External Affairs

Tuning the Voice of India: How to Better Deploy Soft Power

The government needs to be more open, creative and clear in its communications with the wider world, instead of the conservative, secretive and dull methods that are currently the norm.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recording his radio programme 'Mann ki Baat'. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recording his radio programme ‘Mann ki Baat’. Credit: PTI

Bureaucracy, particularly in our part of the world is not easily attuned to public communication and its demands. “Less is more”, “need to know basis”, “information is power” are all zealously embedded truisms that are imbibed and intoned with great faith and conviction. When we do communicate, dexterity is a casualty. The issue of perfect pitch and a good listening ear scarcely applies. Elegance of articulation instead of being a prized asset is often undervalued. Officialdom inhabits its own neck of the woods and its own echo chamber. The world outside is not internalised sufficiently when it comes to adapting, adjusting and calibrating means and methods of articulation. 

Government websites (with a few outstanding exceptions) are not appealing or attractive in their construction and display, in contrast to those of India’s Western or East Asian counterparts. They seem to resemble long laundry lists and are designed to overwhelm rather than ensure audience interest or a loyal following among viewers and users, especially those outside the country.

Information is the precious resource that the government commands, but its mere possession does not make it a force multiplier. The proactive flow of this information, the crafting of press statements and fact sheets, the ability to troubleshoot in a strategic and well-aimed and focused manner do not appear to be of high priority.  Neither is reference to context or the scoring of a direct hit through the use of words that are clearly expressed, concisely drafted and reflecting the zeitgeist of a country that is in tune with the times.  

The creation of Brand India and India Promotion has to be couched in a millennial vocabulary, in tune with the 21st century. The stylistic turns of the 1970s and 80s will not do. The creation of a multimedia organisation that is devoted to India Promotion is perhaps an idea whose time has come. This has to include social media platforms, radio and television, films and documentary production, cultural performances, print publications, journal articles, lectures, policy briefings and presentations. India’s soft power is in need of robust deployment.

As the largest democracy in the world, proud of its demographic dividend of over one billion people, mostly young and aspirational, India has no international television channel that propagates its word in the world. The BBC is Britain’s best global advocate in the “cosmopolis” that defines the borderless space we inhabit. Where is India’s voice expressing Indian content and analysis but in an international idiom? 

There is a crying need for the country to create a global presence that speaks (and I emphasise this at the cost of being repetitive) in a modern idiom with an international voice – organisations like CCTV, Russia Television and Aljazeera employ anchors and commentators that speak English the way anchors on CNN or BBC speak, although the message and content that is projected through them is very much the creation, and reflects the policy approach, of the country they represent. It is also not enough to just project news and commentary about India and events in India but also provide the reporting of news with an Indian perspective about global events, including political events abroad, like the US election, the situation in the Middle East, Europe post-Brexit, climate change, terrorism, religious radicalism, trade, migration, China – to name just a few. Again, all this has to be stated through young anchors and reporters who speak like their counterparts in other international news and television channels, and programming style and conceptualising has to be in tune with global practice and standards.

Similarly, the External Services of All India Radio need revamping. It’s needs a 21st century restatement of mission and objectives, and expansion of coverage to reach more audiences. It also needs a complete technical and content re-gig.

Particular attention must be paid to coverage in neighbouring countries, Africa, the Middle East and Central, East and Southeast Asia. 

There is a predilection among our official circles to favour the frugal and understated, and the established, safe precedent because this is the risk aversion that we wear as a nation with no questions asked. Big countries with real power aspirations must dare and do. Bollywood is a global Indian brand and successful because it is big and bold, and any India Promotion campaign can learn a lot from it.  

The Indian Council for Cultural Relations can do much better than it does today in the planning, choice and execution of its performances abroad. Sophistication of presentation and the embrace of grand spectacle (the way the Russians and the Chinese do these) are generally absent. It is comfortable with the tried and tested, and on the global stage, slow to actualise what would impress, appeal and make a lasting statement.  

So too, the foreign office must have a full-fledged and separate public diplomacy division. Right now it functions as a part of the external publicity division of the Ministry of External Affairs. Public diplomacy is the face and voice of diplomacy today both within and outside the country. Its outreach activities are manifold: films and documentaries, publications, lectures, event conception, execution and management and it needs adequate manpower and financial resources for this purpose. This is one area where the foreign office can expand cadres through lateral entry and recruiting of PR professionals.

A word on the use of language: choose words carefully. The veteran editor of a national newspaper recently drew reference to the use of the terminology “Ivy League of terrorism” saying the reference “Ivy League” usually connotes for American audiences their prized, best-in-the world universities like Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Associating terrorism with these “hallowed” precincts (by use of the term Ivy League) may be problematic and not easily ingested. This writer also remembers how the choice of the title, “India means Business” in publications to describe our reform policy in the early 1990s was not exactly appreciated by our American friends who interpreted “means business” as having the connotation of “India will hit back, will not take things lying down, etc.” The term “surgical strike” to describe the attack against terrorist camps across the LoC in Kashmir could equally have been aptly described as a preemptive strike in self defence.

Government and the media are an odd couple – the latter is usually chasing the former for information and responses, and seems to drive the scene-setting and the scenario for the direction of news. Crisis situations seem to be defined, described and dissected in the television studios and by live-to-camera reporters and anchors with no navigation or positioning provided through prompt, well-timed government interventions and briefings. Prime time on television has been transformed into a ridiculous cacophony where grown men and women regress into adolescent games of make-believe war and where peace is a dirty word. This does our image little good in the global arena.

Like Meiji-era Japan, today’s India must scour the whole wide world for new ideas and best practices in communication and image projection. Let us add SpeakOut India to the duo of StartUp and StandUp India. 

Nirupama Rao is a former foreign secretary and ambassador. She served as the first woman spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs from 2001 to 2002.