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khatua-shanghaiPolitics divides, culture connects. Just a couple of days before Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi met in Goa to discuss weighty issues such as India’s NSG membership, the two Asian giants quietly turned to the magic of films to make their ties hum with positive energy. In Shanghai, a pact was signed between India and China to recreate Raj Kapoor’s 1951 classic Awaara into a contemporary Chinese opera.

awaara-chinaAmarendra Khatua, the new director-general of Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), who was in Shanghai to deliver the keynote address at the 18th China Shanghai International Arts Festival (CSIAF), struck an upbeat note on long-standing civilisational ties and promoting cultural exchanges in Tier-II and Tier-III cities in India and China. The joint theatrical remake of Awaara, which remains the most popular Indian movie in China, hints at more such collaborative cultural tie-ups India is set to pursue in days to come.

“Cultural diplomacy is poised to play a bigger role in India’s foreign policy calculus in days and months to come and promote Brand India,” said Khatua, a veteran diplomat  and an accomplished poet who writes and translates in English, Hindi and other Indian languages.

iccr-khatua-profileWith the Modi government positioning culture at the heart of India’s burgeoning diplomatic engagements, Khatua has been given a focused brief. “Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and EAM Sushma Swaraj want a streamlined, transparent and efficient working of ICCR,” he told India Writes Network in an interview at his tastefully done office in Azad Bhavan, the seat of India’s cultural diplomacy.

In barely three weeks since he has been at the helm of the ICCR, Khatua is doing precisely this: fixing the system, motivating the bureaucracy and staff, and interacting with a diverse spectrum of performers, musicians, dancers, sculptures and creative professionals.

Focus on Brand India

hindi-day-modiAmid all this frenzy, Khatua is calm and clear about the ICCR’s priorities. “The focus will be on promoting and showcasing diaspora linkages, propagation of yoga and ayurveda, including pharmacopeia of Ayurveda,” he said.

“ICCR will work closely with territorial divisions of the MEA to organise appropriate cultural activities. In general, there will be a greater involvement of ICCR in diplomatic activities across the spectrum,” he said.

“Under the new leadership, we are making efforts to promote ‘Brand India’ through emphasis on traditional Indian cultural and scientific mores, yoga, Ayurveda, Sanskrit, Vedas, folk arts and culture, Puranic and historic cultural and philosophical linkages between India and the world,” he said. The promotion of Hindi and greater cultural footprints in Africa, Latin America and neighbouring countries are important priorities, he added.

The Way Ahead

Looking ahead, Mr Khatua said that the ICCR will be setting up more cultural centres. Currently, there are 26 cultural centres set up by India across continents. “The aim is to have 50 cultural centres in the next 15 years,” he said. Another important priority will be to take two-way cultural diplomacy to second and three tier cities, he said.

china-yogaKhatua, the author of several critically acclaimed collections of poems, including “Garden of Enchanted Stones,” is a firm believer in the power of culture to connect nations and peoples. “Promotion of soft power adds up to all our diplomatic initiatives as cultural inputs improve people-to-people contact, continuing interaction, academic and other ideas exchange and brand image,” he said.

The last two years have seen culture moving to the centre-stage of India’s diplomatic outreach, with Indian cultural values and traditions striking a chord across the world. In a landmark achievement, the UN unanimously adopted a resolution declaring June 21 as the International Yoga Day following an inspirational address by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2014. Since then, the Yoga Day has been celebrated with passion and panache across key world capitals.

Do not play politics with yoga. Yoga is about health and holistic way of living. This seems to be the message of the World Health Organisation as countries across the globe join in celebrations to mark the International Day of Yoga.

The WHO chief has said that it is closely working with various centres in India and across the world to support yoga with scientific evidence and include it into universal healthcare programmes.

“Yoga is used in many settings in which the health challenges are being addressed and it has a very prominent place in the holistic approach through prevention and control of health disorders,” Nata Menabde, Executive Director, WHO office to the United Nations, said.

