The Pursuit of National Goals Needs Strategic Communication, Not Chaos and Noise

In the aftermath of Uri and the surgical strikes, atavistic calls for revenge blurred the focus on terrorism as the enemy of peace and development, as well as efforts to seek a settlement of outstanding issues with Pakistan through dialogue.

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

“Those with the most extensive and strongest communication bridges will command power in the global communication era’’ – R.S. Zaharna

Twenty-first century statecraft, they say, is about “smart power”, the effective leveraging of both hard and soft power. When it comes to India’s handling of the surgical strikes across the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir, it would be fair to say that the government has exercised its power smartly. Through the strikes, the government managed to foil an impending attack by militants based in Pakistan-occupied territory near the LoC. This was a calibrated and surgically precise operation that was not intended to escalate bilateral tensions. The dissemination of information on the strikes, which was prompt and measured, demonstrated the well-coordinated efforts of the diplomatic and defence establishments. Also worth noting is the palpable empathy with which the transnational public sphere has responded to India’s case against terrorism exported from Pakistan.

Leaving aside India’s soft power advantages and its hard power – both military and economic – which is poised to increase exponentially if it maintains its present trajectory, let us examine the concept of strategic communication within India’s policy structure. Strategic communication embodies the confluence of policy goals, effective persuasion and power – political, military and economic. It embodies advanced planning and involves what is termed the ‘purposeful use of communication’ to fulfil the mission of the concerned organisation. In the case of a country’s government, this mode of communication helps keep the national focus on the goals of national advancement, maintaining law and order, vigilant defence of borders and homeland security, sustainable development, faster economic growth and amity between diverse ethnic and religious groups in a globally connected world. Its message is simple, consistent and also has a compelling storyline. This message is not a one-time dissemination done in the form of statements or press releases; instead, it has to be an interactive one –  executed through communicating in real time and by responding to various players and audiences at home and abroad. As experts have noted, strategic communication is about building extensive interactive networks on various communication platforms and not just being the one that commands the most amount of information on a given situation.

Given the long-drawn, bitter and indecisively confrontational relationship shared between India and Pakistan, it is important that we triangulate the right measurements between diplomacy, defence and public outreach. Diplomacy, the first of these elements must serve the purpose of the second – defence –  as well as the larger national mission of peaceful development. It must be imbued with passion and a sense of political purpose. It should not detract from the basic, long-term goals of the nation or seek short-term gratification. These long-term goals are securing the national interest in consonance with strategic goals in security and defence, ensuring transnational support for India’s case on various global issues, raising the country’s profile in the Indo-Pacific world, building a South Asian commons, even without Pakistan if need be, catalysing the flow of foreign investment and technologies for the growth of key industries, but overall, using tools of powerful and convincing persuasion to build confidence in the idea and the practice of Indian nationhood. Public diplomacy must target an audience wider and larger than the immediate national echo chamber. In the case of India-Pakistan relations, our public diplomacy must target audiences in the region, particularly in Pakistan and beyond.

Combating terrorism, a “message with no words”

In a May 1997 interview with CNN, Osama bin Laden described terrorism as a “message with no words”. Terrorism’s message has a consistency and a purpose that negates dialogue, discussion or debate on solving problems peacefully and through negotiation. Its target is not only to kill and terrorise but also to disrupt communication networks and generate disorientation. Governments engaged in a war against terror must anticipate this. Countering terror and its wordless message must involve, in addition to targeted kinetic action, well-modulated plans of negating terrorism’s ideology by working through various channels. These channels include the use of the world wide web, social media platforms, press and television channels, spokespersons – governmental and non-governmental – to refute terrorist propaganda, instil confidence in the public about government actions against terrorism and expose the illegitimacy of those who support and sponsor terrorist groups.

