A few years ago, when Shashi Tharoor - then a highly sought after public speaker - gave a lecture at the India International Centre on the importance of cultural diplomacy, he spoke of the potential of 'soft power', a term coined to describe a clever tool in international relations that is wielded to subtly mould public opinion in foreign lands in favour of your country.
The British and American governments have reaped a rich harvest from the British Council and American Centres they set up throughout India almost five decades ago for this purpose. Through books, cinema, lecture tours and visiting art and theatre events, they brought sceptic Indians closer to an understanding of the full range of their country's cultural profile. Today, New Delhi is dotted with the cultural centres of almost every major European country as well as some from the Middle East. They offer language courses, scholarship programmes and regularly hold cultural events to bring the latest cultural offerings to Indians who may not get a chance to view these. This is what has made Alliance Françoise, along with the Spanish and Italian Cultural Centres, almost as popular among the young as Germany's Max Mueller Bhawan was some decades ago. Granted that many go there to drink the wine and eat the cheese and delicious snacks that are offered on opening nights, I have seen young university students make regular trips to keep themselves abreast of these events.
Some of the best film festivals, music concerts, lectures and art exhibitions are hosted by these centres that are open to all. Currently, Spain's Instituto Cervantes has a dazzling exhibition of the late Mario Miranda's cartoons and sketches, done after a visit to Spain. Earlier, they had an equally stunning Pablo Picasso exhibition that people visited over and over again. Alliance Françoise, with its stylish glass and chrome building, opens its doors to book launches, jazz evenings and its café is always full of young, arty students. Films are a major draw and now with the gradual retreat of the film society movement in India, these cultural centres are an invaluable asset in accessing the best of world cinema. What is more, the people who head them are known Indophiles, carefully selected for their knowledge of Indian languages and art. Instituo Cervantes, for example, has as its director Oscar Pujol, a formidable Sanskrit scholar who has been associated with a Spanish-Sanskrit Dictionary project and spent several years in Banaras studying under Sanskrit pundits. Once, when I confessed my own ignorance of classical texts, he offered to give me free lessons in basic Sanskrit!
Our own government has several Nehru Centres across the world, but many merely function as extensions of the diplomatic missions and are run unimaginatively. Visiting scholars are seldom tracked and invited for interaction, nor are the right people identified to head the centres. As with so much else, cronyism has defeated the possibility of great cultural diplomacy. I am told some hold exhibitions of salwar-kameez suits and have been taken over by the local ethnic Indian groups to hold Punjabi Day or Sindhi Day kind of 'cultural evenings'. Time was when eminent cultural figures such as Gopalkrishna Gandhi and Girish Karnad were invited to head London's Nehru Centre. They made an impact that is still remembered by Indians there. Hopefully, someone will try and revive these with good people.
Given the weather conditions, no one seems to be inclined to step out. However, there are some occasions when one rouses oneself from the heat-induced stupor for a special event. The India International Centre recently hosted an evening with Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State. Once a familiar figure on the world stage, this dimunitive power-woman was President Clinton's favourite trouble-shooter when she was part of his government. Her energy would shame someone half her age and Albright continues to zip across the world when most women her age would be content to bake cookies for their grandchildren. Like her flamboyant former President, Albright (who has a penchant for teaming her zany short dresses with a signature brooch) is a dazzling speaker.
In conversation with journalist Shankkar Aiyar, Albright held her audience captive for almost an hour and a half, holding forth on a range of issues from world politics to her 'pin-messages'. Listening to her clear answers and her courage in taking on some nasty questions head on, one realised that an intelligent career diplomat makes an impression that no waffling politician can. Highly educated and brought up in a diplomat's home in London, this Czech-born woman is by now a world citizen and at home in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. She is fluent in English, French, Russian, and Czech, and she speaks and reads Polish and Serbo-Croatian as well. Had our own Foreign Affairs Minister been fluent in even two of the above languages, I doubt if he would have read the wrong speech at the UN.
When, at the end of her interaction, Albright told her Delhi audience, "I must love India very much to visit it in June!", she immediately struck a chord with all of us there. This is what soft power is all about: using your charm to win friends abroad. As she spoke that evening, she won America several friends.