Using cultural diplomacy

ExternalisingIndia’s Image

By Dr D.K. Giri
(Prof International Relations, JIMMC)

On my visit last week to Jakarta, Indonesia, I accompanied the international delegation to sight-seeing in the capital city of Jakarta. About 20 of us from 14 countries were taken to the old town where we were exposed to a puppet show. To my utter delight as well as surprise, the show was about the Indian epic Ramayana. In a Muslim-majority country in the capital city, not in Bali, where people of Indian origin populate, a Hindu epic embraced in cultural events like puppet show was indeed amazing. There are similar Indian spiritual-cultural influences in other South-East Asian countries, indeed in many other parts of the world where Indians have migrated to in the past and are a sizeable population now.
Another anecdote, I was told by a diplomat friend that an old lady in Tanzania walked some four kilometres to watch a video on an Indian feature film. Mumbai-produced feature films are quite popular across the world. On one of my visits to Kabul, I met youngsters who knew about Sanjay Dutt and Shahrukh Khan more than about anyoneelse in India. Both these experiences signify the soft power that India possesses, which emanate from India’s culture. Is India using this soft power effectively or engaging in cultural diplomacy?
To understand the significance and impact of cultural diplomacy, let us scan some of the formulations made by world leaders. Dr. Mari ElkaPangestu, World Bank Managing Director of Development Policy and Partnerships, former Minister of Tourism and Creative Economy of Indonesia said, “I think Cultural Diplomacy plays a large role in overcoming challenges that arise in multilateral trade negotiations. ‘Soft power’ often does help during hard negotiations. When you are learning about each other, whether it’s through cooperation in culture, the arts, collaboration between films, or collaboration between music, that does so much for increasing the understanding between any two countries or group of countries, which I believe often paves the way for a better environment during the more economical/political negotiations”.
Obviously, the dividends from cultural diplomacy are many. Yet, foreign policies of many countries focus more on trade and security issues than the cultural aspects. The cultural affinity between two countries creates a climate of confidence, trust and understanding. Why is culture then underplayed in diplomatic negotiations! This is perhaps due to uncertainty on the part of leadership, which culture, or particular aspects of a culture should be projected.
Cultural diplomacy is a way of presenting a country to the world, using the cultural riches of that country. Following from the above premise, what are the cultural assets? Different countries in the world have specific cultural riches and, in some cases, similar ones, if they had a shared history. In the Indian case, it is the co-existence of several identities creating diversity and harnessing the power of that diversity.
The politics of identity, however, is a pejorative concept. Karl Marx had said that religion is the opiate of the people: religion constitutes the bulk of a culture. Ever since, identities based on religion, race, ethnicity are discarded in public discourse. Alarmingly, people have been divided into various segments based on religion, race, gender and nationality. The right-wing populists are exploiting these divisions to gain political support. Aggravated by pandemic, financial crises, and wars, insecurity among majority of population fuels nationalism and extremism.
Enzo Traverso, Italian scholar of European intellectual history described this trend as an attempt to destroy democracy. He suggested that the rise of the far-right also underscores the increasing importance of identity politics in the early 21st century. Meant as a form of collective action, identity politics seeks to articulate the needs and demands that arise from the shared experiences of certain social groups.
In the West, immigration has caused the consolidation of majoritarianism as a reaction to globalisation and to the multi-cultural world that it is creating. As the national economies integrate through trade and direct foreign investments, profound demographic changes are taking place as migrants move to the West to either study or work. This is causing considerable anxiety among the white majorities who are fearful that growing religious and ethnic diversity may overshadow their own established identity.
In Asia, where India has considerable cultural influence, diversity has long been a hallmark of their cultures. Asia has given birth to five major religions and has hundreds of ethnic groups scattered across 48 countries and 11 different time zones. Despite their obvious differences, most ethnic and religious groups have lived in harmony with one another, enriching the arts, traditions and culture of the region.
Sadly, in recent years, various conservative and populist parties have come to power by weaponising identity. In India, the concern exists in some quarters that the majority is threatening the country’s cultural and religious minorities and upending the multi-cultural structure of the society.
Malaysia has recently experienced polarisation. Parties such as UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) have used the identity card to fracture Malaysian voters along religious and racial divides. Malaysia had long-established policy of affirmative action to improve the material conditions of the country’s bhumiputra or ethnic Malays.
Indonesia has been experiencing ethnic and religious pluralism insulating identity-based conflicts and politics. The country, however, saw a steady rise in divisive rhetoric after 2016 when Islamist groups launched a massive campaign to remove Jakarta’s Christian Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who they accused of blasphemy for insulting the Quran.
Progressives across the world have stayed away from identity politics. That is precisely the issue and challenge that India can address. Also, this is where India can contribute to the world politics with its culture of pluralism and synthesis. Multiple identities are the essence of diversity, which in turn, sustains democracy. Identities need not conflict and can easily co-exist as they are always contextual. An individual can embody multiple identities on the basis of language, ethnicity, race, gender, region, profession, religion and in Indian case, caste.
There are two kinds of identities – ascribed, which people are born into, the other, acquired, which can change. However, identities can be transcended into newer and higher forms depending on the context. For instance, your language identity can operate in the same language group, but you need to shed it and acquire another language while communicating with a person outside your language group.
Indian culture, composed of religions and traditions, is inherently diverse containing multiple identities. It has survived for centuries using the practice of co-existence as well as synthesis. India can use the unique traits of harmony, pluralism and synthesis in its culture and harness it in cultural diplomacy. This will enhance India’s chance of emerging as a global power, a super power. Trade and securityissues are led by US and China at present. What is missing in the world, which is divided and polarised, is a new political culturediscussed here. Will India fill the void? — INFA