Tuesday, October 6, 2015

PM’s Fancy Dress Diplomacy

Pankaj Sharma
6 October 2015, New Delhi

Inane apparel requests must not overshadow the third India-Africa Forum Summit.

I did not know how to react after reading a recent news report surrounding the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). According to the report, the MEA had sent communiqués to the consular offices of all African nations with a slightly bizarre request ahead of the third India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) later this month. The MEA had reportedly requested for the ‘measurements’ of all 54 African Heads of State so that a half-sleeve Kurta and Churidar ensemble may be stitched for them in time for the summit. A ministry official had reportedly said, “The idea has been approved by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the communications to embassies and consulate officers have been sent accordingly. This will be one of the highlights of the summit and will help demonstrate the solidarity and age-old partnership India has with the African countries.” The IAFS that was supposed to take place last year was postponed on account of the Ebola crisis. This overenthusiastic MEA official even gave a dose of his philosophy. “The PMO and the MEA believe the sewing machine is more than just a tool for mending clothes. It is also the tool that helps people feel comfortable with each other. Stitch by stitch, the fabric of relationship between countries can also be repaired and strengthened,” he said.

Frankly, I could not decide whether to laugh or cry. I am unable to recall an occasion when the government in our country or any other country had even floated such an idea for an international conference. There cannot be any objection if the heads of states participating in a global conference themselves decide to dress in a similar manner to the Prime Minister or President of the host country for a photo-op. Such gestures can be taken as their token of affection and honour. But what if they are asked by the host country to wear clothes that apparently symbolise the Prime Minister’s style statement? Saying no to such a ‘request’ is not easy for any individual or country that believes in basic courtesy. But is it courteous on the part of a host country to request various heads of states to present themselves in a particular set of clothes for the formal picture? Certain African countries are staunch followers of Islam. How would Prime Minister Narendra Modi react if anyone of them urges him to wear a skull cap, while posing for a formal photo-op with a head of state of the host country? India has seen Modi’s refusal to wear such a cap offered to him by a Muslim priest while he was campaigning for the 2014 general elections.

The summit is scheduled to be held in New Delhi from October 26-30, 2015. The third edition of the summit will see a meeting of foreign ministers on October 27, followed by the arrival of heads of various African countries the next day. The first summit was held in India (2008) and the second was held in Ethiopia (2011). The five- day summit will start with consultations on the official level followed by the head of states/governments level summit on October 29, with scheduled bilateral meetings on October 30. This is going to be the Modi government’s biggest diplomatic outreach event involving delegates from a large number of African nations. These leaders will be presented with a detailed depiction of India’s cultural heritage with a special emphasis on the North-East at the dinner hosted by the Prime Minister.

Preparations for the summit were already completed during the Congress-led UPA government’s reign, and it was scheduled for December 2014. The focus of the summit was on subjects ranging from Resurgence, Renewal and Renaissance; Democracy, Development and Demographic Dividend; and Trade, Technology and Training. Narratives of a rising India and Afro-optimism were set to intersect at the summit. A multi-faceted India-Africa engagement cultivated over many decades is one of the most successful diplomatic assets we possess. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had told the 2nd Africa-India Forum Summit held in Ethiopia that Africa has decisively shed the stereotype of a “Hopeless Continent” and become a “Cape of Good Hope’” with six of the world’s fastest-growing economies located in Sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, he added that more than 30 African countries had become functioning democracies. He told the world to add to this potent mix, the demographic dividend, shared by both India and Africa, with the bulk of their population in the age group between 19 and 35. Singh had also stressed on the emergence of a new generation of quality-conscious middle-class consumers that has enhanced the attractiveness quotient of both African and Indian markets.

Psychologists feel that expecting a large group of influential people to behave in a particular fashion indicates of the false-consensus bias, whereby a person tends to overestimate the extent to which his beliefs or opinions are typical to those of others. There is a tendency in some people to assume that their opinions, beliefs, preferences, values and habits are normal and that others also think the same way that they do. This cognitive bias tends to lead to the perception of a consensus that does not exist. Psychologists call it a “false consensus”. This false consensus is significant because it increases self-esteem.

The Africa Summit is poised to be more than a showpiece diplomatic event. It will be an occasion to review as well as chart the road ahead for new opportunities unleashed by the parallel and interlinked resurgence of India and Africa. Is it wise for the government that a fancy dress event overshadows such an important occasion?

 (The author is Editor and CEO of News Views India. Views expressed are strictly personal)

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