Diaspora and public diplomacy

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Feb 12 2005, 05:30am hrs
During a recent trip to Italy, it was a pleasant surprise to find that Bride and Prejudice was a big hit across Europe, and that Aishwarya Rai was an increasingly known name, much like Monica Belluci is in India. Ditto for America, where people saw her recently on the venerable US programme, 60 Minutes. On another occasion, and over lunch with some European editors, there were warm plaudits offered by those present towards a few India-born journalists working for international newspapers. And at an international seminar, the topic suddenly veered from democracy to the superb educational standards at Indias best institutes.

There are two remarkable things about these random references to India. First, they are happening with increasing frequency. Not overpoweringly so, but definitely growing. Compare this with a few years back when India was one dark hole in global consciousness, outside of the usual stories about feisty taxi rides, Bombay slums, kite-flying festivals, paan spittoons and, of course, the ubiquitous railway travelogue. (These have by now become essential and delectable morsels of human interest stories that are somehow de rigeur for any fresh western journalist posted in Delhi.)

Second, none of these was directly about the fabulous march of the Indian economy or those billions of dollars of venture capital poised to enter the country or those numerous Indian dotcom millionaires in Silicon Valley. Those stories have been done, redone and beaten to death. There is something newer now in the air. The rapid growth of the Indian middle-class and its attendant spin-offs may be the common and unmentioned context, but it is merely the background. Now, there is a foreground worth talking about, including Indias fashionable, successful, wealthy and global class. Even the oddballs. Laloo, I believe, has made it into a few American weekend supplements.

While these are still early days, there are enough dots to point to Indias changing image. India still remains a complex and exotic land in the larger western mind, a home to palaces, noisy bazaars, yoga and spiritual philosophy, but there is also a realisation among a newer generation in the West that India is also much more than a collage of native images. The nuance is beginning to develop, an appreciation that while parts of India grapple with poverty, there are other parts just pulsating with optimism and confidence as never before. The idea of India as an amalgam of parallel universes, each as real as another, is finally catching on. And not a day too early. Post-Independence, the dominant western view and sensibility towards India has been shaped by people like Barbara Crossette of The New York Times, full of their sense of noblesse oblige towards Indias rural masses and equally sharp disdain towards city folks.

In fact, the tables may be turning. It is increasingly the turn of Indian writers and practitioners to lend their perspectives and interpretations on western events and developments, whether it be the Iraq war, the Bush presidency, future of globalisation or clash of cultures. And when people like Amartya Sen, VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie Shashi Tharoor, Pico Iyer and Fareed Zakaria speak or are spoken about, they invariably create a positive correction about Indian society amongst their audience.

These are the stars. But even if you lower the spotlight, you find that so many people in the West have by now shared office space, term papers, dormitory rooms and close friendships with so many Indians. Indians are now found in large numbers as much in Fleet Street and Wall Street as on Main Street. The reason is that, generally speaking, and with perhaps the exception of Gulf countries, the vast majority of overseas Indians, whether first or older generation, tend to be well- educated, if not very well educated. All this has done much more for Indias global image than any official diplomacy by the Indian government. Which brings us to the role and relationship of overseas Indians to the home country.

Most of them often display an exaggerated and somewhat schizoid response. They rally to defend India when attacked by outsiders, constantly talk-up Indian goodness to any friend willing to listen, hark back about the greatness of the civilisation they left behind, and generally fill up their lives with Indian friends, movies, cultural events and news from home. In effect, they never really left the mother ship. But they also remember the tough times, the long lines, the shortages, the horrible roads, the absence of opportunities, the searing heat and the lack of dignity in the smallest endeavours. Theirs is a unique mix of rose-tinted nostalgia with whine.

But, of course, the Indian diaspora is hardly monolithic either in composition or attitude. Many of the second and third-generation NRIs are increasingly coming here to discover India on their own terms, outside of passed-down teachings of elders. These are the future ambassadors of goodwill, and it is time India started looking at some semi-structured public diplomacy that involves them. More than government, this means that even our companies, media, universities and public institutes need to promote linkages with what is an eager, influential and, in some ways captive, slice of international opinion.

The writer is editor, India Focus