Who in 2020 is capable of representing India abroad? A moviestar, a writer, an artist or a run-of-the-mill bureaucrat? Or Is it people with in-depth knowledge of the country to which they are assigned the mission?
Approximately a year ago, President Ram Nath Kovind praised the Indian community in Cyprus for strengthening people-to-people relations between the two nations. Addressing the Indian community, the president had sent a fantastic message to the Indian diaspora living abroad by saying, “India is proud of its diaspora and their achievements. They are true cultural ambassadors of India.” His statement outlines how important and incumbent it is for any government in power to capitalise and strengthen the bond with its vibrant and economically successful diaspora living abroad. India has in fact the largest diaspora in the world, with around 19 million of its citizens living in other countries. The US is their top destination, and people of Indian descent are the most successful immigrants in the country. However, in the last decade their numbers have started souring in European countries as well, which includes Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Holland.
Those of us who have lived abroad for a considerable period have some observations to share, keeping in mind India’s high-level engagements with Europe. Many Indians living in Scandinavia share an urge for and need of specialisation, some kind of expertise before ambassadors get appointed to the region. If a bureaucrat has learnt Arabic then it is appropriate to send that person on a mission to a country where Arabic is spoken as a language and not to Scandinavia. Similarly, most ambassadors coming to this region or, any region in the world for that matter, have to settle down, and it takes time before they are able to muster courage and understand the social and political framework of the country to which they are asked to lead a diplomatic mission.
Let us keep in mind that Indian tax-payers are paying a huge amount of money to finance exorbitant villas for ambassadors. Probably most Indians do not even have an idea as to what an ambassador´s villa costs when it is located in the poshest area surrounded by the most expensive houses in the entire country.
Ambassadors live like maharajas and maybe there is a logic to it, but are they achieving the desired results for the country? Without the understanding of even the basic language of the country they are sent to the mission without having had any knowledge of the country. When Indian Foreign Service personel are send abroad, it works when it is an English-speaking country because it harmonises with the emphasis on English in Indian universities. But in a European context, a simple knowledge of German would be appreciable before being sent to Germany or a basic knowledge og Italian before being sent to Italy, and likewise a little knowledge of Swedish before being sent to Sweden.
European countries, whether we like it or not, do take pride in their languages, and much of their culture is closely associated with intrinsic knowledge of their language. Having a prior knowledge of a country was vastly appreciated by President Barack Obama when he appointed a person of Indian origin, Richard Verma, as the U.S. Ambassador to India from 2014 to 2017. In a record short period, Verma achieved for America what many previous ambassadors could not; a historic strengthening of bilateral ties. Ambassador Verma oversaw one of the largest U.S. diplomatic missions in the world and made it a success. We owe him some credit for strengthening ties with America which is unprecedentedly at its best in recent years. Wasn’t the success due to the prior knowledge of the country Verma had before being sent on the mission, simultaneously being dexterous enough to manoeuvre through the legalised world of the United States?
It is this capacity to co-relate and collaborate between the country of origin and country to where you are sent on a mission that makes the huge difference. At times the Indian diaspora living in Europe and America get confused, as Bollywood stars keep coming to capital cities assuming they are the ambassadors of Indian culture. That chapter is somewhat over, mildly speaking, after the recent turmoil created by the death of Sushant Singh Rajput, and an historical aversion has prevailed among the Indian diaspora towards these filmstars who are now seen as products of nepotism rather than products of individual success based on talent.
So it is time to question again: who are the true ambassadors of India? And why not take inspiration from the American model? American presidents have rewarded loyal citizens, political party members, brilliant lawyers, writers, etc., as ambassadors.
Any Indian government, while expending millions of dollars on diplomatic missions, ought to see that those sent out to represent India truly reflect the intentions and values that represents the voice of the new government in power.
Ambassadors should be neutral, but they have a huge responsibility to facilitate and create a people-to-people contact, and therefore knowledge of the language of the country they are sent to, and some prior engagement with the country in some form or other should be appreciated. There should be checks and balances to see if the mission abroad is working in accordance with the goals of the government installed by a democratic process. Otherwise, we will keep sending ambassadors who think their role is to be majarajas, to attend inauguration functions and eat fancy dishes cooked by special cooks with a selected few, and to take photoshoots at fancy events with famous people. Instead of serving the Indian community and working to improve mutual ties, they end up caring for their random personal agenda sending their children to the most expensive schools of the country, which most other Indians cannot afford.
There must be a better role for an ambassador in 2020, who ought to be humble and simple and reminds us of Mahatma Gandhi, rather than of lavish lives of Maharajas and Mughal kings.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.