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Cultural diplomacy for the current development of India

(LLCT) - Cultural diplomacy has been utilized successfully by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for promoting national development and raising the status of India in the regional and international arena. Modi’s cultural foreign policy has the following characteristics: (1) India first; (2) Prioritizing the neighboring area in the near term; (3) Overcoming historical barriers; (4) Moving from being a rule-taker to a rule-maker; (5) Making use of and promoting the Indian diaspora; (6) Promoting cultural connectivity. Thanks to these policies, from formerly fumbling and stumbling around searching for a development path, India has become a global leader, a rule-maker, and an agenda-setter in the international arena.

Keywords: cultural diplomacy, India Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“Cultural diplomacy” is composed of two separate entities: “diplomacy” and “culture”. When “culture” is utilized to communicate and connect with the outside, the concept “cultural diplomacy” is born. In short, “cultural diplomacy” can be understood as an approach to foreign policy, with cultural factors at the core, with the goal of effectively carrying out various diplomatic actions. Culture and diplomacy are closely interconnected, with culture being the basis, tool, driver, and goal of diplomacy. Thus, cultural diplomacy means both using and promoting cultural forces to carry out foreign policy, and using diplomacy to uphold and protect cultural values.

Cultural diplomacy is one of the soft powers successfully used by India during its history of struggle for freedom and independence as well as during its national building and development, especially under the Narendra Modi administration. Since assuming the position of Prime Minister, Modi has always prioritized foreign policy. In the BJP Party’s Manifesto (2014), Prime Minister Modi pointed out the pillars of his vision for foreign policy: “to fundamentally reboot and reorient our foreign policy goals, content, and process, in a manner that locates India’s global strategic engagement in a new paradigm and on a wider canvas, that is, not just limited to political diplomacy but also to include our economic, scientific, cultural, political, and security interests, both regionally and globally, on the principles of equality and mutuality, so that we have an economically stronger India and one whose voice is heard in the international forum” (1).

According to Dr. Anirban Ganguly, the key author of The Modi Doctrine: New Paradigms in India’s Foreign Policy, the 5 pillars (Panchamrit) in India’s foreign policy under Modi’s leadership include: 1) Dignity and honor (Samman); 2) Greater engagement and dialogue (Samvad); 3) Shared prosperity (Samriddhi); 4) Regional and global security (Suraksha); and 5) Cultural and civilizational linkages (Sanskriti evam Sabhyata).

Exploring the new vision and practices of India’s foreign policy during Modi’s first term as Prime Minister, politicians and scholars have pointed out the characteristics of Modi’s foreign policy, which are: (1) India First; (2) Prioritizing the neighboring area in the near term; (3) Overcoming historical barriers; (4) Moving from being a rule-taker to a rule-maker; (5) Making use of and promoting the Indian diaspora; (6) Promoting cultural connectivity.

Scrutinizing the highlights of India’s foreign policy under Modi can further the understanding of India’s vision, policy, and implementation to turn the vision into specific objectives and connect separate initiatives.

(1) “India First”

Foreign policy under Narendra Modi’s administration is centered on the governance and prosperity of India. Modi’s foreign policy begins domestically with a drastic approach and implementation. As a fast-growing free market and the world’s largest democracy, India is important to international relations. However, it is also a reality that poverty remains the biggest challenge to India. Against this background, Modi has flexibly linked India’s foreign policy with internal reform. It is aimed not only to attract foreign investment, technology, and market access for Indian products, but also to promote stability, peace, and prosperity in the region. He has continued the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)’s leading programmes such as “Made in India”, Digital India, Smart Cities, Clean Ganga, Swachh Bharat, Skill India, and Startup India. These are remarkable programs in Modi’s foreign policy.