She said that yoga was an ancient Vedic gift of India to the world, and the WHO was looking to bring yoga into education of medical practitioners.

India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador Asoke Kumar Mukerji emphasised that by introducing yoga day globally, some of the biggest health challenges that the world had been facing could be tackled, and the application of yoga could bring happiness in the people’s daily lives.

Millions of people across the globe are participating in the first International Day of Yoga on June 21, signifying the increasing popularity and universality of this practice of yoking body and mind into unison.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has launched a new website dedicated to the International Day of Yoga. The website is being operated by the external affairs ministry and gives details about the programmes being held internationally on June 21.

It promises to be a spectacular show, inviting the world to revitalize its sinews through the ancient Indian practice of yoking body, mind and spirit. With barely days to go for the first International Yoga Day, the Indian government is leaving no stone unturned to showcase the country’s greatest soft power export to a global audience, cutting across hemispheres and continents.

The UN will commemorate the inaugural edition of International Yoga Day on June 21, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and General Assembly President Sam Kutesa in attendance. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will represent India at the event, commemorating the first International Day of Yoga at the UN Headquarters in New York. It will be broadcast live at Times Square, the pulsating heart of Manhattan, to a global audience.

Showcasing Soft Power

In a curtain-raiser media event giving a peek into an array of events lined up to celebrate this high moment in yoga’s global journey, Sushma Swaraj eloquently described yoga as “the soft power of India” which can usher in lasting peace for a violence-wracked world.

“The initiative India had taken there was a reason behind this…That the world which is now engulfed in violence should be taken to a path of peace. Yoga is India’s soft power. Through that soft power, our goal is the world attains peace also bring down violence in the world,” said Swaraj.

Fast-track Diplomacy

In a triumph for India’s fast-track diplomacy, the 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly December 11 adopted by acclamation draft Resolution, A/69/L.17, declaring the International Yoga Day, with a record number of 177 countries co-sponsoring it. The Yoga Day was declared barely 75 days after the pioneering idea was mooted by the yoga-practising Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Mega Yoga Show

The Indian government has made grand preparations to have a mega yoga show on June 21 at Rajpath in New Delhi, with similar celebrations planned by the Indian missions across the world. Mr Modi will be present at the Delhi event to soak in this high moment in his cultural diplomacy, but contrary to some media reports, he will not perform asanas.

“He (Modi) will grace the occasion and address the gathering but he will not perform yoga,” the minister clarified. The Delhi yoga show is expected to be attended by over 35,000 people.

The prime minister, who has been an ardent practitioner of yoga for years, has been tweeting pictures of various asanas and their benefits on the human body.

Don’t mix politics, please!

Yoga is widely seen as a gift of India to the world, but over the years has become a global answer to all those looking for physical vigour, mental peace and spiritual radiance. But in the subcontinent, parochial posturing has intruded into worldwide celebrations of the yoga event. After Pakistan rejected visa to an Indian yoga instructor, India has decided to hold an in-house event at its High Commission in Islamabad to mark the International Yoga Day..

“There is no problem. They refused them visa. We did our internal arrangement there. But yoga will definitely happen there. We were not doing this programme there by depending on them only… We will conduct yoga inside the premises of our embassy.”

A Global Journey

Yoga incarnates itself in many schools and practices, Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga being the most popular. This quintessential Indian holistic discipline has now travelled across borders, and become a truly global phenomenon which has been eagerly embraced all over the world.

From Cairo to Chicago and New York to Addis Ababa, and Tokyo to Moscow, yoga has found ardent practitioners and devotees.

Yoga’s emergence as a global brand and the most visible symbol of India’s soft power is a work in progress. Celebrities around the world, including Hollywood stars, have taken to yoga in a big, giving a sheen of glamour to the ancient Indian practice.

New York, among other global cities, is known for its love of yoga, with yoga sessions being held from time to time at Times Square, the heart of Manhattan and Central Park.

