's youth - potential leaders of tomorrow - in understanding India's position in the region and the world.
I am sure lot of Indian volunteers work and are working overseas in different countries. What I am suggesting here is a "state backed initiative" with dedicated annual budgets that can serve as a potent strategic tool in India's public diplomacy. I also feel it may not be entirely necessary to raise a separate group of volunteers, rather groom India's acclaimed National Cadet Corps or the NCC for such international roles in South Asia. India can start by offering such an option to NCC cadets and maybe gradually move toward raising a separate group of volunteers. NCC cadets can learn languages, know cultures & gain a global perspective to become better leaders in a globalized world. It will foster better understanding of India, especially in the Indian Ocean region & South Asia. Besides, this will also imply that India takes it position in the world seriously and is committed to make a real difference in the world leveraging its strengths and resources. How's that for Public Diplomacy messaging?
Suggestions/critiques welcome.
-- Madhur

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Northeast India in Indian Public Diplomacy

India's Northeast remains a distinct cultural unit within India. The land, its people, languages, customs, cultural practices have lot in common with countries of Southeast Asia like Thailand, Myanmar etc. For example, Thai language, culture and customs are studied, preserved, promoted & practised extensively by the Ahom tribe - a dominant ehtnic group - in Assam. There are museums, cultural centres dedicated to such pursuits. Similarly, if you go to Moreh in Manipur you can just "walk over" to Myanmar at certain hours during the day when the borders are opened for sometime. Some Naga tribes are in Myanmar and not in Nagaland. Apart from similarities in physical appearances - the Mongoloid features - there are also similarities between languages and dialects of Northeast India to Southeast Asia. If you look at dietary habits, cuisines of Northeast are very "unindian" (Indian food for most people is Punjabi - tandoori chicken, paneer tikka or the occassional Masala Dosa!) There are some shared dishes and styles of cooking with Southeast Asian countries which one won't find in the rest of India. Besides, Tinsukia in Assam is 24 hours away by road from Bangkok but 40-50 hours away by train from New Delhi! Cultural alienation from the rest of India is not surprising. Coupled with the irrelevance of Northeast in Indian electoral politics, it feeds into the growing discontent in the region leading to militant movements against the Indian state.
Despite the similarities between India's Northeast and Southeast Asia, people to people contact between the regions remain minimal. This was recognised at the policy level by former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao during whose tenure India started its "Look East" policy to spread India's influence towards the east. This was also a strategic move to counter a rising China rapidly growing in influence in Myanmar, Nepal & Bangladesh. While trade ties and strategic ties have grown manifold people to people exchanges are not as frequent as they should have been. The direct Air India flight "Narmada," started from Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi Airport at Guwahati to Bangkok has been scrapped. No international flights operate between India's Northeast to Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia remains low when it comes to 'mindshare' and Northeasterners look towards Delhi or Kolkata for ideas and inspiration. The media (TV programmes especially) rarely have content about/from Southeast Asia. Very few students from Northeast prefer to go for higher studies in institutes such as Asian Insititute of Management at Manila or Bangkok Institute of Technology, similarly very few students come to universities in Northeast from say Myanmar or Cambodia. The history curriculum in Indian schools too seek to downplay the links with Southeast Asia and talk about the region's evolution vis-a-vis North/South India and emphasise the ties with mainland India instead. Cultural exchanges remain few between the regions. A Cambodian/Thai cultural or food festival in Guwahati makes more sense than one in New Delhi. Similarly, ICCR and other such organizations should also strive to promote India's Northeast in these countries. It is yet to become a trade and cultural hub of India for Southeast Asia. The road to India's Northeast is still via New Delhi.
India's public diplomacy will do well to aggressively promote people to people contacts between these two regions. Instead of stage managing or institutional showcasing there should be an attempt to promote spontaneity and embed popular conciousness with ideas about each other. The government should actually make it easier for the Northeast to reach out to Southeast Asia and vice-versa. Cultural similarities between the regions should be effectively leveraged, and in the long run, this will only facilitate Northeast India's development & progress.
-- Madhur

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"Caminho das Índias" - Brazilian Telenovela

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I read this really interesting piece in Hindustan Times regarding the Brazilian soap (telenovela) that is based on India. The writer mentions that it is "the strongest manifestation of India's appeal" and says that there is a growing interest and curiosity about everything 'Indian' in Brazil. The soap is called "Caminho das Índias" or Passage to India and is a real popular one on Brazilian TV. Read the article here : Made in Brazil.
There is also a website of the novela: http://caminhodasindias.globo.com/
Watch You Tube teaser :


-- Madhur

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Indian Public Diplomacy - Time to be assertive?

