Defining Diplomacy Through Culture

Defining Diplomacy Through Culture

Path-breaking, Proactive, Pragmatic – these three P’s encapsulate the diplomatic initiatives and outreach of the Government of India led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the last two years. These years were marked by out-of-box thinking, boldness of vision and energetic execution, which has reignited the ‘India Story’. In the process, India proved itself to be a major player in shaping evolving debates across issues, ranging from global governance reforms and climate change to trans-national terrorism and cyber security.

The neighbourhood continued to be the primary focus of attention as a historic agreement with Bangladesh was completed, and India rushed to assist Nepal after a devastating earthquake. The Afghan President came calling, while relations with Sri Lanka received new impetus.  The 2015 was a milestone in Indian diplomacy in reinvigorating India’s ties with all P5 powers, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting the US, China, France, Britain and Russia, paving the way for marked acceleration of multi-faceted relations with all these countries. It was also a year in which India’s multi-hued engagement with crucial regions of the world, including Africa, West Asia, Central Asia and South-East Asia acquired a new vitality and a long-term vision, opening new vistas for mutually empowering cooperation. The Third India-Africa Forum Summit rejuvenated old historical and cultural ties between the two growth poles of the world and placed the special partnership at the heart of an evolving world order. India’s summit with Pacific Island States signaled a new thrust in India’s diplomacy, which entails taking major powers as well as small and significant states together in the pursuit of common goals and shared interests. Relationships with multilateral groupings such as BRICS, G-20  and Commonwealth were strengthened. The last twelve months also saw India celebrating and bolstering its connections with the 25-million strong Indian Diaspora spread across hemispheres, through a host of new initiatives.

As evident in last two years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a seasoned practitioner of cultural diplomacy. Cultural Diplomacy (or “Diplomacy between Cultures”) has existed as a practice for centuries.  Whilst the term “cultural diplomacy” has only recently been established, evidence of its practice can be seen throughout history and has existed for centuries. Explorers, travellers, traders, teachers and artists can be all considered living examples of “informal ambassadors” or early “cultural diplomats”. Indeed, any person who interacts with different cultures, (currently or in the past), facilitates a form of cultural exchange, which can take place in fields such as art, sports, literature, music, science, business & economy and beyond. Throughout history the interaction of peoples, the exchange of languages, religions, ideas, arts and societal structures have consistently improved relations between divergent groups.

Prime Minister Modi has used culture and pragmatism in his foreign policy objectives very cleverly, particularly in Asia. Under the banner of India’s ‘Look East’ / ‘Act East’ policy, Modi has used culture to appeal to the peoples of Asia.  Much of this has been through Buddhism, which more than any other region or philosophy connects all of Asia.  Last year, India hosted the International Buddha Poornima Diwas, a global celebration of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing.  The decision to host was initiated by Modi who led the prayers on the day.  Modi stated “Without Buddha this century cannot be Asia’s century.”  India’s Home Ministry announced that there would be a government-sponsored annual celebration of the anniversary (fructified this year too).  The government also plans to establish a centre for Buddhist worship and learning in New Delhi. Thus, Modi’s government is trying to promote India as the spiritual birthplace of Buddhism and home of the Buddha. The utilisation of Buddhism does not necessarily contradict Hindutva ideology, which seeks to protect and promote all that is deemed Indian heritage, including Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.

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The latest instance of this strategy is the Simhasth Kumbh Mela in Ujjain that was graced by Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and a host of dignitaries from Nepal, Bhutan, Laos and Bangladesh on May 14.  Modi’s objective of gathering South Asian notables to strike common ground on universal values, righteous conduct and simple living is to situate India at the highest pedestal of the eternal quest for a better life. He has mainstreamed spirituality and cultural linkages that had hitherto found only lip service in Indian foreign policy. Modi often invokes inclusive ancient Indian maxims like Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family) and Tena Tyaktena Bhunjitha (enjoyment through sacrifice and renunciation). In Ujjain, he defined the Indian ethos as “ Sarve bhavantu sukhinah, sarve bhavantu niramya (seeking everyone’s good and everyone’s welfare).  This kind of messaging contradicts the earlier notion of India being a self-interest nation and country with big brother attitude towards its neighbours.

By adding spiritual substance to the idea of economic and political-strategic calculations in the international arena Modi is trying to project India to the world as a civilisational entity with accumulated wisdom of millennia that is the solution to today’s global crises. Toying with what Swami Vivekanand envisaged in 19th century, Modi is projecting an India which is a microcosm of the world, a broad multicultural platform and a moral force. As for his diplomacy is yielding dividends or not can be gauged by the statement of Sri Lankan President at the Simhasth Kumbh. He said that as leader of a country with a majority Buddhist population, “I have special reasons to be happy” as Mr Modi was leaving no stone unturned “towards respecting Buddhism”.

PM Modi’s idea of inviting both  Sirisena and Sri Lanka’s Opposition leader R. Sampanthan, of the Tamil National Alliance, to Ujjain and mixing Hindu and Buddhist motifs during their visits manifested the real purpose behind his cultural diplomacy. It was evident when PM Modi said during the International Conference on Universal Message of Simhasth, with both Sirisena and Sampanthan present, “India has an inherent conflict management system” because “we are not bound by stubbornness and bigotry, but guided by insight derived from millennia of coexistence”. It can be termed  a strong cue that India is the model for multi-ethnic peace, federalism, constitutionalism and democracy. Sri Lanka torn between Sinhalese and Tamils would surely benefit from this idea.

