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In era of social distancing, India’s Ministry of External Affairs must reimagine diplomacy

How do you win over the other at a time of gesture-less screen-presence? The MEA is becoming more about partnership and less about loud leadership.

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How does diplomacy work in the age of social distancing and coronavirus?

In principle, diplomacy is about managing a country’s international affairs. It is also, to over-interpret the words of the Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz, an extension of politics. For historians of the 1950s, such as Humphrey Trevelyan, the success of a diplomat, and hence of diplomacy, was measured by the ability of these ‘envoys ordinary’ to ‘endure a regular diet of official parties’.

The diplomat, as a former British mandarin, Sherard Cowper-Coles, argues, represents their country where foreign policy happens. She or he, by definition, is a linguist, endlessly and often creatively interpreting the competing impetuses that are born and nurtured at ‘home’, alongside the international imperatives. In essence, and additionally, as William Burns – the former US Deputy Secretary of State – puts it, ‘diplomacy is a human enterprise’.

So, how do you win over the other at a time of gesture-less screen-presence during a pandemic? How would the real-world protagonists, dramatically depicted in the many Graham Greene and John le Carré novels, negotiate secrets at a time of solitude?

These are questions that will no doubt become the subjects of PhDs at universities that still privilege the study of the practice of diplomacy. In India, it is worth considering the role of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), the institutional portal between India and the universe.

Also read: Like an MEA to help NRIs in crisis, India needs a system for its internal migrants too

Opening up India

There is a story of MEA leadership that is quietly, but surely, becoming more and more apparent. The cerebral contours of this story-line are less about loud leadership, and more about effective partnership. For the most part, there is an instinct for collaboration that has come through in this age of de-globalisation. To an extent, this partnership, and sometimes it’s shortcomings have been manifested in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak.

First, connecting with the international imperatives went hand-in-hand with the decision to lock down India and arrest the spread of the virus. On 15 March, and for the first time since 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi convened a high-level meeting – virtually – of the SAARC. A $10-million fund donation was made by India to the SAARC fund to fight Covid-19. In the era of mask-and-glove diplomacy, India’s front-leaning actions included providing urgent medical supplies to all its neighbours, except Pakistan.

On 5 May, Prime Minister Modi said that India will provide supplies to 123 countries across the globe. This includes 25 African countries. Previously, India had unhesitatingly sent supplies to even China, whose leaders are doing their best to turn the attention away from the wet markets of Wuhan to the dry ports increasingly lined with Chinese medical imports. Yet, unlike Chinese leaders’ untactful advance of boasting their way through this global crisis, India has unassumingly become, as Modi stated, the ‘pharmacy of [the] world.’

But now it is also time to move swiftly from health diplomacy to the tougher terrain of bio-medical mediation. It is increasingly clear that the answer to the crisis will require intense collaboration. It will mean finding exceptions to nationalism for the sake of science. Long before the novel coronavirus affected our lives, the Modi government invested substantially in coalitions designed for joint research with partners from across the world. Giving meaning to such partnerships means sharing data, information, and best practices on a real-time basis. It will mean that our envoys will need to tilt the tension points between ‘home’ concerns – or the attraction for scientific protectionism – and the essentiality of the international, more pointedly and skilfully in favour of the latter.

Also read: Can India balance its domestic pharma needs and also be a global player in Covid-19 fight?

Grammar of diplomacy

Second, and where the role of the MEA has been seriously pronounced is in regard to the repatriation of Indian citizens from the nooks and corners of the world. Notwithstanding the many agencies and ministries that are involved in this unprecedented repatriation exercise, aptly titled the ‘Vande Bharat Mission’, it is the MEA and India’s missions abroad that are in the frontline. Anywhere between 192,000 and 350,000 Indians are expected to want to return to their homes. About 300,000 Indians have registered to return from the Gulf countries alone.

The MEA has designated senior officers in each Indian state expecting the return of its citizens. It has created a digital platform that connects missions abroad with state governments. In doing so, it has used technology innovatively to mitigate the potential for friction – by creating a dashboard to clearly identify the names of returnees – so common between government departments. Whether it’s naval ships to Male or keeping the Air Force fleet on standby, or deploying India’s Flying Maharajas to 12 countries, this is a whole-of-government exercise that is spearheaded by diplomats and officials leading the charge in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Manama, Riyadh, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Dhaka, Kuwait, Manila, San Francisco, New York, London, Washington DC, and other parts of the world.

Yet, and whilst it is easy to be consumed by the frenzy of immediacy, the way in which India works with its partners and citizens on the many tarmacs and ports across the world will, at least partially, shape a future that is less certain today than anyone could have imagined at the turn of 2020. In the end, success or failure will depend on each human interaction, and the extent to which the emotional grammar of anxiety and apprehension can be converted into comfort and contentment by our linguists and interpreters alike.

The author is the director, Carnegie India. Views are personal. 

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