Diaspora: A key resource for India’s Foreign Policy Objectives and Cultural Diplomacy

It’s a great pleasure for me to be here today in this lovely city of Jammu, the city of temples, and to speak on a subject that I understand is of special interest to all of you. Foreign policy, to put it in simple terms, is a tool through which a country interacts with the other countries of the world to promote and safeguard its interests and to establish friendly ties. Let me begin by outlining briefly India’s foreign policy objectives and then move to cultural diplomacy and look at the diaspora’s contribution to both. These objectives are essentially protecting India’s sovereignty and integrity, ensuring its security, both traditional and non traditional (energy, food and cyber security, etc.), and promoting its citizens’ well being, while ensuring India’s developmental needs. India’s modern foreign policy has been formulated on the bedrock of national interest and to meet the evolving challenges and rising aspirations that dominate India’s domestic agenda.

However, in the minds of the general public foreign policy is seen as an arcane area which appears to be unconnected to domestic issues or concerns and, aided by the media, the perception that the pursuit of foreign policy objectives is a waste of time and public funds has been gaining traction. The visits of the Prime Minister and other dignitaries are often criticized as being high on optics and low on substance achieving very little, even as domestic problems multiply. However, it needs to be understood that these visits are a part of India’s focused and pragmatic foreign policy strategy which have helped enhance India’s stature and standing as a democratic and non-threatening emerging power.

India faces several foreign policy challenges, as the global environment evolves rapidly and a redistribution of power is taking place towards Asia, with the relative decline of the West, and these are, briefly: China will remain an important foreign policy and security challenge for India; instability in South Asia, especially in Pakistan, a source of terrorism, is a grave threat to India’s security and prosperity; the violence in the middle East is a problem with a very large Indian diaspora there; dovetailing of our Act East Policy with the North East States’ developmental needs is an imperative; with Africa, where we have historical friendly ties and a large diaspora, the challenge is to deliver on our commitments; the Russia- India friendship has weakened somewhat over the years; India’s strategic relationship with Europe has declined a bit; the India-US partnership has deepened in recent years, though the challenge for India will be to retain its strategic autonomy. Multilateralism is in a state of flux, though the UN system remains important. India has made a bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC) and this will remain a key objective for our foreign policy.

To deal with the challenges and to effectively implement foreign policy we use traditional diplomacy along with economic, cultural, diaspora, public and digital diplomacy. One of the salient features of India’s evolving foreign policy is leveraging India’s abundant soft power, including its cultural assets, regionally as well as globally. The term ‘Soft power’ was first used by Joseph Nye to refer to the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants, without resorting to force or coercion. Soft power lies in a country’s attractiveness and comprises its cultural assets, political values and its foreign policy and helps to create a positive image of a country adding ‘brand’ value and helping to achieve desired foreign policy goals. A recent example of cultural diplomacy and of highlighting our soft power was the Prime Minister’s initiative in having 21st June declared unanimously by the UN, as the International Day of Yoga, adding considerably to India’s brand value.

Cultural diplomacy has the potential to contribute much more effectively to achieve foreign policy objectives as compared to traditional diplomacy, which is premised on a country’s hard power, depending on its strategic and military strengths. Cultural diplomacy, through presenting a positive national image abroad, can win over an audience that is generally suspicious of official messages. In today’s globalized and digitized world, digital diplomacy plays an increasingly important role and the Public Diplomacy Division and our Embassies abroad have embraced this new media, leading to engaging the local youth, including diaspora youth, in interactive conversations. This interaction impacts positively on young minds leaving an image of a changing, dynamic country.

India has a huge arsenal of soft power assets, based on its ancient civilization and cultural heritage, including yoga & spirituality, classical and modern music and dance, Bollywood movies, television serials (both fictional and mythological), cuisine, principles of non-violence, traditional medicine (Ayurveda), tourism, democracy, education, healthcare, etc. India has had a long tradition of secularism (i.e. treating all religions equally or ‘sarva dharma sam bhava’) and seen cross fertilization with other cultures and religions as seen in the evolution of an Indian Sufism and a unique Indian cuisine; both of which have taken a little from different sources and metamorphosed into distinctly “Indian”. India’s philosophy of ‘Vasudheva Kutumbakam’ or the world is one family with its message of coexistence, oneness, love, tolerance and understanding is particularly relevant in today’s world which is riven by divisiveness, intolerance and extremism. India’s soft power includes providing technical assistance, training and aid to other developing countries in Asia and Africa under the rubric of South-South cooperation.

