What are you doing for India's image?' the questioner demanded, somewhat petulantly. He seemed incredibly young and was dressed in the standard gear of a software engineer -- a faded T-shirt, jeans, tennis shoes and in addition the not so obligatory beard. His eyes were bright, the posture slack, the manner sullen.
'Why, I think it has improved a great deal in recent years. Have you anything specific in mind?' I asked.
I had finished my standard talk on US-India relations and it was Q and A time. From experience I have learnt that often it is useful to first understand what a questioner is driving at, before pontificating. There is often an inexplicable hostility that every Indian bureaucrat or diplomat learns to face and it is better to know where it springs from, before engaging in a dialogue.
'Well, most Americans seem to think that we Indians just answer calls and do routine back-office work. It is so unfair. We are as good as any and can do cutting-edge S&T. We should correct this image of India as a sweatshop or a call center land. What are our embassies and diplomats like you doing for this?' he added letting off some steam in the process.
I chuckled inwardly. How far we had travelled, I thought to myself.
The locale partly explained the question. I was at the Headquarters of HP, short for Hewlett-Packard, one of the giants in the IT industry and a Silicon Valley legend. I was meeting the Indian engineers on their campus and believe it or not, there are a few hundred of them in just that campus alone. And the gripe about India's image was from one of them, who as a proud technologist was a little worked up with the under-appreciation, as he saw it, of the Indian genius.
'What do Indian diplomats do to project India's image?' I have lived with this question all my working life. It is narrower than 'What does a diplomat do?' a simple question with a not so simple answer that I have written about, in one of my previous columns on Rediff.
To worry about India's image is fair, legitimate, important and all that, but as I said, I chuckled to myself, only because we seem to have come a long way in perceptions about what India's image is and ought to be.
My mind goes back to our days in Germany, during my first posting, some decades back. I had been sent to learn German and we were undergoing what is termed the 'immersion method' of learning a foreign language: one is thrown into a small village, asked to live with a family with no English, and try to learn the language by coping with everyday existence apart from the formal classes.
An excellent method, surpassed only by falling in love with a native speaker with no English.
Anyway, I was in this village with this German family and the very first day my landlord was showing me the way to the language school. I was seated next to him in his car and he stopped at the traffic light.
'Das ist Rot' he explained patiently, all in German, which I knew just a little, 'You must stop here'. 'Ja, ja', I said impatiently. 'Grun jetz,' he proceeded, you can walk now when it turns green.
'Have you seen such contraptions in India?' he was asking me in German, but with utmost sincerity.
Unfortunately my own German was insufficient to disabuse this well intentioned ignoramus and my own physique too inadequate to confront him. My timid Indianness or more accurately South-Indianness made me accept this piece of wisdom about what traffic lights are in the industrial world. Alas, I never corrected the image.
As I said, it was some decades ago, before everyone in the world worried about their calls being answered in Gurgaon or their airline bookings being processed in Bangalore.
Another time, another place.
I was in Kampala, the capital of Uganda where a Conference of the Chambers of Commerce of developing countries was being organised by the local chamber. Their president contacted me and asked me ever so politely as to what India could offer -- the cost of the venue, the expenses for transport, the hospitality for the international guests or what.
'But this is your show, how can India bear the expenditure,' I asked, also very politely.
'But the British Aid are paying for the plane tickets and the US Aid for the entertainment,' he said.
'I don't know about that. But we are a developing country. We are not donors'.
'Who says you are developing? You are rich,' he said. When I tried to reason, I discovered that his image of India was based on the lifestyle of the local Gujarati tycoons, the extravagant weddings in the Indian community seen from afar and the opulent temples built by Swamis which dotted the landscape. I could not correct his image of India as a land filled with millionaire Patels and glamorous damsels swirling around in dandiyas.
I have a hundred other stories varying in stupidity, insensitivity, arrogance, ignorance or simple innocence.
But to come back to the question: 'What can one do to project a better image?'
Several points need to be made in a serious answer. It is necessary, however, to start with some rather metaphysical observations about reality, appearance, the thing-in-itself and its image etc. It is not for nothing that we are the inheritors of Adi Sankara's legacy. (Younger readers who have not heard of Sankara may want to look up Wikipedia at this point!)
To start with, the image does depend on the reality; the 'snake' does need the existence of a 'rope', a truism that Indian philosophy has taught us, but one cannot rest at that. We have to strive to remove the veil of avidya, particularly a diplomat.
The image of a country's reality often gets magnified or diminished or distorted. This is true for any country but in the case of a complex, many layered and multi-dimensional reality like that of India, it is difficult to say even for us as Indians as to: whether the image that is being evoked is accurate, or true-but-selective, or untrue and deliberately distortive, or plain bizarre.
Is all of India shining? Are some facets of it shining and the others actually darkening? Or are we only whining? No unanimity, I guess.
Secondly, much depends on the legendary 'eye of the beholder'. India's image as seen in Africa as that of a manufacturer is different from that seen in Sri Lanka as a regional power, or that in the US as a call-center core. And the time dimension. An India after nuclear tests is seen differently, from an India reeling after floods, or an India after the largest elections in the world. It all depends on the context in time and space and is thus relative. So the context often determines what to project, to what purpose and conversely what to suppress.
Faced with all this, what should a diplomat aim at? To begin with, to define the objective, to select the audience and to project a perspective. Media, technology and the forces of globalisation are changing the dynamics every day and today much of the world now sees us through a hundred reports on television or in the newspapers. The barriers for information are fast coming down and facts are not the main issue. A perspective is.
In this situation, obviously a diplomat, however energetic, simply cannot go about correcting everyone's impression as to what his country is. He has to focus on some constituencies. The media, for instance, is a true force multiplier in image projection. One good television story, one powerful report, one evocative image can do more to change a country's perception in the popular eye than a thousand interactions. He has to aim at centers of influence and opinion making, say the universities, the think-tanks, the policy community and so on. And thus proceed, defining and refining his method in each locale.
But surprises never cease in this business.
I was recently at the University of Montana, located in a very small town, participating in a discussion grandly titled: 'Emergence of India and the implications for Asia-Pacific'. We had an impressive array of strategic experts, defense analysts, regional specialists and such like. The morning had been spent on dissecting issues such as the nuclear agreement, the impact of the rise of Asian powers on the US, a new strategic equation by the year 2030 and so on. All very impressive.
Finally, it was discussion time and an elderly lady from the town, also in the audience, was the first to jump up.
'I have been here all morning and I just love India, but none of you have mentioned the caste system,' she said.
'Anyone to comment on the caste system and the nuclear agreement?' said the much experienced moderator mischievously looking at me. The kind lady looked up expectantly.
I am still thinking.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at email@example.com