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Students outside the cafe at Banaras Hindu University

Public Diplomacy in India: Engaging the Domestic Audience

Oct 9, 2014


NOTE FROM THE CPD BLOG MANAGER: The co-author of this piece is Doctoral Fellow at Banaras Hindu University Sonali Singh.

India’s growing transregional influence and advancements in communications technology have led to increased foreign policy awareness among the Indian public. To this end, Indian public diplomacy has been focusing on foreign policy with domestic audiences through its “Distinguished Lecture Series on India’s Foreign Policy” (DLS). The DLS lectures are mostly delivered by retired Indian ambassadors at university campuses in India (some lectures have been organized overseas also).

The series began in February, 2010 at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and has been extensively covered by local news media. To date, more than 95 DLS events have been organized across the country, giving students and faculty members the opportunity to interact with Indian ambassadors. The lectures are based on the dialogical model of public diplomacy: interactive sessions after the lectures may provide relevant feedback to the External Publicity and Public Diplomacy division (XPD) of the Ministry of External Affairs about people’s hopes and anxieties regarding various foreign policy issues.

The DLS lectures have covered diverse themes. Some lectures have demonstrated India’s political optimism in bilateral relations with the major powers and demystify its strategic interest in international relations; others have offered positive narratives about India’s past and strong historical ties with various regions of the globe.

Appraisal of the DLS initiative must consider two questions: First, to what extent do the lectures contribute to the knowledge, understanding, and perception formation of the target audiences on India’s foreign policy issues? And second, to what extent were the ideas expressed in the lectures transmitted to other networks by audience members?

Our research suggests that through face-to-face interactions with Indian diplomats, the DLS has been able to inform and influence “wondering minds” in the audience. Our recent survey study on two DLS lectures organized at BHU indicate that both lectures increased the knowledge and understanding level of the audience. Most survey respondents followed the speaker’s line of discussion and gave more precise responses in a post-lecture test than on a pre-lecture test consisting of the same set of questions. Both students without any background in international relations and foreign students studying at BHU reported that they found the lectures interesting, and that they enhanced their understanding of foreign policy issues. Jean Bosco, a Rwandan student studying at BHU, said, “Even though the lecture was very short, I gained tremendous knowledge about India’s foreign policy. The lecture has given answers to many of my questions like: How India is trying to make the Indo-Pak relations better? How much efforts India is putting in for this? And how India is developing and pursuing its goal to become a major power?” A few students also stated that the lectures have generated curiosity and interest among them on foreign policy issues and have led to informal discussions of these issues.

Appraisal of the DLS initiative must consider two questions: First, to what extent do the lectures contribute to the knowledge, understanding, and perception formation of the target audiences on India’s foreign policy issues? And second, to what extent were the ideas expressed in the lectures transmitted to other networks by audience members?

Efforts to dispel misconceptions about India’s foreign policy has been a major focus of the DLS. Speaking at BHU, Ambassador Achal Malhotra remarked that India does not behave like a big bully in the region. To paraphrase his remarks: “India advocates the policy of constructive engagement, despite serious provocations in the past (the attack on Parliament, Mumbai terrorist attacks, etc). We believe that violent retaliation and confrontation can only complicate matters. This applies in particular to Pakistan, the origin of state-sponsored terrorism targeted at India. This policy must not be misunderstood as weakness, however. India sends strong and loud messages every time our patience is tested.” Our post-lecture survey indicates that most respondents found this argument convincing.

Through the lecture series, the XPD needs to generate more effective outcomes than those already discussed. Our recommendations:

1) Follow-up actions might establish long-term relations with the audiences and universities by creating virtual communities and facilitating consistent discourse on foreign policy (to their credit, the XPD posts the text of the lectures on their website). Repeated DLS events in the same institution could lead to lasting interest and informed debates.

2) Lecture organizers should prioritize certain issues on which India takes a firm stand, such as climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, agricultural subsidies, and India’s relations with Pakistan and China. 

3) Finally, venue location should be taken into account when choosing lecture themes, for example, a lecture on Indo-Bangladesh relations in West Bengal (an Indian province which shares a common border with Bangladesh) might be well-received. 


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Domestic PD

It is unfortunate but true that foreign policy debate in India is still in its infancy even after seven decades of existence as an independent nation. It remains confined within a narrow circle of political commentators and scientists and Think Tanks. Channels of communication between them and policy makers more or less do not exist. Public at large is generally indifferent; foreign policy rarely, if ever, figures in national election debates. In this backdrop, communication gaps and misperceptions are inevitable. In this context the Distinguished Lecture Series (DLS) program is a welcome step in the right direction. Prof Srivastava and Sonali have captured the essence of the program and made some interesting observations and useful recommendations. On my part I would like to underline the importance of a sustained two- way dialogue between the policy makers and practitioners of diplomacy on one hand and all stake holders on the other. While the former can project the policy to wide sections of society in its right perspective the latter can make their own inputs for policy formulation. A semi- official mechanism for such dialogues is highly desirable!

DLS Initiative

On both counts, clearly a lot more needs to be done to make this initiative truly part of the digital world of today. I may suggest:

i) Greater involvement of retired diplomats in the curricular activity of universities, including co-curricular, and broader community-level discourse is necessary due to the need for greater awareness of the international dimensions of the current globalisation phenomenon which touches every one everywhere.

ii) This can be through video­­­-conferencing, Skype dialogue/lectures, “talkathons” on the internet with widest possible network, for exercises such as analysis of unfolding international events/processes to bring together the experts’ and practitioners’ insights into them.

iii) This can be done through the drawing up of experts’-diplomats’ panels based on specific domain knowledge. Such panels can be drawn up by universities with the help of PD division of MEA as well as the Association of Indian Diplomats (AID).

Public Diplomacy in India: Engaging the Domestic Audience

Foreign policy debate is gradually picking up in India. We agree with Achal Malhotra that the sustained dialogue between foreign office and stakeholders is significant now. Recently through DLS and other initiatives, Indian public diplomacy (PD) has been trying to plug the gap between people and foreign policy makers. To connect with the large magnitude of domestic audience makes a challenging task for Indian PD.

Thank you, Yogendra Kumar for

Thank you, Yogendra Kumar for your comment and suggestions. Yes, retired diplomats can play an important role in disseminating foreign policy information to the domestic audience and universities could be the nodal center for such activities in India. I will recommend your suggestions to my university. XPD division may also come up with a more comprehensive program which can facilitate a more intense interaction between academia and former diplomats to kindle an informed debate on foreign policy issues, and both academia and MEA can learn from each other’s experiences. The XPD division has to address a big domestic audience consisting of multiple identities and interests; therefore they need to device context and issue specific outreach activities. Fortunately India has a large pool of retired diplomats and many of them (as they told us during interviews) are ready to render their services to this end.
And doubtlessly, effective digital diplomacy initiatives can take foreign policy debate to the multitude.


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