The Ministry of External Affairs through its Public Diplomacy Division(set up in 2006) and the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) (set up in 1950), has worked concertedly to leverage India’s soft power to facilitate implementation of foreign policy goals. India’s ancient civilization, spiritualism, philosophy and culture have been admired by people from across the world and India has had a long history of it’s cultural influence crossing the oceans, including through its diaspora, and leaving an impact in diverse ways in different countries, especially in India’s extended neighbor hood in South Asia, South East Asia, East Asia, Indian Ocean region, etc. As part of cultural diplomacy activities, the 36 Cultural Centers set up abroad by the ICCR, teach Yoga, Indian dance and music, Indian languages, etc. and organize cultural events on a regular basis. ICCR scholarships to study Indian music, dance, art etc. in Institutions in India are regularly utilized by foreign students, including diaspora students; these enhance people to people relations and contribute in no small measure to strengthening of bonds at the government to government level.

The Indian diaspora had been an unacknowledged and neglected player in India’s cultural diplomacy for long but their contribution and immense leverage in local communities and governments has been recognized in recent years and the Indian government has put in place a slew of measures to connect with the diaspora and make them partners in India’s growth story and in its international relations. The term diaspora (from the Greek dispersion or scattering) refers to a scattered population that was originally localized; a large group of migrants with a similar heritage or homeland who have moved out to different places all over the world for different reasons. With globalization gaining pace, diaspora engagement has become an important element of foreign policy, to be leveraged for economic, political and strategic objectives.

The Indian diaspora constitutes the second largest diaspora in the world after the Chinese. India’s 27 million strong diaspora is spread in over 136 countries and is very diverse, with a mix of people who have migrated for vastly different reasons and includes the ‘old’ diaspora (slaves/indentured workers/Girmitiyas & traders, from the 17th to the early 20th century) and their descendants, and after independence, the ‘new’ diaspora (highly skilled to US and Europe and semi skilled/unskilled to the Gulf & SE Asia) & their descendants. Diaspora thus includes both the Indian origin persons and Non Resident Indians or NRIs. Immediately after independence, India, under Prime Minister Pandit Nehru, opted for a policy of distancing itself from the diaspora. India felt it was not in a strong enough position to stand by its diaspora given its economic status and was also wary of offending host countries as India’s support could have been seen as interference. In the early 1990s, India reviewed this policy and launched various initiatives to engage with its worldwide diaspora, which initially saw mixed results. India had hoped to rope in the diaspora to participate in India’s development story and to replicate China’s experience of huge FDI flows and huge dollar remittances from its global diaspora, but was disappointed.

With the realization of the importance of the diaspora, new government policies were formulated to involve the Indian diaspora in economic development and in return their needs and aspirations have been recognized and appropriate policy responses have been put in place, which included setting up of a separate Ministry in 2003, (since merged with the Ministry for External affairs), granting of PIO and OCI cards, (since merged), giving virtually dual citizenship, a long standing demand of the diaspora. Other measures put in place included instituting the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas (PBD), Bharitya Pravasi Samman Award, national pension scheme for NRIs, corporate internships for diaspora youth, Know India and Study India programmes, scholarships for diaspora youth, etc. were a recognition of the importance of, and contributions, of the diaspora and to help reconnect the young with India. The diaspora have sent regular remittances (approximately US $ 70 b in 2014 & US $ 69 b in 2015), made investments, lobbied for India on crucial issues, promoted Indian culture and, in general, created a positive image of India and Indians through their intelligence, hard work and entrepreneurial attributes, adding to India’s brand value. India has actively championed the cause of Indian diaspora/NRIs whenever they face problems or discrimination and conducted emergency evacuations from war zones/conflict areas. The overseas Indians/diaspora, enthused by India’s efforts to engage with them, have in turn, responded to our overtures to participate in India’s development initiatives, including in the Make in India and digital India programmes, as also promoted the cause of India with their host governments.

