Diaspora can be a powerful tool of soft-power diplomacy. A few suggestions to make it more effective
Diaspora diplomacy has emerged as an important component of India’s foreign policy in the last few decades. At the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in January, prime minister Narendra Modi emphasised the diaspora’s as ‘India’s brand ambassadors’. While the Indian government has been promoting bilateral and multilateral dialogue on economic and political levels, cultural diplomacy that forms the backbone of the ‘Brand Ambassador’ has taken a backseat. Cultural diplomacy, the soft power, forms the basis for strengthening economic, technological and political dialogue, the ‘hard power’.
International governments are looking at the Indian politics with keen interest, not only due to diaspora’s presence, but also due to opportunities for market, educational achievements, professional skills, cultural diversity, secular values, adaptability to democratic principles, and for strengthening ties with India. While the presence of diaspora in the US, the UK and Australia is well known, Germany has recently emerged as one of the largest destinations for Indian migrants. Germany has had long-standing diplomatic relations with India and exchange of people for more than a century.
Though the precise number of Indian migrants in Germany is difficult to assess, the Indian government estimates that the size of the Indian origin population (including NRIs and Indian origin German citizens) in Germany is about 169,000. Despite the small proportion, they make significant contribution to the socio-cultural life and economy of Germany. Dirk Wiese, a member of parliament (representing Social Democratic Party of Germany) and chairman of the German-Indian Parliamentary Group (GIP), told this researcher that, “The Indian diaspora has a great potential for strengthening closer ties between India and Germany, ranging from economic ties, cultural exchange, security, educational cooperation and knowledge sharing.” Another MP and a member of the GIP, Jürgen Hardt (representing Christian Democratic Party), concurred to the researcher that “The Indian diaspora in Germany plays a pivotal role in strengthening German-Indian cooperation.”
In Germany, the Indian diaspora stands apart. They are more educationally qualified than the average population in Germany1 (see Table 1). About 41.7% of Indians are professionally qualified migrants, in contrast to only 19.1% of the Germans. About 12% of the diaspora were technicians and associate professionals (nurses and others) which is equivalent to the German average, while the occupation in service and sales workers exceed that of the German population. It is important to note that about 40.2% of second generation of Indians (Indian Origin Persons without own migration experience) occupy managerial positions (for the average population in Germany it is 17.4%), which indicates that they have a very high affiliation to education and are very well integrated.
Further, Indian Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is the second largest in Germany with 96 projects (worth 11.4 billion Euros), employing a total workforce of 27,400 in 2016, according to a report by the Bertelsmann Foundation, Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and Ernst & Young. It also found that Indian companies in Germany generated almost 70% of their turnover in labor-intensive sectors, such as metal industry and the automotive sector.
Despite qualified human resources and their contribution to Indo-German economic ties, cultural diplomacy has remained weak and neglected. In 1978, Jose Punnamparambil, a journalist based in Germany and one of the eminent members of the Indian diaspora, had claimed in his article (titled 'The Culture We Export´ in ‘My World’ published from Cologne, Germany) that “Indian culture is depicted in Germany as “exhibitionistic” in nature without much substance at the core”. This is still relevant and very little has been done to foster cultural relations. As rightly pointed out by Otten Gerold, an MP (representing Alternative for Deutschland) and a member of GIP to the researcher, “Indian culture can significantly contribute in Germany” by integrating with the German culture and society.
The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), the sole agency involved in promoting such diplomacy, is underfunded, and lacks vision and strategies to promote India’s rich and cultural heritage abroad. Further, it does not utilise the potential of the growing diaspora population in the host countries. Established in 1950, it has been involved in various activities to promote cultural heritage. In its Annual Report 2017, it lists several activities prominent among which are setting up Indian cultural centres, chairs for Indian studies abroad, promoting Indian festivals and promoting forum of friends of India. The chairs in several universities (in Germany they are in Heidelberg, Göttingen and Leipzig) and the Indian cultural centres (in Germany it is based within the Indian Embassy, Berlin) focus on different disciplines from engineering to Indian history, although the topics are old, ancient and traditional, not abreast with contemporary developments in India. Rarely do these scholars make themselves visible to national and international audiences.
Secondly, ICCR has been sending artists to Germany and other countries. Though it is important to encourage such visits, it is equally important, at least once in a while to send ‘star attractors’ and to promote other contemporary forms of arts.
Thirdly, ICCR has been funding associations by instituting awards and several ‘cultural’ programmes. The Indo-German Society (Deutsch-Indische Gesellschaft e.V. – DIG), which was established in 1953, is one of the main beneficiaries. Currently, the DIGs have around 33 centres across Germany aiming to promote socio-cultural awareness about India in Germany. Like the ICCR chairs, the DIGs have rarely kept abreast with socio-economic and political development in India. Further, even after several decades of existence, the DIGs outreach has been just over 3,000 members. Their brand programmes, the Festival of India and India Week, do promote India’s image with its culinary richness, cultural heritage, Bollywood entertainment and recently on yoga. However, its inability to be inclusive to younger migrants and second-generation Indians has remained a major concern for Indian diaspora. As a result, the Indian diaspora have their own associations. It is estimated that there are more than 150 registered and unregistered Indian associations in Germany, which are region and language-specific (sometimes religion-specific too) and entertainment-oriented. The outreach of the both, DIGs and diaspora associations, is limited. A study2 on Indian Diaspora in 2017 estimates that the DIGs and Indian associations cover only about 20-30% of the total diaspora in Germany. As told by Otten Gerold, the MP, the diaspora groups need to make attempts to integrate themselves with the German society, rather than confining themselves to India-oriented festivals and programmes. Jose Punnamparambil claims in his article a typical festival or programme “leaves behind not more than a faint ripple which seldom survive the following evening’s gossip.”
