On being informed about India’s nuclear test in May 1998, the first thought that had occurred to the late Naresh Chandra, then India’s ambassador to the United States, was what he would have to do to limit the fallout of negative political and public opinion in circles that mattered in Washington DC. Chandra called the venerable Henry Kissinger and having informed him of India’s action, asked him what he thought of it.
Kissinger was not only just a phone call away for Chandra but was willing to respond instantly and favourably. He was not surprised by India’s decision, he said. He knew that one day or another India would conduct such tests and declare itself a nuclear power. After all both its neighbours, China and Pakistan, had nuclear capability. Pakistan had not yet tested but both the US and India were aware that it had acquired nuclear capability. India did what it had to do.
Chandra wondered if Kissinger would be willing to go on record to say that to the US media. Kissinger was willing. Chandra immediately called a person he knew at the US television channel CNN and, having given him the news, suggested that he may get a scoop interviewing Kissinger and asking the grand strategist what he thought of India’s decision.
The journalist jumped at the opportunity and within minutes Kissinger was on CNN making supportive statements. That is top class diplomatic outreach.
The Bill Clinton administration did impose sanctions, the Washington DC think tank crowd did go berserk, The New York Times did editorially criticise India, but all that the Indian ambassador had to do in response was to quote none other than the doyen of American Cold War diplomacy in defence of India’s decision.
I am reasonably certain that institutional memory within the government about such precedents is limited. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar would certainly be aware of the Chandra-Kissinger-CNN story but very few other diplomats would be and, therefore, unprepared for such contingency. It is not surprising that on his arrival in the US, more than six weeks after the August 5 decision of the government to revoke Article 370 of the Constitution, Jaishankar discovered that the US media was still very critical of the decision. “Media was ideological,” said Jaishankar, “it didn’t present the facts on Jammu & Kashmir.”
It is worth checking what effort had been made to secure media outreach in the intervening six weeks, not just in the US but in other countries that mattered. There would have been considerable effort, to be sure. But that is besides the point. Was the Chandra-Kissinger-CNN kind of strategic action taken by diplomats on the ground? How many Indian diplomats around the world have that kind of access and influence in their respective stations?
During my time as Media Advisor to the Prime Minister, I was dismayed to discover how limited was the reach of Indian diplomats within the opinion-making community of the countries they were serving in. Most diplomats assumed their work was only to deal with the host government.
Over the past couple of decades many, not all, have devoted time to reach out to local business leaders. Jaishankar was the first Indian ambassador in China to establish friendly relations with top Chinese business leaders. There has been effort at reaching out to think tanks and media, but both the time and funds devoted to that effort is limited.
Embassies of many countries based in Delhi have had a far more active outreach effort. Some even fund think tank activities and research. Many keep in regular touch with senior journalists and make sure they are invited to their home countries and well looked after. Amusingly, I have found some in government criticise Indian media for being available to such outreach. Journalists have been attacked for attending receptions at the home of the Pakistan high commissioner.
What is not recognised is that it is the business of media to reach out to anyone who wishes to seek them out. Lend an ear, but be professional in what and how you report.
I have found most Indian diplomats face two constraints. First is a cultural constraint. Many are neither attuned to nor professionally trained to deal with the highly opinionated opinion makers. Second is financial. The government does not provide adequate funds to diplomats to conduct such outreach in an adequately suitable and subtle manner.
Media outreach is not conducting a press conference. It requires systematic relationship building that requires considerable investment of time and money. I am aware of some very good examples of such diplomatic outreach by some of our best diplomats, but there is very little institutional effort.
Indian big business, especially those with business interests abroad or with investment in the media business, are equally to blame. Consider the investment multinationals investing in India make in reaching out to Indian public opinion. How many of our big companies do that in countries where they have business interests? Very few. Most are quite happy operating below the radar.
In canvassing support for the US-India civil nuclear energy agreement, the Manmohan Singh government used American and Indian business leaders to step up and secure support for the deal, especially in the US Congress. One of them even secured a Padma Bhushan despite a criminal case pending against him! Going beyond such one-off efforts, the kind that could be mounted in support of issues like the Article 370 decision, Indian business needs to invest more in creating firmer and professional platforms for national outreach.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his team have excelled in creating events that help create global awareness about India — like the Howdy, Modi event in Houston and the extensive TV coverage of Modi’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping — little attention is paid to more systematic and sustained outreach to opinion-makers in important countries.
The task is made more difficult by the fact that not only is media globally more “ideological”, a point Jaishankar made, but India too is doing things it has not done before. All the more why it needs a strategy and the capacity to shape global opinion.
The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi