Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Diaspora Diplomacy

Need for MEA and MOIA to work in unison

By T.P.Sreenivasan

The conclave of Indian envoys in New Delhi, which has become an annual feature, focuses on issues of current importance in foreign policy. Its agenda will show the priorities of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). Terrorism, Pakistan and China are recurring themes, but economic and cultural diplomacy also receive attention. The concerned Ministers are invited to interact with the envoys. Conspicuous by his absence this year was the Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA), Vayalar Ravi. Not that he was unavailable or unwilling; he was simply not invited.

Among the Cabinet Ministers, who work closely with the Indian missions abroad is the Minister, who looks after the diaspora, as there is hardly any country in the world without an Indian community. The MOIA is practically an extension of the MEA because the only instrument it has in dealing with the diaspora is our mission network. Defence, Commerce and Education Ministries have their own officers stationed in the relevant missions, but MOIA has officers only in two or three missions and, therefore, the MOIA has to necessarily bank on MEA personnel. Minister Ravi, who is not only a hands- on Minister, but also a person, who makes it a point to remain in touch with the heads of mission and the diaspora itself from Africa to the Americas, would have shared his vision and strategy with the envoys. Not inviting the Minister to address the envoys was, therefore, a serious omission, which reflects the low priority accorded by MEA to diaspora diplomacy.

At the political level, there is recognition of the utility of the diaspora as an instrument of diplomacy, ever since Rajiv Gandhi changed the traditional diaspora policy of only “being alive to their welfare and interests” to active engagement with the objective of securing investment, technology and political influence for India. He demonstrated the new policy at the time of the first coup in Fiji by sanctioning the country and taking upon himself the task of getting Fiji expelled from the Commonwealth as it practiced discrimination against Fiji citizens of Indian origin. He raised expectations around the world that India will stand by the diaspora , whether in prosperity or in adversity.

Successive Governments, regardless of party affiliations, have tried to meet the demands of the diaspora in a progressive manner. The Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) card, the Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card, the annual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas PBD) in Delhi and the regional PBDs in different parts of the globe, the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman and the MOIA itself, with its subsidiary outfits are devices established from time to time for the purpose. They may not have fulfilled the aspirations of the diaspora in full, but have gone a long way in impelling them to be the advocates of Indian causes in their countries of adoption.

The missions, which are required to administer these facilities abroad, do perform their job, but often half heartedly, because diaspora diplomacy has not assumed the same importance as political, economic and cultural diplomacy, though it encompasses all these areas in countries like the US and the UK. In countries like Mauritius, Fiji, Surinam and Guyana and recently in the Gulf countries, diplomats go with the realization that they have to deal with the diaspora, but in the high profile missions, there is a tendency to relegate the diaspora work to secondary importance.

Years of practice and prejudice cannot be erased in a day. In the olden days, diplomats considered demands of the diaspora as distractions at best and the interactions did not go beyond social and cultural contacts. Invitations were sent to the Indian community twice a year to celebrate national days, but there was no strategy to utilize it for any diplomatic purposes. Today, there is a resolve to use the community as a resource for attaining foreign policy goals, but no defined strategy on which there is a consensus. It is left to the individual heads of mission to resort to their own devices to deal with the diaspora.

The Indian diaspora is as diverse as India itself. The challenges in Fiji are different from those in the United States or the United Kingdom. However, an occasion like the conclave of heads of mission is an opportunity to compare notes with the MOIA and to evolve a strategy. MEA must accord a higher level of priority to diaspora diplomacy if the Government’s objectives in this regard are to be reached. Creation of a separate Ministry does not absolve the IFS of the responsibility to implement the decisions of the Government.

In practice, however, the two Ministries are becoming more and more alienated. It would have been ideal if an IFS officer was deputed as Secretary, MOIA to make the shaping of our diaspora diplomacy coherent. But today, even the practice of having an IFS officer at the Joint Secretary level in that Ministry has been discontinued. Could not the MEA provide a suitable officer to head a division of the MOIA? The two Ministries should work in unison, not in competition as they tend to do.

A regional Pravasi Bharatiya Divas for Africa has just been concluded in Durban, South Africa. The South African Government made it a great celebration of the ties with India, coming as it did on the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi and the 150th anniversary of arrival of the first batch of indentured labourers. President Zuma himself attended the closing ceremony and made a memorable speech on what South Africa owes to India. He urged India to use the tremendous goodwill it has in Africa for the good of Indians and Africans. The Natal State Premiere and the King were also there. But the representation from India was confined to the Minister for MOIA and a Minister of State from the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Of course, the High Commissioner to South Africa and the Consul General in Durban played a major role. But there was hardly any representation from the rest of Africa in what was a regional conference. Did our missions in the rest of Africa carry the message to the communities in those countries? How many of them were invited?

The Durban Conference was a splendid occasion to showcase India’s links with Africa. The Africa Division should have given greater attention to the conference, particularly since it is in the process of evolving a strategy to counter the efforts of other countries to replace the Indian influence in Africa. This is the time for us to convert the image of the Indian diaspora in Africa into a benign one. It does not consist of labourers, petty traders and money lenders anymore. There are skilled workers, businessmen and bankers. They have risen to the challenges of globalization and they should be seen as nation builders and not exploiters. The change of image is necessary and India needs to be a catalyst. We missed a splendid opportunity to do this in Durban.

