Author: Paramjit Sahai
Publisher: Vij Books India Pvt Ltd
Book Review by: Shreya C
Paramjit Sahai’s latest book, “Indian Cultural Diplomacy: Celebrating Pluralism in a Globalised World” is timely. As India and the rest of the world explore soft power diplomacy as a legitimate foreign policy tool, the book comes in handy. The book can act as a good source and starting point to evaluate the need, structure, framework and overall idea of India’s cultural diplomacy. The book is set in the backdrop of VasudhaivaKutumbakam, “the world is a family”, that is the ethos guiding India’s cultural diplomacy.
Paramjit Sahai spends the first chapter defining “cultural diplomacy”, “soft power”, “smart power” and other terms common in diplomatic parlance. He is careful not to conflate the two terms – “cultural diplomacy” and “soft power” – and says that unlike soft power, cultural diplomacy is “people centric” and its “aim is to create an atmosphere of trust”. This first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book and forms the basis for which the rest of the chapters can be understood.
For the remaining thirteen chapters, the author discusses various aspects of cultural diplomacy ranging from education, the diaspora, the media, Bollywood, yoga, art and literature. He brings out the “idea of India” in its purest form, especially as seen by the foreign eye. What makes the book stand apart is the detailed and inside view that the author is able to present to the readers of the role that various organs such as ICCR, the Ministry of Culture, and diplomatic missions play. The author uses multiple anecdotes and case studies throughout the book to emphasize his point. For instance, in the second chapter, he examines through case studies the impact of Head of State and other dignitary visits on cultural connectivity. Similarly, in the eleventh chapter he examines in great detail the Smithsonian Institute, which he calls a “Global Cultural Hub” and the role it plays in portraying American culture. What might be of interest to many readers is the methods in which India has been connecting with the Smithsonian since 1985, and concludes with interesting and practical recommendations on how India can gain from this collaboration.
The book also provides a historical overview of India’s cultural engagements abroad, in particular through the use of Cultural Agreements. The author says that India views these agreements to perform a tripartite function – establish new relations, strengthen historic relations and reorient the relationship. India signed the first Cultural Agreement in 1951 with Turkey, and has since signed 129 more. Although the largest number of Agreements were signed in the 1950s, the author points that there is no pattern to signing these agreements. Paramjit Sahai also traces the evolution of other methods India employed to project its image or idea abroad from Festivals of India, and Chairs of Indian Studies. He aptly points out the role that third party, non-governmental organisations play in furthering this image, such as Wizcraft Arts.
The book is not only informative but is also critical of the workings of the various stakeholders involved in India’s cultural diplomacy. For instance, Sahai is quick to identify that ICCR and Indian diplomatic missions abroad fail to move beyond the traditional basket of vehicles of cultural diplomacy such as classical dance and music, yoga, and Hindi. One must stop and question whether these elements are identifiable with a foreign audience, and more importantly whether the young generation is attracted to them. He cautions that the real challenge would be in linking cultural heritage with modernity.
Interestingly, he takes his argument further and dedicates an entire chapter into the work that foreign missions in India are doing in terms of image building and furthering their cultural diplomacy. He examines in great detail the work of the United States, Russia, and Japan in India, and concludes that there is much that can be learnt from them in devising India’s own programmes.
Paramjit Sahai’s book, “Indian Cultural Diplomacy: Celebrating Pluralism in a Globalised World” is a must-read for anybody looking to study India’s cultural diplomacy. It will be useful to academics and students alike who are keen on India’s foreign policy, in particular cultural diplomacy. From Prime Minister Nehru to Prime Minister Modi, the author traces India’s cultural diplomacy as it evolved and took shape. What stands out is the author’s ability to contextualise theoretical and practical forms of knowledge in cultural diplomacy, owing to his vast experience in the field of diplomacy. The author’s insights, attention to detail, and extensive employment of historical facts and data will be of interest to many.
(Ms. Shreya C. is a Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation.)
(This Book Review is carried in the print edition of May-June 2019 issue of India Foundation Journal.)