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In this Idea Exchange moderated by Associate Editor Sushant Singh, German Ambassador to India Michael Steiner and wife Eliese talk about taking diplomacy ahead through steps such as a concert and music video, the German language row, the difference between UPA and NDA, and the challenges facing Europe.
Why Michael & Eliese Steiner?
In his three-year tenure as German Ambassador to India, which is nearing its end, Michael Steiner redefined diplomacy, pushing the envelope with a number of unique cultural initiatives — organising the Zubin Mehta concert in Kashmir, holding a satsang at his official residence, and most recently, featuring with his wife Eliese, an art historian, in a re-enactment of the title song of the popular Hindi movie Kal Ho Na Ho.
A career diplomat who served as head of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, Steiner has been instrumental in raising Germany’s profile and image in India, while seeking long-term German investment in India.
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Michael Steiner: The three years I spent here have been packed with events and activities… I want to mention the World Cup in Brazil. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was new… We fixed a date for a meeting and Chancellor Angela Merkel said it would be fantastic to meet the new Indian PM very early… But I was told to say that, ‘(If Germany reaches the final of the football Cup), please understand the Chancellor would need to go to Brazil’. PM Modi understood. I guess he translated it into cricket and imagined an India-Pakistan final…
Last September, we had an unfortunate, unnecessary discussion on German language. Not that we pretend German must be placed as third language. All we wanted was a pragmatic solution for 78,000 Kendriya Vidyalaya students who learnt the language. People understood it was not Sanskrit vs German. There were some who said, let’s first learn our own languages, but most said no, let’s be open, especially if the kids and the parents want so. This impressive openness in the Indian society prevailed in the debate.
This year, the stalemate at the beginning of our tenure has changed into a more optimistic perspective towards the future. India’s image for doing business in the past was not good. But that seems to be changing. India’s presentation at the Hanover trade fair impressed everyone and helped in our relations.
Sushant Singh: You have seen Indian politics for over three years. What are the differences and similarities between Indian and German politics?
Eliese Steiner: Europe is suffering under the imperative of political correctness and that makes the political scene quite domesticated. On the other hand, India is suffering from the opposite excess. Personality or something like that. That makes India very, very interesting.
Coomi Kapoor: How do you see the German language dispute getting resolved?
Michael Steiner: When the Prime Minister was in Berlin and this issue was discussed, he made it clear that he wants the kids to learn foreign languages. It is in line with the Make in India policy. If you wish to have investment and 8 per cent growth, you need to open yourself up and language is important. So the PM is in favour of that.
The courts in December requested the government to provide the possibility of an optional language to children and parents who wanted it. I think it will get resolved, and it should, quickly, because there is a huge demand from the kids. India has expressed interest in having an MoU which says that, of course, we do not only want German taught in India but want as many (Indian) languages taught in Germany. Not just Sanskrit but modern languages too. I am working on finalising a text which makes it clear that we do support this in Germany because it is in our interest that many kids learn foreign, modern languages, not only Hindi.
Sushant Singh: How was your meeting with Dina Nath Batra (a member of the Vidya Bharati, the educational wing of the RSS) over the German language controversy?
Michael Steiner: It was a slightly different situation. I met the Sanskrit teachers and he was also there. I didn’t look for a conversation with him because the issue was about Sanskrit teachers and my aim was to explain to them that we are in favour of Sanskrit and we are doing a lot on this issue. I wanted to (also) make it clear that we are in favour of teaching German in India as that is not directed against the teachers… I think it was quite a good conversation. They also expressed their opinion that they want to foster Sanskrit and it was not directed against German teaching. He (Batra) was there, that was not my choice but nothing hindered me (in talking) to them.
Praveen Swami: Lately we have seen ugliness over the rights of religious minorities, attacks on churches. Before the last general elections, many here were deeply concerned about what a Modi-led government might look like. Do you think there is a cause for worry?
Michael Steiner: This government and the PM essentially won on the ticket of economic growth, which can only be achieved by investment. I am not talking quick-buck investment, but responsible players who can be a part of the Indian economic system. The decision to invest is not strictly based only on economic elements. The CEO who makes the decision to invest has to go back to the shareholders. He has to show certain social responsibility. He will not only be asked the economic questions. In Hamburg last year, I had a conversation with potential investors, and for them, the decision was not about the reliability of the judicial system, energy supply or other such issues, it was the role of women in India. I found it interesting that guys who talked about money also looked at these issues. Besides the role of women, there is also the question of how minorities are treated because social peace interests investors.
India can be proud about the many NGOs doing jobs the State cannot do, like during the Kashmir floods. Yes, there are some black sheep. NGOs must be transparent. That’s only fair.
Rakesh Sinha: What is the one big difference between the style of functioning of the present government and the previous one?
Michael Steiner: They (the present government) are using modern communication means. They are speaking to people — that is different. It was a different style in the past. Secondly, if you have a majority in the Lok Sabha, and are not part of a big coalition, then you can act differently, without hindrance. I think the real factor (in the elections) was that people wanted change. And the expectations are surely higher. Indians want a more dynamic policy. It is not so easy to manage, of course. With a large majority, you can act more vigorously.
