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Diplomacy to go public

Public diplomacy will soon be the flavour of the season that's all set to dump its assiduously cultivated mystique, writes Vinod Sharma.

india Updated: Apr 27, 2006 13:37 IST

Public diplomacy will soon be the flavour of the season that's all set to dump its assiduously cultivated mystique. The motivation? To grab the microphone in the growing popular discourse on foreign policy issues. The objective? To restore balance in the media-driven debate that's often short on nuances and high on partisan rhetoric.

On the face of it, the MEA's move makes sense. The need to keep people informed and feed their concerns and fears to policymakers hasn't ever been so pressing. In recent months, political consensus has eluded the Indo-US nuclear deal, New Delhi's vote against Iran at the IAEA and even its Nepal policy. 

Not surprising therefore that the mandate of the MEA's newly launched Public Diplomacy Division — patterned on the US State Department's Bureau of Public Affairs — is to reach out to opinion leaders at home and abroad. "We want local and global audiences to hear directly from the Foreign Office," a source said. "For instance, the nuclear deal has to be explained at home and to non-proliferationists across the world…"

So, the public diplomacy desk's (PDD) target audience will, among others, include domestic and international think tanks, faculties in institutes of higher learning, press clubs and editorial boards of local and foreign newspapers. Floated by MoS (External Affairs) Anand Sharma (a former AICC spokesman) and foreign secretary Shyam Saran, the idea has the approval of the PM and Parliament's standing committee on external affairs.

Placed under additional secretary Arif S Khan, a former MEA spokesman who served as ambassador in Damascus and deputy chief of mission with ambassador rank in Paris, the PDD would work in tandem with the ICCR and the Indian Council of World Affairs. Its charter includes promoting "academic, cultural and economic linkages" with a variety of groups.

The need for pro-active public diplomacy could lead to a major restructuring of the MEA's high-profile External Publicity (XP) division — with an annual Rs 17 crore budget — that would give up tasks assigned to the PDD and focus exclusively on the Indian and foreign media.

The work separation could aim at meeting the goals laid down by an in-house panel headed by SK Lambah, now the PM's special envoy in back channel talks with Pakistan. His 2001 report made out a strong case for reorganizing the "structure and work methods" of the XP Division: "Given the importance of foreign affairs in the print and electronic media and the need for timely and effective projection of our views, media management should be treated as an integral and not residuary feature of our work."