Joseph Nye, the "Guru" of Public Diplomacy, had once stated that India (along with China) has adopted a foreign policy that made it more attractive in the eyes of others but have not been able to leverage its soft power resources like US, or Europe.
Very interesting point. Historically India has sought the moral high ground in international relations through non-aligned movement, the Panchasheel principles, Bandung Conference, membership of the Commonwealth etc. This to an extent generated considerable goodwill towards India internationally, projecting the image of a pacifist nation inspired by democratic values & Nehruvian vision of peaceful co-existence. It also helped India achieve the strategic objective of preserving it's sovereignty in a recently decolonised world mired in Cold War politics.
However, with ambitions of becoming a major world power, India now will be called on to take some pragmatic but 'hard' decisions. This might mean doing away with some of the "nice" image and being more assertive. For example, the vote against Iran in the recent past thus burying the prospects of a Indo-Iranian gas pipeline project was such a move. Such moves will result in strong reactions internationally (may be also internally) and India's public diplomacy strategists are likely to have their hands full.
The New York Times in an editorial - "Secretary Clinton goes to India" ( July 17, 2009) - on US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's visit to India said, "India wants to be seen as a major world power. For that to happen, it will have to drop its pretensions to nonalignment and stake out strong and constructive positions." The US wants India to take clear stands on international issues especially with a strong government in power now. The same newspaper in an earlier editorial - India's challenges - (May 18, 2009) had called for India to "use its considerable trade clout with Iran, Sudan and Myanmar to curb Tehran’s nuclear program, end the genocide in Darfur and press Myanmar’s junta to expand human rights."
With power comes responsibility. India's public diplomacy will have to be geared towards serving country's strategic interests and not just present a "fluffed up" image of the country. The US has done it very successfully by "owning" the "themes" of freedom and democracy and using these in all their communications to advance national interests.
-- Madhur
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Friday, July 17, 2009

Changing cast of characters - Indian Public Diplomacy

Traditionally, politics & the state played a significant role in shaping a country's image. Onset of information revolution & globalisation changed all that. There are significant non-state actors that play a crucial role in influencing and moulding public opinion. Most of these non-state actors now do that without any state patronage or direct encouragement from the state. A country should identify, recognise such groups and ensure that any public diplomacy strategy takes into account the existence of such groups. Sometimes, there are possibilities that such groups are acting in a manner that might be inimical to a country's interest or might indirectly promote a country's interests. A strategist should be able to anticipate and 'include' such possibilities.
For India, the 21st century will see the expansion of Indian corporates overseas significantly. These will be Indian MNCs, not necessarily outsourcing vendors, but also manufacturers and traders. These corporates with transnational interests will also be looked upon as "Indian" companies - projecting an image of India overseas. Case in point - Coca Cola & McDonald's - despite their global presence are still looked upon as symbols of 'Americanization' even though these brands adopted brand strategies in each country to 'localize' their product.
India's economic liberalization has meant more Indian companies are aggressively pushing for businesses overseas. Tata's acquisition of Corus, Jaguar, Landrover & Tetley Tea; Mahindra & Mahindra's forays into North America; the already entrenched position of Infosys, Wipro; ONGC Videsh scouting for energy resources overseas; Anil Ambani's tie up with Steven Spielberg to produce Hollywood movies etc. etc. Everyday we come across such stories in Indian & overseas media. What these companies will represent are Indian management style, work ethics, business values etc.
Interestingly, these issues were sharply brought into focus during the acquisition of Arcelor with Mittal Steel to create the biggest steel company of the world. The French CEO of Arcelor, Guy Dolle, is alleged to have made racial taunts against Indian businessman LN Mittal, also the 4th richest man in the world, and is alleged to have said Mittal was offering "monkey money" for acquiring Arcelor. This deal also resulted in the intervention of Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and was widely covered by the press. The Indian government took notice as well. This is all documented in the book "Cold Steel". (Read)
Consider this article that appeared in Fortune magazine in November, 2007 - "Jaguar, Land Rover look to buyers in India" (Read) - it says "Bizarrely, two Indian companies are among the leading bidders. Tata Motors (Charts) is basically a maker of commercial vehicles that has been building passenger cars for only a decade. Mahindra & Mahindra, which specializes in agricultural and utility vehicles, is just starting to build passenger cars this year." I thought the use of the word "bizzarely" was interesting while talking about an "Indian" acquisition of Land Rover. But it just did not stop there. It went on to say "And how many Anglophile owners of Jags and Range Rovers are likely to remain loyal to their brands once title passes to the sub-continent?" - I don't know what it meant, it could be either - Indians are not cool enough, Indian carmakers sucks, Indian companies cannot ensure quality control - whatever, Alex Taylor III might seem to be an Anglophile after one reads this article. What's interesting is that this article followed one in October, 2007 - "India's firms build global empires" (Read) - in the same magazine. A very informative article that concludes with - "Increasingly, Indian dreams are shaping the reality of global commerce. Those dreams ... offer great potential as a force for future growth." Positive insights into the possibility called India. India also has 24 billionaires with a combined net worth of $107 billion. Four Indians were among the world's top 10 richest. (Forbes)
In what could a direct example of what I am trying to put forth here - Indian business has become a crucial actor in Indian Public Diplomacy - consider the following article "Australians praise Sachin, avoid Slumdog to win Indian biz" in the Times of India on July 3, 2009. India and Indians are being closely observed. World over.
Developments such as above foster debate, discussions and the country gets talked about; opinions are formed. These offer wonderful opportunities to spread India's influence overseas as well and claim a bigger say in running the world economy. But do we have a strategy yet to leverage this interest? What would be also interesting to see is how these Indian companies vie for influence with Chinese companies...
-- Madhur