 

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yoga-class112India is banking on the global popularity of yoga to cash in on the success of its most famous cultural export. In the recently unveiled new Foreign Trade Policy, yoga has been included under the services export section, a move that shows the government’s enterprise in leveraging  India’s soft power.

The trade policy focus on the ancient Indian discipline of wellness has come in the run-up to a host of events India will be hosting for celebrations relating to the International Day of Yoga on June 21, a pioneering step that was possible only with India’s proactive diplomacy.

The new trade policy aspires to make India a star player in world trade by 2020 – currently Asia’s third largest economy accounts just about 2% of global trade.

Under the yoga rubric, the Indian government will also be marketing and promoting related products such as ayurveda, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and handicrafts as a part of the natural health and wellness package. This is expected to provide boost to the domestic MSME sector as well.

In an a world which is increasingly becoming more fitness aware, and organic traditional and natural ways of staying healthy are the new fad (especially in the West, which also has significant purchasing power), the thrust on yoga in international trade is a smart move.

Born in India centuries, yoga is today popular globally, as shown by the UN’s endorsement for 21st June as World Yoga Day last December. India and Indian yoga gurus have been playing a stellar role in branding it across the globe and India needs to build on this brand image. Commerce and Industry Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has acknowledged this fact, saying that branding campaigns were being planned for promoting exports from sectors such as services, and commodities in which India has traditional strengths, such as handicrafts and yoga.

India is already a major hub of low cost medicine, and medical tourism is a fast growing sector. By promoting yoga and traditional medicines systems within a composite marketing exercise, India can be projected as not only the ‘pharmacy of the world’, but also as a source of natural healthcare and fitness systems. These branding campaigns, apart from building on India’s soft power, shall uniquely position Indian health and wellness products to bring in much required foreign exchange.

Sushma Swaraj at a press conference

Sushma Swaraj at a press conferenceThere is something touchingly beautiful about youth, with all its high hopes, impossible yearnings and the desire to make and remake your own world. Bliss was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven, William Wordsworth wrote so eloquently and beautifully.

In many ways, this is a bright new dawn for our country when India is on the cusp of momentous changes and is re-scripting its own destiny. Our economy is reviving. India is being hailed by the World Bank and the IMF as the fastest growing large economy in the world. At the same time, India is also vigorously engaged in the process of rewriting the rules of global engagement.

India’s myriad civilizational strengths and its growing global profile make it indispensable to how a host of the world’s cross-cutting challenges ranging from terrorism and piracy to pandemics and climate change are tackled and resolved.

The world is looking at India with renewed respect and enthusiasm, and India is looking to proactively engage all corners of the world with added vigour. And this is where you young people, dynamos of energy, ingenuity and enterprise, come into the picture as the world becomes a truly global village, bringing diverse cultures and peoples together in a community of shared values and interests.

In India, the idea of a global village is ingrained in our collective consciousness and is embedded in our DNA. The Vedic ethos of vasudhaiva kutumbakam has animated our way of life down the ages; we in India have eagerly embraced the world and have always regarded the world as an extended joint family.

Down the ages, India has shown a rare receptivity and has been quick to absorb other cultures, religions and values, a relentless process of amalgamation and synthesis that has produced the rich tapestry of a pluralistic, multi-cultural and multi-religious syncretic India. In a seminal sense, India, in all its vibrant diversity and receptivity, is a microcosm of the world.

What it all adds up to is that there is really nothing foreign about our foreign policy in so far as foreign means something out there, which does not concern or impact our lives immediately.

We can’t pretend that what happens in far-off countries like Nigeria and Syria is of no concern to us; distance does not in itself provide for security. Terror groups active in distant lands now link with others across national boundaries.

Trade and investment have created an intricate global web of prosperity and interdependence; India, as you know, has become the back office of the world. When America sleeps, Indian techies provide back-end support. Oil you need to drive your cars comes from countries in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, among other places. Indian spices tickle the palate in homes and restaurants around the world. And the sun never sets on the 25-million strong Indian diaspora.