Praveen Swami: Is Europe entering a period of fundamental change? The tension with Russia, for example…
Michael Steiner: Two things. In my country, there has been scepticism over whether it was right to give up the Deutsche Mark for the euro. Many people favour the Euro. That is encouraging. People understand that if European nations, like Germany, France, Spain or Italy, are isolated lone players, they would be too small compared to the new architecture of the world. After the reunification of Europe, the politicians at the helm were driven by the idea of no more war in Europe again. People shared this goal. That was the driving force for the European integration. Now, this is no longer the driver for young people because a war between Germany and the Czech Republic or France is inconceivable. The argument that you don’t need a passport to drive from Finland to Norway, that you can pay in the same currency, is convincing, but it no longer sells, because we already have it. So we need to identify a new driver which gives the motivation to people to agree that certain rights will go from the local to the national to the European level.
Suanshu Khurana: Will you organise a Zubin Mehta concert in Kashmir all over again given that it stoked so much controversy?
Michael Steiner: You do such a thing once in a lifetime. There was a lot of discussion about it, some of (the arguments) were partly absurd, and we were called Zionists and Hitler. But the fact is that the Kashmiris loved it. Those Kashmiris who could not go to the Shalimar Bagh venue because it was full saw the classical concert on TV. They were proud it happened in their place, and showed Kashmir to the world. Apart from this overwhelming positive response from Kashmir, the response from the rest of India and outside was also very positive. Members of the orchestra unit in Munich till today talk about that experience. I am convinced diplomacy is government-to-government, that is the essential part, but you cannot limit it to that. You need to address the larger public, which the Kashmir concert did.
Suanshu Khurana: What was the idea behind re-enactment of the Kal Ho Na Ho song?
Michael Steiner: The drive was to do something for the people, not the government. First, I wanted people to see that diplomacy involves not only governments or politics. So we tried to do something which should be done in modern diplomacy. Second, this song is fantastic and its message empowering. It was fun, but also hard, doing the song. Eliese speaks Hindi but I don’t, so lip-syncing was a nightmare for me. It was a great learning experience too. I had doubts — whether people would think this is funny, or will this be seen as sacrilege. Maybe in Germany, they might have reacted like that. But here they understood exactly what the motive was. I am sure I cannot be Shah Rukh Khan, but my effort was honoured.
Muzamil Jaleel:Why did you choose a former minister, Salman Khurshid, and not a current one to play Saif Ali Khan?
Michael Steiner: I knew him. I had to repeat a scene 30-40 times. It was awful, especially on the roof at 3 am. But he (Khurshid) managed to do it in just two-three attempts. He is funny and also understood the motive behind it. It was not a political choice.
Coomi Kapoor: Some of your conservative colleagues in the diplomatic circles find you too flamboyant to be an ambassador. Are the days of discreet diplomacy over?
Michael Steiner: I think some people have an idea about how an ambassador should behave. Of course, you need to respect certain rules. But as times have changed, international relations need to go beyond governments and find a way to connect to people. I am not saying everybody needs to do that, but I feel it is the right thing to do. I also feel legitimised by the response of the Indians. It is also a diplomat’s task to generate people’s interest in the country he represents. You should want not only the government, but also the people to come and explore Germany. You need to interest them if you want them to do business with you. It was also a bit of fun doing this. If I have surprised you for at least five minutes, that’s good. We need to go against the stereotypes we have. So, if there is laughter, or fun, what is bad in that?
Sushant Singh: Europe is seeing a refugee crisis, and many young people are joining IS. There were the Charlie Hebdo killings. Is Europe going through an identity crisis?
Michael Steiner: There is always discussion on who should take the refugees. We had that during the Yugoslav crisis. It also involves financial aspects. Like in the past, all these discussions have always been resolved with peace on who takes how many. When you mention Paris (Charlie Hebdo), I think it best showed European solidarity. All these heads of states, including my own, showed up in Paris. The dreadful incident has rather reinforced a value-based emerging European identity.
(But) a large number of Germans are joining IS. They are doing well and suddenly go to those who seem to offer something attractive which they don’t find in the society in which they are pretty well off. This needs deeper reflection. But when it comes to the genuine challenge, we all share it, including you in India. It is a challenge to societies based on democratic values, and it calls for cooperation.
Raj Kamal Jha: You said your view of Europe has changed because of your time in India. How?
Michael Steiner: First, there has been reinforcement of my feeling that if Europe wants to have a chance in the future, it has only a common chance. Falling back upon nationalism would ruin us. Secondly, I think our public discussions are out of tune with the reality in the world. German society is so well off and its social system is such that nobody is falling in between. I feel there is too much status-quo-oriented thinking — keeping what you have and not being dynamic enough in looking at the future. That I think we need to change.
On the immigrants, I think that is one of the success stories we have. Now, we have highest number of immigrants after the US. It is a homogeneous society. So, there we have a radical change. But when it comes to public debate, it is too status-quo-oriented. When it comes to readiness to risk something, there I think we need to do more in our society. Try outside the normal ways. And this I would bring back from India, that there is a great openness to try out something else.
Eliese Steiner: I think what I realised at the end of the tenure in India more than before is that Europe is now looking for sustainability in its relationship with the environment. We are becoming vegetarians. Europe is trying to find a proper relationship with the surroundings. It has a more difficult stance there because of historical reasons compared to India. Indians are looking at development eagerly but somehow forgetting that the country has the perfect requirements for a sustainable relationship with the environment.
Transcribed by Praveen Raman & Ipsita Majumdar.