S M Krishna’s doctrine

The focus must shift to the real Pravasi Bharatiya

S M Krishna is an unlikely person to lend his name to a foreign policy doctrine. He has, however, latched onto something that Indian foreign policy tends to ignore—that protecting the lives and well-being of Indian citizens abroad ought to be an important objective of the Indian state. In a 2006 list of top ten foreign policy objectives, I argue India must “protect—and credibly demonstrate the intention to protect at all costs—the lives and well-being of Indian citizens living abroad, (and) never forgive governments, organisations or individuals who harm Indians.”

It is easy to derogate this objective as a ‘consular’ function or set it aside as an emergency function that the Indian government engages in during times of political unrest or natural disaster. There is no doubt that Indian missions must provide consular services or help evacuate Indians during times of need. The record is patchy on the former—there are wide differences in the quality of service provided by Indian missions abroad—and fairly exemplary on the latter. Whether during the first Gulf War, during the Lebanon crisis or more recently in Libya, India has done fairly well in getting its citizens out of danger.

However, India’s foreign policy discourse is yet to grasp that how the Indian government treats its citizens abroad—and how the world sees it treat its citizens abroad—has strategic implications. As long as Indians are engaged in activities like low-skilled labour and providing low-paying services, in the popular mind of the host countries, their low social status gets associated with the image of India.

No matter how much they appreciate your cuisine, how much they adore your celebrities, how rich they grow on trade with you, their perception of India is unduly influenced by the Indians they encounter on a daily basis. What works to India’s advantage in places like the United States and Britain, works to its detriment in the Middle East and parts of South East Asia.

It is true that employers and ordinary people in some countries ill-treat immigrant workers. It’s tremendously difficult for India to get them to change. What New Delhi can do is to start treating its citizens abroad with much greater respect that it does currently. Not just the well-to-do Non-Resident Indian professionals on the top of the social pyramid, but also the large numbers of Non-Resident Indian workers at the bottom. When was the last time a visiting Prime Minister or Foreign Minister addressed a gathering of carpenters, brick layers, electricians, janitors, garbage collectors and so on? When host nations observe how seriously Indian expatriate communities and the Indian government treats people which they regard as an underclass, their own attitudes will have to change. This will change the way they and their governments perceive India. If there is such a thing as soft power, this is where it matters.

Instead of focussing on this segment, we have seen the Indian government organise gala schmoozefests for the rich and the famous among the Indian diaspora. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs and the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas are not only a waste of public funds, but a sign of misguided priorities. Public funds are better spent strengthening the size of Indian missions abroad and improving the resources ambassadors have to better serve the needs of Indian communities. What strategic objective is served by conferring awards on already rich, already famous and already respected individuals of Indian genetic stock? The government of India should leave glitzy awards ceremonies to the entertainment industry.

The focus and the resources must shift towards the ordinary Indian who carries his blue passport and disproportionately contributes towards inward remittances. If Mr Krishna’s new directives move Indian foreign policy this way, it might achieve more than merely address “the needs of Indian nationals abroad—especially those in distress.” If they are pushed far enough, they will affect the way the world perceives India.

Op-ed in The National: The Obama celebrations

Don’t underestimate the importance of the atmosphere

Here’s the original draft of an op-ed that appears in UAE’s The National daily today. It emphasises the importance of the popular basis of the India-US relationship.

Barack Obama will have a grand, memorable and successful visit to India merely by turning up.

Despite sinking approval ratings at home and misgivings among sections of New Delhi’s strategic establishment, he is remains immensely popular in India. Many are inspired by his life story, and many more are impressed by his style, personality and oratory. So expect a groundswell of welcome, warmth and good wishes for him when he arrives in Mumbai next week. In addition to stately official functions, India’s raucous clamour of billboards, sand sculptures, T-shirts and the quintessential Amul butter advertisement will celebrate the occasion. It is easy to get caught up in geopolitical, economic and commercial issues and understate the importance of “atmospherics”. To do so would be to miss the point.