Against the backdrop of this increasing interconnectedness of the world, India has forged a robust omnidirectional 360 degree foreign policy.

Today, I will limit myself to highlighting 4 key areas of focus of our foreign policy orientation.

First, we seek to harness our external engagements for national resurgence and development. Development and Diplomacy are inextricably intertwined in our foreign policy.

In fact, development is the over-arching imperative and focus driving our multifarious external engagements. Creating an empowered India with world-class infrastructure and higher standards of living for our 1.2 billion citizens is the core goal of our multi-pronged diplomatic endeavours.

Our foreign policy is, therefore, intimately tied to addressing developmental challenges and eliminating the curse of poverty and illiteracy. That’s why, if you have been following our recent diplomatic engagements, especially since the BJP-led NDA government came to power with a resounding majority in the May 2014 elections, seeking external partnerships in the area of infrastructure building and technology transfer has been a cross-cutting theme.

For example, Prime Minister Modi’s scheme of 100 smart cities has become normal diplomatic parlance in our engagements with India’s key strategic partners, including the US, Japan, Russia, China, Singapore and Australia, among others. The smart cities project should have a special resonance for the urban young who dream of world-class amenities and eco-friendly clean life right here in India. This is a pioneering project which illustrates the dovetailing of the domestic agenda and foreign policy.

Second, our ‘Neighbours First’ policy, also stems from a similar thought process. Promoting peace and stability in our immediate neighbourhood is underpinned by the premise that the destinies of over 1.5 billion people in South Asia are deeply and organically interlinked. Our neighbourhood policy is not just driven by security imperatives, but is animated by a narrative of opportunity and a vision of wide-ranging regional integration and connectivity.

It is this win-win vision which propelled Prime Minister Modi to invite the leaders of all SAARC countries at the swearing-ceremony of our Government in May 2014, a path-breaking diplomatic initiative that was meant to signal India’s thrust on putting neighbours first in its foreign policy world view. Again, it this soaring idea of a resurgent South Asia that was the basis of PM Modi making numerous announcements at the SAARC summit in Kathmandu that signal India’s desire to tie its destiny with that of its neighbours.

Third, we see Indian culture as our powerful asset in promoting India’s interests abroad. We do not flinch in emphasising on India’s value systems, its philosophy and spirituality for hope and renewal. The declaration of the International Yoga Day by the UN on June 21 underscores the global acceptance of this ancient practice of meditation and well-being. We are planning a host of events in the run-up to the celebrations of the International Yoga Day. The focus on culture is also evident in our outreach to the 25-million Indian diaspora spread across the world. Ensuring their welfare and protecting their interests remain our core foreign policy priority.

Fourth and last but not the least, I wish to underline that we are pursuing a people-centric, interactive and youthful foreign policy which is open to new ideas, new initiatives and new inspirations, specially from you young people sitting in this audience.

It is with young people in mind that we at the Ministry of External Affairs have launched a major social media outreach that not only showcases what we are doing with different countries and international organisations, but also elicit ideas from you.

And it is entirely up to you to drive this conversation and take it forward. In today’s wired world, foreign policy is not only about policy, but also about communication and projection. It’s not only what you say, but what you are seen to be saying that is equally important.

With more than 65 per cent of India’s population below 35 years of age, I see Indian youth as India’s foremost brand ambassadors and bridge-builders amid India’s expanding engagement with the world.

There is nothing like the heady intoxicating feel of youth, and I know it well. I still remember the excitement of becoming the youngest Cabinet Minister in Haryana at the age of 25!

Youthful energies need to be harnessed and leveraged in the right direction. And here, under this government, there is plenty to choose from in areas, where you can make a lot of difference. Dynasty is no longer destiny; talent is destiny. You can make your presence felt with your innovation and initiatives. With national development as the lynchpin of India’s foreign policy agenda, I urge you to be more proactive and drive the process of development and raising India’s global profile.