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bastille Day Parade - Feather in the cap for Indian Public Diplomacy

It was fascinating to watch the Maratha light infantry of the Indian Army LEAD the Bastille Day parade in Paris. It was full of symbolism that showcased the closeness of ties between France and India and also the importance of India in the new world order, where, just last week, the G-8 announced its own irrelevance and mooted the idea of a G-14 instead.

This symbolism will definitely give India an image boost in the West. Kudos to South Block mandarins for working towards it with the French. I am just curious to know the chain of events that led to it. How was the idea arrived at? Who mooted it first and why? Nonetheless, it does India's public diplomacy a lot good. I think it was a good 'stunt' to showcase the friendship, the relevance of India and also display a professional Indian army that can match the professionalism of the forces of a P 5 state.

There's a meeting of minds between France & India on a lot of issues:

  • Both support and strive to promote a multipolar world with both countries being one of the poles
  • France has been a defence supplier for India (Mirages for example) and now maybe the Rafale
  • The defence forces of both the countries share a healthy relationship and have participated in numerous joint exercises
  • France was also quick to sign a bilateral nuclear deal post the US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation agreement
  • Both are stable democracies and France is supportive of India's candidacy for a permanent seat in the UN

Most Indian newspapers, including Hindustan Times and The Times of India reported that Manmohan Singh also became the first international leader to be invited to attend the parade at France (Sarkozy was the chief guest in India's republic day parade in 2008). However, it needs some verification. There were representatives from Cambodia and Germany too witnessing the parade. Nonetheless it was great honor for India indeed.

-- Madhur

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Monday, July 13, 2009

China - Perception challenges & Public Diplomacy

The recent riots at China's restive Xinjiang province presents a good opportunity to analyze developments that stretched China's public diplomacy machinery. The Global Times, in the meantime, has written a scathing editorial criticising Western press on their coverage of the Urumqi riots and for deliberately maligning China's image. Read it here.
A few other "perception" challenges of China in recent times include:
  • Western observers routinely talk about the fact that China’s economic success has not been accompanied by significant political reforms and the single-party regime remains in force, even as the public sector is being rolled up.
  • Taiwan's refusal to allow the path of the running of the Olympic torch through its territory.
  • It's censorhip of information and the country was in news recently when it blocked Google for an hour.
  • Its support for the government at Sudan. This was an issue that was raised prior to the Beijin Olympics in 2008.
  • The contaminated pet food fiasco in North America last year which put into doubt the credibility & quality control in Chinese companies.
  • Attacks on an oil installation in Ethiopia that killed 9 Chinese workers.
  • The riots in Jharkhand in India between local laborers and workers of Sinosteel.
  • It's abysmal human rights record and the Tibetan issue.

China, just few days ago, objected to financial aid from Asian Development Bank to Arunachal Pradesh in India disputing Arunachal's status as an Indian state. This was disapponting considering the recent efforts to build trust between the countries. This will also definitely not go down well with the Indian people who remain wary of the Chinese threat. Besides, China's support of Pakistan is well known. Does the Chinese establishment care about a charm offensive targeted towards Indians? Positive perception of China in India is crucial to ensure that conflict (be it political or military) doesn't disrupt the growth momentum of these Asian giants.

