Given the government’s lacklustre efforts to engage the Indian diaspora, building community centres abroad with a bottom-up approach could be a useful solution.
As India prepares for another Pravaasi Bhartiya Diwas, the multiple channels through which the diaspora can be engaged need a fresh look. Current travails with long delays in receiving overseas Indian cards (OICs) or visas due to the two-month gap policy are a reminder that policies to engage the diaspora posited by one branch of the government can be easily undermined by another part of the government that has its own concerns and priorities.
One way to deepen relations with the diaspora is to establish the Indian community or cultures. This has long been seen as an important component of a country’s public diplomacy, although this is not a necessary part of the efforts to engage the diaspora. Examples include the American effort with the United States Information Agency, the UK with the British Council, France with Alliance Française, Germany with the Goethe Institutes and Spain’s Cervantes Institutes.
The most recent – and ambitious – push in this direction are China’s efforts to establish Confucius Institutes for training in Chinese language and culture. According to a recent report in the China Daily, 322 Confucius Institutes and 369 Confucius Classrooms have been established in 96 countries; and 303 institutes and 265 classrooms are already operating. As many as 360,000 students were registered in these programmes in 2010 (130,000 more than last year). An average Confucius Institute receives $500,000 and a Confucius Classroom gets $60,000. They expect to dispatch 2,000 teachers and 3,000 volunteers from China and train 10,000 Chinese teachers and 10,000 local teachers next year. The effort is overseen by Hanbanan, (an arm of the Chinese Ministry of Education) which aims to establish 1,000 Confucius Institutes by 2020.
Despite their rapid international growth and popularity, these institutes have attracted considerable controversy. They are obviously seen by the Chinese government as an instrument of its “soft power” to win the world’s heart and mind, but critics view them as propaganda vehicles for the Communist Party of China and for even more nefarious purposes (one reason the Indian government has rejected them till now).
Can India be more creative about its public diplomacy efforts and move away from the top-down, state-driven efforts to a grass-roots level, bottom-up approach? First, this would be less of a drain on the public exchequer. Second, since the key stakeholder is the local community, it will be more integrated and raise fewer suspicions. And third, at least for now, the Indian government simply lacks the wherewithal to mount a large state-run and directed effort that is effective and does not degenerate into something worse.
An excellent model that could be supported, hence replicated and scaled up, is the India Community Centre (ICC) in Silicon Valley, near San Francisco. The ICC was conceived as a place where every generation of the Indian diaspora could find comfort in various facets of their culture, preserve and practise unique traditions and celebrate festivals and social milestones in a welcoming environment. It was also designed to be a centre where people from other cultures could explore and experience Indian traditions and values. The ICC founders also decided that promoting fraternity in the spirit of the Indian Constitution would be even more important in a distant land. So uniting the diverse community is also one of the ICC’s goals. And finally, incorporating community service was considered vital to living up to traditional Indian values.
The ICC emphasises inclusiveness, outreach and community partnerships, serving as anchor and foundation for the local Indian diaspora. It provides classes, celebrations and community services. It runs on the dedication and donations of a volunteer staff and governing body, and is run transparently and efficiently, serving thousands in the local community.
If India is to retain links with the second generation of the diaspora, the community – and the government of India – must think of creative ways to engage them. An organisation like the ICC offers the best mechanism for that engagement, both because of its inclusive nature and the range of activities it is engaged in.
There are, of course, practical concerns. How would one know if the effort is worthy enough of taxpayers support? How should embassies and consulates consider the merits of different applications and the volume of support? Who would decide, and on what grounds, which Indian community centre is worth supporting?
It should be possible to address these concerns by laying out objective criteria that cannot be gamed easily. The Indian government should initially consider supporting only those centres:
where the local Indian-origin population exceeds a certain number (for example, at least 50,000 or perhaps even 100,000);
that are strictly non-sectarian and non-political and have no connection with any religious or spiritual organisation;
where the local community raises the major part of the operating budget (the floor could be as high as 80 per cent) and is responsible for all revenues at the margin;
that have a proven track record of, say, at least five years and growing,
that have well-established governance structures and reputed trustees and directors;
that are strongly endorsed by the Indian Consulate with jurisdiction, which feels the partnership will be highly beneficial.
By leveraging these grass-roots efforts in an incentive-compatible and resource-efficient manner, the Indian government can create a unique global public-private partnership that engages with its exceptional diaspora, a group that has provided a positive example and is a source of support for its homeland. This model would provide a vehicle to sustain and strengthen an identity that ultimately has to be defined by collective engagement around that identity, and not just by the position of a card or other legal status. This approach would also provide better bridges to the host countries of the diaspora, rather than the old model of purely government-sponsored institutes, which carry the whiff of an imperial past or similar future pretensions. As India moves firmly on to the world stage, partnering with its diaspora with such a focused effort is likely to have an exceptionally high rate of return.