The mutual popularity of the two countries forms the bedrock of the India-US relationship: and because both countries are democracies, this creates powerful political constituencies pressing the two governments towards each other. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, two out of three Indians polled have a favourable opinion of the United States. In fact, 73% of the Indians surveyed said that they have confidence in Obama, compared to only 65% of the Americans. Americans return the favour. A recent Gallup poll reveals two in three Americans have a positive opinion of India, with younger people even more favourably disposed. Pro-India lobbies in Washington and pro-America lobbies in India are set to grow stronger and more numerous with time.

This doesn’t translate into New Delhi and Washington taking identical positions on all issues, but is a powerful driver towards their convergence. It also allows policy disagreements between the two governments to be placed within an overall positive context, and permits both to say “No!” to each other without the fear of jeopardising the relationship. So, just like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s state visit to Washington last year, President Obama’s trip to India next week should be seen as both acknowledging and reinforcing the bottom-up basis of the relationship at the very highest level.

In the pre-trip press gaggle, White House officials were at great pains to project the visit as focussed on Mr Obama’s domestic agenda of creating jobs. They pointed out that India is the second fastest growing foreign investor in the United States (after the UAE) and Indian companies support over 57,000 jobs in the country. The US-India Business Council estimates that deals signed during the trip could create or sustain as many as 100,000 jobs in the United States. While they got that part of the messaging right ahead of the mid-term Congressional elections, the Obama administration’s defensiveness over the issue of outsourcing reflects its inability to appreciate that it ultimately benefits US consumers, especially during hard times. This remains a concern for India’s highly competitive services industry.

Indian analysts, however, are aware that creating jobs in the United States is important to India. As my colleague V Anantha Nageswaran suggests, India should not make too much noise about short-term protests against outsourcing and “buy more stuff from the US which it is still good at making.”

If the hot-button political issue in Washington is unemployment, in New Delhi it is terrorism. US authorities have extended genuine co-operation — albeit not to the extent that their Indian counterparts desire — over the investigations into David Headley’s involvement in the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai. With Headley’s confessions — in the presence of US officials — squarely implicating the Pakistan’s ISI agency, it is no longer possible for Washington to plausibly pretend that terrorism has no official sanction from Pakistani state institutions. Now, by deciding to stay at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai and meet victims of the terrorist attack, Mr Obama has done well to signal his commiseration, if not solidarity, with the Indian people. However, he will not be spared tough questions on his administration’s equivocal attitude towards the source of that terrorism.

In two years, Mr Obama has traveled the distance to reach the same point over Pakistan as when he took over — that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex will not yield to US demands beyond a point. In two years, he has traveled from believing the notion that the United States and China can co-operate in a “G-2” to recognising that a strong partnership with India is critical to US interests in Asia. So when he travels to India next week, both Washington and New Delhi share a common understanding of the problems they face. Where they differ is on what the solutions ought to be.

That, however, won’t spoil the party.

Weekday Squib: Jimmy Jimmy in Tajikistan

What would India’s soft power be without Bappi?

In its June 2009 edition, the Proceedings of the Centre for Soft Power Studies reported how Jimmy Zingchak holds sway over the people of Kazakhstan. Today it brings to your attention the wonderful Tajik Jimmy—whose career mirrors that of the Jimmy incarnation. Baimurat Allaberiyev, who herded sheep for a salary of one lamb per month is now rocking Russia.

7 in 10 Americans think favourably of India

(What happened to the other three?)

Ajay Shah links to a Gallup poll that reveals that India is the fifth most favoured nation among Americans. 69% of respondents rated India favourably. Americans, it seems, reciprocate the love.

via Gallup

Interestingly, overall, 55% of Americans rate China unfavourably. Interestingly, a young Americans are favourably disposed towards the country (60%) while Republicans and older Americans are not (~35%). So it’ll be interesting to see if China becomes more popular over time, or Americans will change their minds once they lose their innocence.