The media cannot arbitrarily outsource this process to itself. The jingoistic responses to the Uri attack and surgical strikes from certain sections of the media showed little evidence of an underlying core of strategic communication that involved the government in the dissemination of these messages. Atavistic calls for revenge and an eye-for-an-eye rhetoric – sounding chaotic and incoherent – blurred the focus on terrorism as the enemy of peace and development, as well as efforts to seek a settlement of outstanding issues with Pakistan through dialogue. The feelings of an outraged national audience may have been assuaged, but what about the rest of the region? Diplomacy’s purpose of influencing opinions beyond Indian shores was overtaken by hysterical displays of patriotic nationalism aimed at Indian viewers, listeners and other participants on various media platforms. Can this instil global confidence in India’s stated desire to be a real power on the global stage?

Civilians – the people in between

One important point that seemed to have been largely ignored was the fact that our quarrel is not with the Pakistani people – themselves victims of terrorism – but with the Pakistani state and its creation and support of anti-India terror groups. Of course, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his Kozhikode speech of September 24, did exhort the Pakistani people to fight poverty, illiteracy and infant mortality, saying, “let both countries fight to eradicate poverty and lets see who wins,” instead of listening to their leaders “reading out scripts written by terrorists on Kashmir.” Yet, by banishing Pakistani actors from Bollywood – because some sections of opinion in the country demanded it – we have achieved little but the further alienation of India in the minds of the common people and civil society in Pakistan. The latter are what Robert Gates once called – albeit in a different context – the people in between, neither friends nor complete adversaries, a group among which there are those who favour peaceful relations with India, although this number is yet nowhere near a critical mass. In any crisis situation short of war, keeping avenues of communication and interaction with public sentiment in the adversary’s society open cannot do harm. Here again, it would seem that the decision-making apparatus in the government allowed the guillotines to fall without timely intervention. Our struggle as a nation is not only to end that scourge without words – terrorism  – but also to build support for peace and negotiate settlements to problems in Pakistan, as well as the rest of South Asia. If India were to engage in more pre-emptive strikes, in the name of self-defence, to take out terror camps on the Pakistani side of the LoC, there is little the rest of the world could say or do to condemn such actions. The world would understand. But retribution practised in the cultural sphere or involving people-to-people interaction is rarely endorsed by anyone beyond a sympathetic national audience.

The issue here is that modern technology caters to different communities of interest – as we see on social media platforms today. As far as the government is concerned, when it comes to communication, everything planned and executed  should be done with the awareness that a global audience is networked into the domestic and that the world is watching and listening. The government has to function in a multi-tasking mode, it not only has to deal with the demands for ‘action’ from the national audience, but also handle the skepticism about our policies abroad (the world is tired of the 70-year-old feud between India and Pakistan but also worried about the threat of nuclear confrontation) and the need to articulate India’s policy goals clearly and cogently.

A new approach to communication

In today’s world of pervasive media, communication cannot be based on just firing ideas at people with a one size fits all perspective. We must understand that people are being influenced by the  “ecology” of ideas thrown at them from various sources. For the government narrative to predominate, it cannot just be a reactive one – one that reacts to a story disseminated in the media, or a call from the public. The government’s message has to set the tone and formulate content, it has to have the capacity to influence opinion in a lasting and credible manner. In other words, it has to be the story that leads.  And the story cannot be set in stone: it has to be constantly added to, amended and amplified to accommodate the government’s responses to different sections of opinion. It has to address questions of both war and peace. Traditional methods and content (for example, just collating evidence of terror attacks and Pakistan’s perfidy will not be enough. There must also be references to the persistent efforts made by India for peace with Pakistan; how Pakistan has egged on separatism in Kashmir and prevented the maturing of efforts by the Indian government to promote reconciliation and normalcy of life in the state and address the grievances of the population there). Each of these aspects needs to be highlighted and nuanced selectively depending on the audience addressed.

The Indian government needs a cadre of specialists in strategic communication, in policy articulation and projection who also cater to audiences well beyond the domestic audience, non-resident Indians and persons of Indian origin.  As a first step perhaps the government may consider setting up an office of strategic communication and coordination under the National Security Council, which coordinates inputs from the ministries of defence, external affairs, home as well as information and broadcasting and provides the direction and planning for the government’s information and communication outreach across various media platforms. Much greater global power and responsibility await India. The government must prime itself to project the country with more creativity, coherence, calculation, confidence and consistency of focus on long-term national goals than in decades past.

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.