It is not long since India and its diapora discovered each other and realized that each has to gain from the other. Our diaspora diplomacy is still in its infancy. The facilities that have been put in place have their teething troubles. Holders of Overseas Indian Citizens cards are bewildered that they still need a visa to enter India. Prejudices remain about investing in India and setting up businesses. Our missions are not yet diaspora friendly, except where individual officers accord priority for this work. The mindset of some that Indians abroad is being pampered unnecessarily has to change. Unless the MEA and MOIA work together, not to speak of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), many of the problems cannot be ironed out. The Government and the diaspora also need to reorient themselves to working together if the diaspora diplomacy initiated by Rajiv Gandhi and nurtured by successive Prime Ministers should succeed.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Mr. Obama's Passage to India
The president's trip may not accomplish very much of note.


Many American presidents have made passages to India, from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush. In early November, President Obama will follow in their footsteps when he attends a major summit between the two partners in Delhi. Whether it will be a successful trip however, is still very much an open question.

President Obama set the bar high in June 2010, when he declared the U.S.-India partnership a "defining relationship of the century." In that, he was simply echoing the logic of his two predecessors, who realized that democratic India could serve as a useful counterpoint to the rise of China. India, too, has gravitated toward Washington for similar reasons.

Yet the strategic partnership envisaged in June, when the White House announced the summit, has not yet taken off, as the wish lists on the two sides differ substantially. For starters, the U.S. would like India to sign several pending agreements to facilitate the sale of American defense equipment, but India would like to move cautiously precisely because of the strategic nature of the agreements, which will cover communications and information security, geospatial cooperation and logistics sharing. Defense Minister A.K. Antony visited Washington this week to push these deals forward.

India's civil nuclear program is, still, another big sticking point. President Obama backed a reprocessing agreement in June—a major gesture, considering the conservative position he holds on enrichment and reprocessing technologies. But India has not been able to reciprocate by enacting liability legislation consistent with the relevant international regime, in which liability for nuclear damage is only for the operators, not the suppliers. The U.S. business community, eager to sell nuclear wares to India, is disappointed. It's unlikely that Mr. Obama can budge Delhi, however, given the Indian position that the new law does not, in reality, create new supplier liabilities and is consistent with the Vienna Convention on Supplementary Compensation.

On foreign affairs, the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan will loom large. President Obama's commitment to withdraw troops by next year has created concern in Delhi that the U.S. will leave before the country is fully stabilized. Delhi has also been dissatisfied with how little it's been consulted over strategic matters. To top it all off, the Wikileaks scandal earlier this year confirmed something many analysts already suspected: that Islamabad is working in collusion with the very Taliban it was supposedly fighting. The U.S. pooh-poohed the scandal publicly, but Delhi took note. Pakistan has also, in the meantime, stirred up trouble in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Then there's Iran, with which India has long had political and cultural ties. The U.S. would like India to be more forthright in its opposition to Iran's nuclear weapons program, but India has larger interests to protect in its neighborhood. In the event of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iran may be the only country that can help India stabilize the war-torn country. India will implement the United Nations sanctions against Iran, but it will not join the U.S. inspired publicity campaign against Iran's nuclear plans.

Mr. Obama hasn't made the relationship with Delhi any easier by pandering to his domestic constituents at India's expense. He was silent on the virtues of India's large outsourcing industry for some time for fear of creating an irritant in bilateral relations. But when the campaign against Indian companies like Infosys gathered momentum, leading to enhanced visa fees and Ohio outlawing outsourcing, the president has begun to harp on the importance of creating jobs on the U.S. soil. Outsourcing is an emotional issue among job seekers in the U.S., but it is equally sensitive in India, as many businesses are meant exclusively to cater to U.S. outsourcing.

The president's trip may still yield some positive results. The U.S may abolish a black list of Indian firms, euphemistically called the "entity list," which would allow American companies to transfer dual-use technologies to India. President Obama may also support India's bid for permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council and advocate the inclusion of the country into nonproliferation groups like the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The U.S. has nothing to lose by supporting India's aspirations. If other countries block the Security Council bid, for instance, it won't be America's fault, and Mr. Obama will win hearts in India.

Underlining all of this, and complicating matters, is China. Asia's other rising power threatens Indian and U.S. interests through its support for Pakistan's nuclear program, among other things. China continues to provoke India by asserting the disputed status of Kashmir and stepping up activities on Pakistan side of the Line of Control. This puts India in a dilemma: On one hand, Delhi wants to be militarily prepared in the context of China, which suggests a closer relationship with the U.S. But neither does Delhi want to be seen as provoking China by cozying up to the Americans.

President Obama's passage to India may not be as smooth as his predecessors' journeys, but that doesn't mean it has to be devoid of achievement. It's in both countries' interests that he succeeds. The flurry of activities on both sides continues unabated for this purpose.

Mr. Sreenivasan is director general of the Kerala International Centre in Trivandrum and a member of the National Security Advisory Board in New Delhi.