ICTpost Governance Bureau
To be tweeting on the twitter is quite a break from tradition for the British foreign secretary who traces his earliest predecessor to 1782. William Hague’s digital diplomacy officer says the Foreign and Commonwealth Office does it because it must. The US State Department does it, undaunted by its virtual molestation in full view of the entire world. The US diplomats in New Delhi described in real time to the global web audience every little gesture and deed of the visiting POTUS (President of the United States).
India’s external affairs ministry too has taken some steps. For the first time in 2011, it streamed live a seminar to let the world hear and see the foreign secretary as she spoke in New Delhi. The seminar’s topic “Public Diplomacy in the Information Age” made it appropriate for webcasting.
It was a radical step for a ministry which had then lost a twitter-addicted minister of state. Once even the TV was considered an inappropriate medium for explaining foreign policy. But now retired Indian diplomats do not mind being wheeled into a TV studio and the foreign secretary walks in a garden to oblige a TV interviewer.
India is seen as an IT power but its record of e- Governance remains patchy. The situation has no doubt improved since Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had tried to drag the country kicking and screaming into the 21st century for which he was nicknamed Computerji. Still many senior officers do not soil their fingers with the computer keyboard even with the Control key. At the end of 2010, this writer found two top retired bureaucrats, deprived of their PAs, going through a basic computer course.
The government websites, as a design student will point out, befit a banana republic. In contrast, the Public Diplomacy Division presents a clean website and has left no Web 2.0 tool unused in its nascent campaign. Apart from the Facebook, twitter, YouTube, it uses the free document uploading sites. Some Indian diplomatic missions have also gone on the social networking sites.
The information and communication technologies (ICT) have changed the ways of conducting diplomacy and responding to foreign policy challenges. The consequences can be good or bad, depending on the case. The technology comes with a baggage – a new mindset. ICT has made direct access to the top leaders possible.
The impact of instantaneous audiovisual communications is already being felt. A Head of State watches live TV coverage from a distant part of the globe and then without waiting for the ambassador’s report, goes into the video- conference mode with his counterpart in that country to defuse a crisis or to start one. Such instances have given rise to speculation about the impending Death of the Ambassador.
Some countries may be deprived of the Indian ambassador. However, India will have to find new ambassadors for the Republic of Facebook and other supranational online communities that have more members and more money than several nation states.
The age- old procedures cannot and will not serve the interests of Indian diplomacy in the information age. The traditionalists will realise this and take to virtual social networking just as they adjusted to the post- cold war reality! New channels make communication speedy and spontaneous. There is a growing realisation that a message delayed is a message lost. As a TV anchor told the diplomats in charge of media relations: ” If we don’t sleep, you don’t sleep.” Since India has switched over to a ” pragmatic” foreign policy, South Block could drop ” Satyameva Jayate” ( The Truth Alone Triumphs) and adopt the Post and Telegraph Department’s motto: ” In the Service of the Nation, Day and Night”.
The digital mindset will also impact the functioning of the ministry. A young foreign service officer, with a glint in his eyes, dreams of a ” paperless” ministry. Mani Shankar Aiyar, when he was a diplomat, once confided to this writer that no Government section can function if the desk officer reports sick. A “paperless” office will avert such mini crises.
Many of the young IFS recruits had blogged as college students. When their seniors tell them about “protocol”, these digital natives think of Internet Protocol ( IP) rather than of the alcoholfuelled protocol. An IFS school of creative writing has come to be recognised, thanks to the fiction and non- fiction being published by Indian diplomats.
Unfortunately, they have been asked not to blog. Here the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has taken a different view. Its official site proudly displays the musings of several of its ambassadors.
A British ambassador waxes eloquent about the cedars of Lebanon. ” There are few cedars left in Lebanon but they are magnificent and could yet really be a symbol of unity, hope and strength. But that strength needs nurturing….” Is the ambassador sending a diplomatic message through his blog? May be yes, may be no. There is no better way to keep China guessing about India’s intentions than to let the ministry’s website publish a poem by the foreign secretary!