Thursday, February 11, 2016

Avenues to debate foreign policy

Pranaav Gupta,| 11 February, 2016

Modi image from article

The emphasis that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has laid on setting and revamping India’s foreign policy agenda is indeed laudable. In his foreign trips, there has been a constant focus on creating a perception around and effectively projecting ‘Brand India’. It is here that the importance of public diplomacy comes in. Public diplomacy involves transmission of foreign policy opinions to target audiences.

The Public Diplomacy Division (PDD) of the Ministry of External Affairs was set up in 2006 and in 2014 it was merged with the External Publicity Division. It is tasked with creating a perception around Brand India by projecting India’s soft power, via engagement with the Indian diaspora abroad, countries of the global south, ‘as well as engaging with domestic and global audiences to explain India, its foreign policy and various aspects of India’s engagement with the world.’ via cultural and academic exchanges, documentaries, social media and other avenues.

On 9 January, External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, while speaking at the Pravasi Bhartiya Divas, an annual event that highlights the contributions of the overseas Indian community, stressed upon the renewed engagement of the present government with Indian diaspora abroad.

It is unfortunate however that there continues to be a lack of interest in issues of foreign affairs even amongst India’s informed citizenry. It is therefore of immense importance to throw light on and do an appraisal of a recent initiative being carried on by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), to engage and inform the citizenry on matters related to Indian foreign policy and also look at other attempts that are being made by think tanks to create similar discussions.

The Public Diplomacy Division (PDD) of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) then headed by Navdeep Suri, launched an initiative called The Distinguished Lecture Series in the year 2010. The objective was to create a dialogue and discussion forum for Indian foreign policy amongst domestic audiences, particularly college students across India. The lecture series involves the MEA sending a retired diplomat of Ambassador rank to a University. The MEA looks after the airfare costs and the host university is in charge of local hospitality. The text of the address of the Ambassador is in most cases put on the MEA website, and the lectures have included themes ranging from Indian national security to utilizing the agriculture industry in the conduct of foreign policy.

A cursory look at the MEA website reveals that this initiative has already reached more than a hundred universities all across India.

The National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata, where I am a student, recently entered into such a collaboration with the MEA. As a part of the initiative, we have had veteran diplomats such as Arundhati Ghose and Rakesh Sood lecture the students on themes of multilateral global governance and India’s nuclear diplomacy respectively. These lectures were open to the public and have been extremely well received by the student body with some students going to the extent of rating them amongst the best talks that they have attended.

In a country where rigorous foreign policy analysis is limited to mainly New-Delhi based think tanks and strategic experts, these talks help in carrying the conversation and discussion forward to other parts of India as well. Former External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, while addressing a gathering in Bangalore delivering a public policy address, had stressed on the need to involve greater participation from not only Indian States but also the public in the conduct of foreign policy. Since the most essential component of foreign policy is contributing to the overall economic development of India via the projection of her interests abroad, every citizen of this country has a stake in her foreign policy.

Another interesting facet that arises from the lecture series, is that India has been reluctant to come out with an official document that outlines her foreign policy priorities (Attempts were made in 2012 with a semi-official document titled Non-Alignment 2.0). These lecture series providing a valuable insight into how India foreign policy is conducted and highlight the country’s foreign policy priorities and challenges.

MEA also offers a much-in-demand internship program to graduate students to work on policy related assignments at any one of the Ministry’s divisions.

While talks and discussions do certainly help in generating an interest in foreign policy, the study of international relations/affairs continues to be in an abysmal state in India. There are a handful of universities that offer a bachelor’s education in International Relations. Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and Jadavpur University, Kolkata seem to be the only institutions that have a worthwhile research output on foreign affairs.

India has a number of government-funded research institutions that do focus on foreign affairs. The Ministry of Defence-funded Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) was set up with the aim of providing credible policy inputs to the government. It is presently headed by former ambassador Jayant Prasad. IDSA however has been suffering from a deteriorating quality of research reports. The Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) set up in the year 1943 publishes a journal called India Quarterly. It was recognized by an act of Parliament in 2001 as an ‘institution of national importance’. The Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) is an autonomous research institution that mainly works on trade issues, investment and international economic development. It is headed by career diplomat Shyam Saran.

India is also home to the largest number of non-government funded think tanks. To mention a few, the Ananta Aspen Institute holds weekly discussions that are open to the public on a variety of interesting foreign affairs related contemporary issues. Observer Research Foundation also has a number of their fellows contributing regularly on foreign policy matters in newspaper columns. The much talked about rightward leaning think tank Vivekananda International Foundation, which was started by the present National Security Advisor Ajit Doval also has regular meetings and discussions on foreign policy. Gateway House, Mumbai and The Takshashila Institution, Bangalore regularly conduct a number of events related to foreign policy.

The extent to which the research provided by these think tanks is actually used by the government in policy formulation is unclear; however, with their presence in the media they do play an important role in shaping public discourse.

Recently, the MEA had also advertised for positions as private consultants for its Policy Planning and Research Division, which has received a great response.

In conclusion, one hopes that the distinguished lecture series, which was a first of its kind initiative, helps in creating a new breed of Foreign Service officers driven by their interest in foreign policy. Think tanks in India need to hire more domain specialists and engage in worthwhile research. Giving the ever-evolving challenges of new public diplomacy; engagement, communication and information outflow will continue to be the anchors on which a clear and credible public policy discourse is shaped.

The writer is a third-year student at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.

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