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Modi’s championing of the “Ramayana trail” and the “Buddhist circuit” is at one level a clever contraption to boost tourism and people-to-people ties in South Asia and Southeast Asia. But at another level, it is an effort to form a combined cultural construct that would restore India’s centrality in Asia. Decrying that India lacks the ability to market itself, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asserted that the country should use the language, logic and arguments the world understands rather than harping on the old ways that others find difficult to comprehend. “People call us unorganised. Lakhs of people attend religious gatherings like Kumbh without any invitation but we don’t know how to market ourselves. Those who are supposed to do it, and those whose profession it is, they focus only on Naga sadhus” he said, urging leading world universities to make a case study of large gatherings such as these.


Vaicharik Mahakumbh A cynosure for all eyes


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A three-day convention which was organised in middle of Simhasta Kumbh became a cynosure for many eyes. This ‘ideological mahakumbh’ was attended by foreign and diplomatic delegates from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Japan — an event which many political analysts termed as the Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh’s (RSS) international outreach programme. As the political observers say, using religion as a diplomatic tool and internationalising Hindutva has been a hallmark of the Narendra Modi government since it took office in May 2014. There are instances galore: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe getting a spiritually-charged welcome at the historic Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi amid chants of “Har Har Mahadev,” Modi offering puja at the 5th century Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, then at the 12th century Dhakeshwari temple in Dhaka in July 2015, as well as visits to Buddhist temples in Kyoto in September 2014.

While using religion or culture as a diplomatic tool may have been the thought behind this convention, the convention dwelled upon very problems the world faces today.  The convention not only discussed all issues related to Hindus both in India  and in the neighbouring countries, the summit also deliberated on non-political international issues like protection of environment, empowerment of women etc. The three-day meet not only discussed religion, it was an intellectual and ideological exchange on environmental, social issues and even health hazards. Even Prime Minister Modi appealed to all 13 akharas (religious bodies), whose heads were in the audience, to spare one week every year to focus on issues such as environment and empowerment of the girl child. “Talk of moksha,” he told the sadhus, “but also talk about these issues by calling experts — and even atheists and irreligious people.’’ Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan said the 51-point declaration will be sent to all state governments, the central government and the United Nations. Stating that Madhya Pradesh  would  be the first state to act on the declarations, Chouhan said he would undertake a padyatra (march) from Amarkantak, the origin of the Narmada river, to spread awareness about planting trees and saving the river. While the Opposition may term the convention a ploy to internationalise the Hindutva agenda, the summit definitely dwelt upon the problems faced by the world and the solutions to them.


Taking the occasion to highlight the problems faced by the world, he said that climate change and terrorism are the biggest challenges before the world today and blamed the “holier than thou attitude” for the problems. “Imperialism is taking the world towards conflict,’’ Modi said while pointing out that India has inherent conflict management skills. He further emphasised the country should embrace and welcome change. Earlier, even crossing the seas was considered unholy but that has changed, he said. “India has a global duty to unite because it (the country) is good at that,” he said, adding that the country should present its traditional knowledge and values before the world in a scientific way.

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Besides Buddhism, the other religious community that Prime Minister Modi has consciously tried to bring under the domain of his cultural diplomacy is Islam. At the World Sufi Forum in New Delhi in March, he proudly remarked: “Sufism from India spread across the world and this tradition that evolved in India belongs to the whole of South Asia.” His projection of Sufism as an antidote to terrorism and extremism has been well received in the Muslim world, particularly West Asia. One should also remember Modi visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in the United Arab Emirates in August 2015 and clicking selfies there with the rulers of Abu Dhabi. References to Indian Muslims as role models who are integrated and eclectic, and engagements with Muslim non-resident Indians are part and parcel of Modi’s foreign visits. Visiting a Gurudwara and inaugurating an international conference titled ‘India-Iran, Two Great Civilisations: Retrospect and Prospect’ organised by ICCR with Academy of Persian Language and Literature in Tehran also manifested soft diplomacy at the work in bilateral relations. These actions have definitely helped in changing Islamic nations’ impressions of Modi’s India, especially in the Persian Gulf region.


West glued to Bharatiya spiritual thinking


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India’s religion and philosophy had begun to acquire a special niche in the global market for spiritualism in the 1960s. The famous seekers who came to India included the Beatles, who spent time at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh in 1968. That tradition continues as ordinary men and women, celebrities, and world leaders make the passage to India. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook revealed last year that he had visited the Kainchi Dham in Uttarakhand at the suggestion of Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, who had visited the ashram in the 1970s. Meanwhile, the Indian godmen and gurus responded to a growing market in the world, especially in the West. Yoga and meditation gained large followings around the world, including  the East.


Of course, culture alone is not enough to make countries’ change their policies towards India.  It is nevertheless a tool which India, perhaps more than the other great powers, needs to use to buttress its under-resourced foreign policy apparatus.  Modi rose to power domestically and fulfilled his political objectives partly because of his appeal to pride in Indian culture.  When pursuing national objectives on the world stage, it will be a benefit for all Indians if he can use culture to work that same magic.

By Nilabh Krishna

from Ujjain

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