Further, these are reduced to money-generating events for the diaspora groups. Unfortunately, these events and programmes also get misrepresented in the German media. Often the media here (due to information given out by the diaspora) equates Diwali with Christmas celebrations in the West, which in itself is an evidence of poor knowledge among diaspora and exhibits the poor cultural promotional policy that India pursues. With several of its funded and supported activities dispersed across several institutions, the ICCR has limited understanding and coordination of how these activities promote India’s rich cultural heritage and cooperation with German culture. Genuine understanding and appreciation of the culture and translating it to make others understand our culture is a unique task. It is important that the ICCR takes on this responsibility in restructuring and repositioning itself given the development in India and by Indian diaspora abroad with a pan-Indian identity. This is important to strengthen the economic and political diplomacy and to enable diaspora as a ‘brand ambassador’.
The Indian diaspora, as they move around globally, has several concerns and seeks out to legitimatise institutions, which ICCR can address. The diaspora do not find any first-point contact institutions (of their home country) in the host country, other than the embassy and consulates which perform several other important tasks. In recent times, the diaspora members are expected to register online with the respective embassy and consulates. Just registration does not help them, when they are actually seeking advice and counselling towards addressing some of the everyday pressing issues, especially in a country where language is a major barrier.
Second, ICCR facilitated institutions can offer Indian language courses. “It is through these channels that outsiders can have direct access to our inner self,” claims Punnambarambils' in personal communication to the researcher. Currently, just a few universities in Germany teach Indian languages, but largely target the student population.
Third, the translation of literature from India and from Germany remains important. As of now that is done only sporadically and by committed individuals. The diaspora population has adequate skills to facilitate the process. Basic services like child care, education and health are a major area where they need advice and counselling. In a country like Germany, where schooling is one of the oldest and complex in the world, the diaspora is craving for information and negotiation to manoeuvre and maintain their living within such a complex system.
Fourth, it is important that the Indian government is involved image building. One of the areas of concern among the international community is the violence against women. This is aggravated by the insecurity and fear created by social media through improvised audio-visuals. Otten Gerold notes that these “restricts students and tourists visiting from India.”
The image-building process requires a stronger engagement within the cultural relations between nations. ICCR centres in countries of interest can be of immense benefit to the diaspora and strengthen bilateral cooperation.
The German-India Parliamentary Group is a case in point. GIP was established way back in 1971 by the German government, for regular interaction with Indian MPs and plays crucial role in strengthening business ties, security and political strategies. This is a significant political engagement process. Such an exchange “complements the activities between the two governments as well as the civil societies in both countries,” claimed Jürgen Hardt. The group has representation from the mainstream political parties in Germany. Hardlymembers of the diaspora and their groups engage with the German MPs. However, the diaspora do not have any formal information on the group from the Indian side, as this will be helpful to engage with.
The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH or GIZ is a Germany’s federal enterprise, focusing on fostering sustainable development, is active in this field of diaspora engagement that promotes knowledge exchange and short-term consultancies for diaspora experts in their countries of origin. Indian government have also instituted programs to enable children of Indian diaspora on study visit to India.There are similar bilateral initiatives for commerce too, like the Indo-German Chamber of Commerce. However, what is commendable in recent years is the privately initiated different forums. The German-India Round Table (GIRT) was initiated in 2001 to spread information about India and the Indo-German business ties. The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) was founded in 1992 in Silicon Valley by a group of successful entrepreneurs, corporate executives and senior professionals with roots in the Indian subcontinent. The TiE Germany chapter was founded in 2011 in Frankfurt, Germany, by Indians and Germans to foster entrepreneurship through mentoring, networking, education, funding and incubation, says Himanshu Patel, its president and a founding member. Recently, the German Indian Startup Exchange Programme (GINSEP – ginsep.co) has been initiated by the German Startups Association and supported by the German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) to strengthen and foster the German-Indian economic relations in the field of start-ups. These forums help in bilateral negotiations and also in understanding the language of communications. One of the enterprising businessmen from the diaspora explained that German business community is concerned with corruption and bureaucracy in India, the Indian business community is concerned with lobbying and manoeuvring patronage politics in Germany. These are two sides of the same coin understanding the language and negotiating remains important component for business communities across nations, which these forums facilitate.
In recent years, the Indian consulates and the embassy have been reaching out to the Indian students in Germany. With an estimated 15,000 Indian students registered at various universities, they are the second largest group of foreign students in Germany. ICCR-supported institutions can be one of the significant forums for them to seek advice and support, especially if someone is racially abused and need counselling services and help in dealing with the German bureaucratic systems. As observed by Jürgen Hardt, engaging with the Indian students can “strengthen the bilateral cooperation and bring nations closer”. He further stated that the German government is very keen on training the Indian students to see their contribution to German economy. These initiatives should go alongside the cultural diplomacy.
Barjinder Sodhi, president of Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) in Germany, emphasises the need for an enhanced role from the Indian government to foster social and cultural relations and political ties between nations.
A restructured, repositioned and autonomous ICCR institution will have a pan-Indian identity, strengthen the diverse and rich cultural heritage of India by promoting diverse Indian languages, advising, offering counselling services and encouraging international cultural exchange of ideas. Such an institution could harness the potential of the existing diaspora groups. As rightly pointed by Jürgen Hardt to the researcher, bringing the respective perspectives of the relations from one side to another and sometimes helping “translate” the other side, when necessary, could strengthen the bilateral relations. It is this soft power of cross-learning and translation that is important for diaspora to be a brand ambassador to strengthen the strategic ties between nations.
Saravanan is an associate researcher at Center for Development Research, University of Bonn, Germany