In only a short period of time under Prime Minister Modi’s first term, India’s diplomatic activities have brought about impressive achievements. India has witnessed a 40% increase in foreign investment, a 16-point increase in the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness index, and was ranked in 9th place in United Nations Conference on Trade and Development - UNCTAD’s investment attractiveness ranking. The U.S.-India investment fund reached the target of 75 billion USD; the French Development Agency (AFD) increased their credit line for India to 2 billion Euros; and the India-UK partnership fund under the National Investment and Infrastructure Fund (NIIF) and India-UAE infrastructure fund are established to expand the next-generation infrastructure in India. In speedway construction, India has succeeded in engaging various countries: Japan has invested in the first high-speed railway in India; India is going to issue government bonds in Rupees in London for railway construction; France and Germany are supporting metro projects and a locomotive factory for high-speed electric locomotives; India has cooperated with the U.S. in guaranteeing traffic safety and efficiency; and India are planning to establish a Railway University with China.

In terms of politics, national defense, and other areas, thanks to this dynamic cultural foreign policy, India’s position in the international arena has been greatly improved.

(2) “Priotizing the neighboring area in the near term”

The second key point of Modi’s foreign policy is the significance of neighboring countries and regions to India. From this approach, Modi aims to make neighboring countries and regions act in tandem with India. The Modi government has changed its position in relations with Bangladesh when India ratified the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA – which had been delayed since 1974) with the neighboring country. India-Sri Lanka relations have also changed for the better with the change in Sri Lanka’s leadership. Relations with Nepal and Maldives have met with difficulties, but India continues to show its goodwill, for instance by assisting Nepal in disaster relief activities after its most recent natural disaster. India has supported Myanmar’s democratic transformation and continued to promote friendly relations with Bhutan.

Modi has proactively strengthened relations with China using a new approach, putting India on equal footing with China. His knowledge about China from the visits to China as the Chief Minister of Gujarat and other sources has helped Modi maintain India’s influence in the U.S.–China competition. India-Afghanistan relations have seen an improvement after Modi visited the country and inaugurated the new Afghan Parliament building, construction of which had been assisted by India. India-Mongolia ties of friendship have also been strengthened after Modi gifted a Bodhi tree sapling to the main Mongolian Buddhist monastery during a visit to Mongolia.

India’s transformation from “Look East” to “Act East” policy shows a more practical and extensive presence in East Asian countries. India has also promoted its relations with Japan to the highest level ever.

All the aforementioned events show that Modi’s foreign policy of prioritizing the neighboring area has been carried out actively. 

(3) “Overcoming historical barriers”

Modi’s active cultural foreign policy has overcome hesitation and indecisiveness, which were inherent characteristics of previous Indian administrations’ foreign policy.

To seek peace, India has to address transnational terrorist organizations from Pakistan or to free the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) from Islamabad’s control. Modi has shown he is a stronger man than his predecessors. He points out violent nature and views terrorism as the most serious threat since World War II. Without any illusion, he refuses any suggestions of compromise and announces that there are no good or bad terrorists, as all terrorists are evil. The landing of Modi’s plane for a short period in Lahore in late 2015, Indian soldiers’ strikes over the temporary line of control at terrorist bases in the Kashmir area under Pakistan’s control in late September 2016, the strengthening of the South Asian sub-region cooperation since 2014, and more, are all part of Modi’s grand strategy to restore India’s natural leading position in the subcontinent by solving conflicts, expanding any possible areas of cooperation, and facing any opposition if necessary.

The difference between Modi’s cultural foreign policy and the past is also his ability to draw less attention to the policy and focus more on how to solve issues by reviewing every option and choose the optimal approach.

Modi also has a unique way of attracting and thawing the ice in relations with his counterparts. He has grown and maintained good personal relations with U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders such as Angela Merkel and Shinzo Abe, which contributes to raising India’s status.

India’s growing engagement on the global scale, with new ideas and agendas linked with sustainable development goals, fair solutions for the treaty on climate change, poverty elimination, and harmonious living with nature is another highlight under the Modi administration.

