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Indian diaspora and `soft power

January 06, 2003

The Hindu

Indian diaspora and `soft power'
By C. Raja Mohan

NEW DELHI Jan. 5. In his reflections on modernising the Indian diplomacy Friday, the External Affairs Minister, Yashwant Sinha, focused on the importance of "soft power'' in global politics. The influence of great powers is generally measured in indices of "hard power'' such as military capability. In contrast, soft power is the ability to influence other societies through such real but intangible elements as culture.

The current pre-eminence of the United States, for example, is based not just on its unrivalled military strength. It is reinforced by the American dominance of the international cultural realm through export of products ranging from Hollywood films to hamburgers.

The U.S. universities draw the best and the brightest from the world, many of whom return home infected with American values. Coke and McDonald's have become the ubiquitous symbols worldwide of the appeal of the "American way of life.''

India could always count itself among the few nations with strong cards in the arena of soft power. Thanks to the spread of religion and culture from India to the neighbouring regions over the millennia, India has exercised a measure of "soft power''. The spiritualism of India has attracted people from all over the world, and its Gurus have travelled around the world selling yoga and mysticism. Bollywood has done more for Indian influence abroad than the bureaucratic efforts of the Government. From classical and popular music to its cuisine, from the growing impact of its writers and intellectuals, India now has begun to acquire many levers of soft power.

The biggest instrument of our soft power is the Indian Diaspora. As Mr. Sinha pointed out, "people of Indian origin are extremely important sources of support for the Indian Government in the execution of its policies through the influence and respect they command in the countries in which they live.''

The Indian Diaspora is all set to descend on the capital this week. "Pravasi Bharatiya Divas,'' celebrating the achievements of Indian communities abroad, will now become an annual winter ritual in New Delhi. The political establishment and the leading lights of expatriates will let it all hang out: rhetorical excess, award grubbing, ego hassles and rivalries that reflect every division in Indian society.

But make no mistake. The prodigal sons are returning and India is ready to serve the proverbial fatted calf. The Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, is expected to announce a pared down version of "dual citizenship'' to the people of the Indian origin. Short of political rights, the expatriates are likely to get a host of privileges in India.

"Pravasi Bharatiya Divas'' will go down as a landmark political event that defines Indian Diaspora's double-edged power: even as it helps India raise its standing abroad, the Diaspora is dramatically increasing its political clout at home.

The celebrations this week formalise the reality of the last few years, where the Diaspora has become an important source of financing for the Indian political class. The Diaspora does more than spread Indian influence abroad. It will also bring foreign ideas-good and bad-into India. "Pravasi Bharatiya Divas'' is about the rise of a new formation in the politics of a globalising India. The expatriates can no longer be wished away by India.

While India endlessly debates the modernisation of its diplomatic apparatus, Britain is actually doing something about it. The Foreign Office in London has called all its envoys home for a brainstorming session this week on how to improve the effectiveness of the British diplomacy in a changing world.

The agenda is said to be wide ranging. British mandarins will explore better use of modern technology in the conduct of diplomacy, creating the institutional capacities for more rapid political intervention all over the world, restructuring of the Foreign Office, developing a culture of teamwork with officials from other governmental agencies and fostering purposeful relationships with the media and non-governmental organisations. The principal objective of the exercise is to keep Britain "punching above its weight'' in world affairs.

India, however, will keep punching below its weight in the world if there is no radical reform of its diplomatic machinery. There is no shortage of ideas for bringing greater efficiency to the Foreign Office. Many reports, old and recent, on reforming the Indian diplomatic apparatus are gathering dust. Whenever there is talk of change, the attitude in the top layers of the Foreign Office is, "No thank you, we are doing fine''. But it's time to begin a serious debate, within the Ministry of External Affairs and outside, on the imperatives and directions of modernising Indian diplomacy.

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