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Communicating India

Unlike the entertainment industry, Indian news and current affairs continue to be largely domestically oriented and therefore absent in the global news arena. As a result, the capacity to communicate India’s cultural attributes to a globalized audience is largely underdeveloped. Of the major countries with ambitions for a global role, India is the only one whose national broadcaster (Doordarshan) is not available in the major capitals of the world. Unlike non-English speaking countries such as China (CGTN), Russia (RT), Qatar (Al Jazeera English), Iran (Press TV) and Turkey (TRT-News), whose English-language 24/7 news networks are widely distributed around the world, the Indian viewpoint is notably missing in the global news sphere, at a time when news media are a key instrument of public diplomacy.

While India’s English-language private news networks, such as NDTV 24x7, CNN-News 18, India Today TV, Republic TV, Times Now and WION (World is One News) are available globally, they have rarely ventured out of their diasporic constituencies. These networks do not appear to be interested in catering for an international news market. Instead, the international dimension of the commercial news channels functions primarily to reach the global diasporic Indian audience, who are perhaps more interested in coverage of India itself than in international affairs. For a nation with a developed model of journalism and one of the world’s largest English-language news markets, it is ironic that Indian journalism is losing interest in the wider world at a time when Indian industry is increasingly globalizing and international engagement with India is growing across the globe. Although an external service of Doordarshan, DD World, was launched in 1995 - now called DD India - it has not made any impact either on diasporic audiences or among a more general international viewership. As a report about global Doordarshan has noted, ‘Foreign policy is important and the world wants to know what the Indian government has to say on a wide range of issues. So far, India’s foreign policy and its communication have been reticent’ (Lakshman, 2014: 5).

Digital diplomacy

Despite Prime Minister Modi’s penchant for managing media messages and his reputation as a formidable communicator, his government has done little to address the shortcomings in India’s external communication strategy. Where television has failed, will the Internet succeed in communicating India’s soft power? India’s Ministry of External Affairs was one of the early adopters of social media platforms to connect with diasporic communities.Though MEA’s twitter account @IndianDiplomacy was set up in 2010, since Modi took over in 2014 the Ministry has been using social media more effectively, promoting a positive cultural narrative for‘Brand India’.The MEA India Facebook page, created in 2012, is also widely followed in diplomatic and diasporic circles. It also maintains two You Tube channels (MEA India and Indian Diplomacy) and has accounts on various platforms, including Instagram, Soundcloud, Flickr, LinkedIn, as well as a Google+ channel. Such digital diplomacy has been spurred on by Modi’s own considerable social media presence (Tandon, 2016). However, the deployment of diasporic and digital diplomatic resources do not alone make a country attractive on the world stage; these assets need to be translated into influencing the behaviour of other states and stakeholders, requiring a concerted effort by policy makers (Mukherjee, 2014).

The democratic dimension of India’s soft power

One dimension of soft power that perhaps deserves greater emphasis, and so far has been generally overlooked is India’s achievement in remaining ‘the world’s largest democracy’. India has an electorate of 900 million (larger than the combined number of voters in the US, Russia and Europe) and more than 100 registered political parties. This largely successful experience of democracy is unprecedented outside the ‘democratic West’. India’s democratic record is demonstrated by the election of Modi, the son of a chaiwala (tea seller) to the highest office in the land in 2014 and again in 2019 with a much wider margin, who is never shy of publicly extolling his very humble background. Such social mobility is coupled with a secular and federal political infrastructure that has been in place for seven decades and encompasses different ethnic, religious and linguistic interest groups.

India has proved wrong the dire predictions of many commentators at the time of independence from Britain in 1947 that a country mired in poverty, ignorance and illiteracy could not sustain a democratic system and would descend into autocratic dictatorship (Sen, 2005). The scale and scope of the Indian electoral process, which is more highly developed than some in Europe or the US (electronic voting machines were introduced in India as far back as 1982, years before any major Western democracy), offers opportunities for other developing countries to learn from the Indian experience, from understanding voter behaviour among a largely poor electorate to the importance of an independent and effective Election Commission. Beyond the electoral aspects of democracy, India also demonstrates that a unified nation state can function as a socially diverse, culturally plural, multilingual and multi-faith country. Such heterogeneity may be India’s major strength in a globalized world, where the capacity to deal with diversity is likely to grow in importance (Thussu, 2013). However, the polity in India is being challenged by growing majoritarian nationalism as well as criminalization and commercialization of politics, features which undermine efforts to promote its global image (Vaishnav, 2017).

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