(4) “Moving from being a rule-taker to a rule-maker”

In recent years, India has been transforming its whole national apparatus from being a “rule-taker” society to a “rule-maker” society. The world’s impression of India is different from 4 years ago. The ongoing changes are reflected in the Government’s programs. These programs and policies have brought about various achievements. Ensuring political stability, accelerating economic growth, improving national defense power, promoting diplomacy, raising India’s position in the international arena, etc., have been achieved through India’s diplomatic efforts to realize Modi’s idea of cultural diplomacy, “to explore universal values and position them in India’s traditional cultural background”(2).

He has also encouraged the development and implementation of one’s own diplomatic doctrine, named Panchamrit, revolving around 5 pillars: dignity, dialogue, shared prosperity, regional and global security, and cultural and civilizational linkages. This policy is ultimately aimed to make India gain the status of a global great power, instead of being “an ordinary observer”(3), heralding India’s emergence as “a rule-maker”. This ambition is affirmed by Modi in a recent address at Banaras Hindu University: “In the present era, which can be considered an era of knowledge, our roles and responsibilities have increased. We have to emerge as a vishwa guru, not only to give new direction to the world, but also to protect our own heritage”(4).

(5) “Making use of and promoting the Indian diaspora”

In foreign policy, the Modi administration pays great attention to and has strived to promote the relationship with overseas Indians by making commitments to the Indian diaspora community, strengthening their relations with the fatherland, and raising their status in the host country.

After assuming office in September 2014, upon his trip to attend the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, Modi organized a grand public event at Madison Square Garden with the participation of around 18 thousand people, most of whom were Indian Americans. Many American politicians also attended the event, because they wanted the support of the Indian American community, who have not traditionally affiliated themselves with either the Democratic or Republican Party and whose position is usually higher than the American average in terms of education and wealth, hence, they are coveted potential voters and donors for politicians (more than 30 U.S. Congressmembers attended the event with Modi)(5). Opening his speech, Modi praised “Mother India” and expressed his vision for the world and the overseas Indians. He stated: “Tomorrow will be India’s century, with the strength and spirit of reforming the country drawing on Indian diaspora communities all over the world”(6).

In his visits to Seychelles in March 2015, Shanghai (China) in May 2015, Fiji in August 2015, Brussels in March 2016, Johannesburg in July 2016, and many other places, Modi always encourages overseas Indians to do business and strengthen relations with Mother India. His heartfelt meeting and discussion with overseas Indians helps to forge a close relationship with the overseas Indians.

On the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, on October 2, 2016, Modi attended the inauguration of the India Diaspora Center in New Delhi (Pravasi Bharatiya Kendra). At the inauguration, he said, “Let us view our Diaspora not only in terms of ‘Sankhya’ but let us see it as ‘Shakti’” (7).

Modi’s approach and behavior has encouraged many overseas Indians to return to the Motherland and invest and contribute more to India’s development.

(6) “Promoting cultural connectivity”

India’s cultural foreign policy in Prime Minister Modi’s first term showed the ideology and global vision of a policy maker and implementer. Modi has made numerous high-level visits and meetings with foreign leaders all over the world. Everywhere he goes, he introduces and displays Indian cultural values.

Cultural diplomacy is also evidenced in Modi’s dissemination of traditional and modern Indian values to the world. Author Ted Piccone explained: “He displays a spiritual outlook and sees philosophy as India’s unique contribution to the world. He introduces and advertises India’s vibrant democracy and its feature of ‘unity in diversity’, which is not only vital to social management in India but also a pathway to world peace and co-existence, a world where every country can develop and prosper sustainably”(8).

“As a dedicated Hindu, Modi does not shy away from teaching the values he sees not as a religion, but rather a lifestyle for social connectivity”(9).