(This is the edited version of speech delivered by India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj at International Youth Summit 2015 for NextGen World in New Delhi on February 20)

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un-india-envoymodi-un-address The United Nations will turn 70 in 2015. But the world body is increasingly looking like a relic of the past and is badly in need of reform to stay relevant amid the ceaseless flux in geopolitics in the 21st century. Amid the defining shift of power from the west to the rest and the emergence of India on the global stage, the case for the reform and expansion of the UN Security Council has become all the more urgent. In his maiden address at the UNGA, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a robust pitch for reform of the UNSC to “make it more democratic and participative.” “Institutions that reflect the imperatives of 20th century won’t be effective in the 21st century. The world in the 21st century has changed and will be changing at a faster pace. It becomes imperative that we formulate according to the changing times and new ideas of 21st century to sustain our relevance,” Mr Modi told delegates at the 69th session of the UNGA.

In this free-wheeling interview with Manish Chand, Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) in New York, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Asoke Kumar Mukherji speaks about India’s strategy for accelerating the reform of the UNSC, the enthusiastic support for India’s candidature for a permanent seat in the powerful council and the way ahead on Prime Minister Modi’s initiative to get the UN to designate an International Yoga Day.

(Excerpts from the interview)

Q) In his maiden address to the United Nations General Assembly September 27, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a compelling case for accelerating  the reform of Security Council and set September 2015 as the deadline. How realistic is the target and has the process acquired a critical mass?

A) The process of reform has acquired a critical mass because in the last round of intergovernmental negotiations, the maximum number of countries participated and put forward all their views on the five big issues connected to the UN Security council reforms. From November, when we start work in the General Assembly intergovernmental negotiations, the time has come to build on this critical mass and move from negotiations to a conclusion. It is our intention to be constructive in the negotiations, enter into a give-and-take, and end up with a result in 2015.

Q) Looking ahead, what is India’s strategy to make the September 2015 deadline work?

A) The strategy is linked with cooperation of all member countries who are engaged on this issue, to enable us to negotiate a text. In the process of negotiating a text, each country will be able to very clearly explain what its interests are. Once we know that the issue can we addressed in a concrete way — right now the problem is every country is giving a philosophical view — at that time, we would be coming to a more technical or legal perspective.

Q) This address by Prime Minister Modi also marked his global outing, in a manner of speaking? What is the response to the Prime Minister’s speech and the broad themes outlined in his speech?

A) The response was phenomenal because the number of delegates who stood in that line to great him after his speech stretched for so long that most people in the United Nations could not remember having seen such a long line.   Secondly, his speech was structured in such a way that it appealed to all sections of the delegations represented in the hall; so you found at  the end a groundswell  of support and understanding for India’s point of view, as articulated by the prime minister.

Q) This is the first time an Indian prime minister has proposed a novel initiative for an International Yoga day. In his discussion with the leaders of some South Asian countries, he got their support as well. What is the underlying idea behind the Yoga Day? Have you been working on this for long?

A)    We have been working on this issue in terms of what the prime minister called a holistic approach and harmonious living, in which the International Day of Yoga has been put forward. While we are talking of the health of the external environment it is also important to talk of the health of the individual; that is where the yoga initiative comes from, and we have already started discussions with more than four dozen countries who are supportive of this and the intention is to build up the support to end with a consensus declaring an International Day of Yoga on June 21 by the United Nations General Assembly.

Q) On the sidelines of the UNGA, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj met more than 2-3 dozen ministers, and the theme of UNSC reform must have figured in those discussions as well. Also, she met a lot of African ministers. What is the general response to our candidature for a permanent seat in the UNSC?

A) The response has been clearly put forward in the joint communique of issued after these meetings. There is a common interest in successfully negotiating the issue of the early reform of the Security Council because the world changed. And the Security Council needs to be reformed to be credible and relevant to reflect the realities of the 21st century.

 

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