Prime Minister (PM) Modi has taken this policy further and made diaspora diplomacy a central part of his foreign policy and on his visits abroad, PM has made it a point to address the diaspora community in each country, outlining India’s needs and priorities and urging the diaspora to invest in India. The PM has thus tried to harness the energy and assets of the Indian diaspora and exhorted every Indian/ Indian origin person, to be an informal ambassador for India; to contribute money, time and expertise to the various flagship schemes of the present government like the Swachh Bharat or Clean India campaign, Clean Ganga Mission, building rural toilets, etc.

The Prime Minister’s use of smart power, a mix of India’s hard and soft power assets, including our large diaspora, has been a key element of his approach to achieve India’s foreign policy objectives. The government has renewed its focus on the diaspora, including on the NRIs, and foreign policy responses are accordingly tailored, including taking up the diaspora cause more assertively with their host countries where they work. The Indian diaspora is now increasingly active in local politics in the host countries, being either a part of the government or forming/leading the government in some countries. Diaspora diplomacy has led to a number of foreign policy successes in recent years as in the case of setting up of the India caucus in the US Congress and signing of the India-US nuclear deal.

India’s cultural diplomacy is fortified by the enthusiastic efforts of our diaspora, which augments the work being done by the Indian Embassies in this area. The “old” diaspora, cut off from its roots, was a key repository of India’s cultural traditions, in their original forms, and their descendants are very active in organizing and promoting Indian dance and music performances in the host countries along with holding regular dance, music and yoga classes, which are quite popular. The Indian diaspora, with its distinctive culture, has contributed to a vibrant and multi cultural, multi lingual society in host countries, whether in the UK, US or in Mauritius and the Caribbean countries, where Bhojpuri and Hindi are spoken. Indian channels and TV shows primarily catering to the Indian diaspora are popular with the other local communities and have contributed to showcasing a positive image of India, albeit a bit romanticized. Interestingly, Bollywood music and dance are very popular among the young around the world and popular Bollywood songs are used in skating competitions and in gyms! Popular Indian culture, including through our diverse diaspora, has been instrumental in bringing people from different cultures and backgrounds closer to India and built bonds at the people to people level in different countries across the world. Celebrations of Indian festivals like Diwali, Tamil New Year, Holi, etc. are organized on a grand scale with the participation of local governments and communities. The positive vibes these generate reverberate at the government to government level leading to mutually beneficial decisions, agreements, etc.

The presence of the Indian diaspora, however small, in any city in the world leads to creating awareness about India, its culture, customs, clothes and of course its cuisines. It is amazing to see an Indian restaurant in some tiny village or town in Europe or in south east Asia where a only a few Indian diaspora are settled. These diaspora are like informal ‘ambassadors’ for India and an image of India and Indians is projected through them. The local communities view India through the prism of their experience and interaction with the diaspora. However, a note of caution is in order, as some diaspora have been involved in narco-terrorism nexus, funding of separatists and financial irregularities in some countries and pose a foreign policy challenge. But, these are a small minority and their presence does not detract from the overall standing of, and good will generated by the majority of the Indian diaspora who have by dint of their hard work contributed significantly to the host country economy and development.

Without doubt the diaspora plays a key role in supplementing the Indian government’s efforts to project its soft power, including through cultural diplomacy. The diaspora is a key resource in supporting official efforts in achieving India’s foreign policy objectives of favourable outcomes through the deployment of soft power tools rather than through coercion. Deploying smart power, or combining soft power tools with the projection of India’s hard power, based on economic and military assets, leads to desired outcomes, including through leveraging our vast and diverse diaspora especially in the developed world. Our diaspora, both in the developed and in the developing world play an equally important role in India’s cultural diplomacy efforts and in creating a favourable climate for strong government to government relations and an enabling environment for Indian businesses to invest or set up companies in these countries. The Indian diaspora is diverse and a loyal citizen in the country of adoption but its links with, and cultural moorings, in India remain strong.

Excerpts from a lecture delivered by Amb(Retd) Manju Seth at Central University of Jammu and published in www.mea.gov.in with due recognition of Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India Copy Rights.

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