Yoga diplomacy is part of Modi’s first efforts. He uses Yoga Days as a way to disseminate Indian cultural identity to the world. In 2015, he organized a Yoga event at Raj Path with the participation of 35,985 people from 84 countries to practice 21 Yoga poses, which set two Guinness records for “the largest yoga demonstration” and “individuals from the largest number of nationalities”(10). In 2016, he held another Yoga event at Chandigarh in Punjab, where he emphasized the idea of popularizing Yoga all over the world. At an address to the UN General Assembly, Modi described Yoga as India’s gift to the world. He succeeded in advocating the establishment of a Global Yoga Day on June 21. So far, this plan earned the support of 177 countries in the UN assembly.

Buddhist activism is another highlight in India’s foreign policy under the Modi administration. He once stated: “It is said that the 21st century will be Asia’s century. There is no disagreement on that” and then he added: “Without Buddha this century could not be Asia’s century”(11). He has employed the history of Buddhist development to promote relations with China, Japan, Vietnam, Myanmar, Nepal, etc.. His cultural diplomacy links Indian spiritual and theological values with the rest of Asia. India has planned to make itself a place of Buddhist pilgrimage. Modi has also advocated for an India-Japan agreement in which Banaras and Kyoto are considered heritage sites of Buddhism, in which both countries would commit to the protection, modernization, and cooperation in arts, culture, and academic literature. 

Traditional and contemporary cultural values are utilized by Modi to introduce, connect, and promote relations with other countries. For instance, in his visit to Iran from May 22-23, 2016, he introduced a handwritten manuscript of the Panehatantra(12) from the 15th century (which is now kept at Razu library in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh) in a grand exhibition on India-Iran relations. He also attended the conference on “India–Iran, two great civilizations: Memory and Prospect”, where artists from the two countries performed poetry and traditional music.

Modi has advocated diplomacy in television, media, and cinema. India has signed a memorandum with China on movie production cooperation and an agreement with Vietnam on broadcasting collaboration between India’s “Prasar Bharti” and Voice of Vietnam. A new initiative called “Republic TV” has also been carried out and will eventually become a global channel similar to CNN and BBC(13).

Assessing the achievements of India’s cultural diplomacy in Modi’s first term as Prime Minister, Arun Jaitley, Indian Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs, stated: “…The global footprint of India shows that from fumbling and stumbling around we’ve found our path to development, India has become a global leader and moved from being a rule-taker to a rule-maker and agenda-setter in the international forum”(14).

With all the above evidence, it can be said that cultural diplomacy has contributed vitally and decisively to national development. The success of India’s cultural diplomacy is a lesson worth learning n


l Endnotes:

(1), (2), (5), (14) Anirban Ganguly, Vijay Chauthaiwale, Uttam Kumar Sinha (editors), The Modi Doctrine, New Paradigms in India’s Foreign Policy, Wisdom Tree, India.

(3) Manjeet S. Pardesi, “India a Great Power? Understanding Great Power Status in contemporary international relations”, Asian Security, vol. 11, 2015, No.1.

(4) Peter Martin, “Yoga Diplomacy: Narendra Modi’s Soft Power Strategy”, Foreign Affairs, 2015, 25 January, http://www.foreignaffairs.com.

(6) “Madison Square Garden Spot for India’s Modi on US visit”, http://www.bbc.com.

(7) DNA (2016), “PM Modi inaugurates Pravasi Bharatiya Kendra in Delhi”, 2 October, http://www.dnaindia.com.

(8), (9) Piccone T. (2016), Five Rising Democracies and the Fate of the International Liberal, Orde.  Brookings Institution Press: Washington DC.

(10) “10 quotes from Narendra Modi’s Yoga Day Speech”: “Make Yoga a part of one’s address”, Indian Express (2016a).

(11) Bhavna Vij Aurona, “PM Narendra Modi keen on projecting India as a “soft power”, uses Buddha connect in foreign policy”, Economic Times, dated January 9, 2017.

(12) Indian fable stories.

(13) Republic TV leads even as ratings fall, Indian television, dated September 7, 2017.

Assoc. Prof., Dr. Le Van Toan

Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics

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