-- Madhur

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Public Diplomacy and Anti-War

Alvin Toffler in his fascinating book "War and Anti-War" talks about how conflict prevention will be of crucial importance to countries in the 21st century. He believes the end of the Cold War has made the world more dangerous and talks at length how nations, advanced powerful economies would strive for "peace through "technology, communication & human innovation." In an increasingly networked and interdependent world prevention of conflicts has become more important rather than gaining geo-strategic advantages by means of force.
Public Diplomacy has become an important strategic tool for countries to prevent conflicts and maintain a status quo in international relations. Case is point is maybe China. Recent news stories on China feature Chinese leaders harping on the "peaceful rise" of China. This is an idea that is communicated again & again. A rising China is not a threat to anybody. Once a country's influence expands beyond its traditional sphere, conflicts are bound to arise as it competes 'within' the spheres of influence of other countries. Chinese Public Diplomacy efforts are increasingly geared towards negating this perception. Recently the country has also launched the news paper Global Times, which many critics feel is nothing but a propaganda tool.
A more "moral" approach might be of the UN which through its aid programs and peacekeeping operations has long been an advocate of strengthening Public Diplomacy for conflict prevention. India has always played a significant role in UN's peacekeeping operations. The country however needs a strategic roadmap to conduct a "charm campaign" in its turbulent conflict ridden neighborhood & Indian Ocean region.
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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Communicating Security & Territorial Integrity - India's Public Diplomacy Challenge

India's image as a safe destination has taken a beating recently post 26/11 Mumbai attacks. We saw the IPL shifted out of India, Australian Davis Cup team cancelling visits to India, travel advisories being issued by countries against India. I am sure common people from other countries cancelled/temporarily suspended trips or businesses with India too.
Terror, insurgency, political violence and militancy has been a part of India's history. Be it the Naga insurgency (oldest in the country), Kashmiri separatism, Naxal movement, Islamic terrorism - India has been bled continuously all these decades since independence. Apart from the economic, social and political costs it severely dents India's image as:
  • A country at peace with itself
  • A secure place to live and conduct business in
  • A country that has successfully managed to preserve its territorial integrity and will succeed in the future by successfully accomodating diversity and regional demands
  • A stable democratic polity that 'listens' and is capable of ensuring liberty and prosperity for all

While these movements may or may not be results of genuine grievances, what goes without saying is that it affects India's standing in the world. We get to read in the news regularly about countries raising issues about India's human rights record in Kashmir, don't we? How can a country claim a larger role in international relations if it's own house is not in order? This is a message that might go out through the news media . Take for example the recent Maoist attacks in Lalgarh. It got space in media outlets all over the world, almost conjuring up an image of India as a 'disturbed' state:

Read the coverage in the following:

BBC World, Al Jazeera, Daily Times of Pakistan, Xinhua, Global Times -Chinese propaganda machine

Public Diplomacy initiatives should definitely need to measure the impact of such messages and also have active plans/crisis communications network in place to neutralise the impact of such messages. A strategic approach should also look at how India can get mileage of out such messages and explore possibilities to leverage it for geo-political advantage. The US, for example, successfully used 9/11 imagery and coverage to it's advantage and continues to do still.

It's interesting that there is a wikipedia page on Lalgarh conflict. Hope South Block Mandarins monitor information in the social media sphere regarding domestic developments as well.
-- Madhur
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Sunday, July 5, 2009

New Zealand Education - Perspectives in Public Diplomacy

India is a lucrative market for the international education industry. For institutions of higher education from Australia and New Zealand, growth depends on the influx of students from India and China. All these countries (primarily English speaking nations) have set up representative offices across Indian cities to aggressively promote their education among Indian students. US remains the first choice, now New Zealand too has joined the bandwagon.

A friend of mine, publicist of one such education promotion agency, asked me over breakfast what can New Zealand possibly do to promote itself among Indian students. While I am not sure about the capabilities of NZTE and the resources they have to undertake a branding exercise, I think the following pointers might be useful:
  • New Zealand is clubbed with Australia by Indians. There is a need to "de-link"/differentiate itself from Australia. NZ can provide a more enriching student experience given the great outdoors and being a relatively 'uncrowded' place.
  • There is a perception that it's easier to get admissions in NZ compared to say US. This might result in bright students keeping away. This is potentially negative.
  • US is considered by Indians the nerve centre of the world...it's 'happening'... while New Zealand is "Down Under." This is an image constraint and the truth needs to be told. Messages should focus on the "international nature" of the education.
  • A media audit of newspapers in New Delhi showed that media exercises are limited to publicity for education fairs and trade shows. A media relations campaign that is sustained should be carried out to occupy mindshare among Indian students. At this moment I think they would be better off if they focus on nothing but a PR campaign.
  • A media relations campaign should take account of the fact that, rarely there have been stories about successes from New Zealand education. Rutherford who split the atom was from Auckland University. I think very few Indians know it. There should aggressive demonstration of successes that New Zealand education has produced, and these should be primarily Indian examples. Not just testimonials but media stories.

I am curious about the country myself and look forward to visiting it someday. Had there been no cricketing ties I am sure Indians would have known absolutely nothing about the country.

-- Madhur

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