Sunday, April 12, 2009

India's Election

Reflections on India at election time
ND Batra
The public trust in leaders in India is limited by their parties’ narrow-minded regional-and-caste based ideologies, rampant corruption and unscrupulous opportunism despite their occasional Madison Avenue style public relations image-building. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, of the 1425 candidates 222 have criminal records including “charges of murder, attempt to murder, kidnapping, extortion,” and other heinous crimes. The scars and burns of the Gujarat communal massacre in 2002 and the mass killings of poor helpless Sikhs in Delhi 1984 are still seared into people’s visual memories. Thanks to television and global media, we saw how ugly and inhuman people can become at times and felt ashamed of ourselves. This is what the media revolution does to a democratic society like India. It never lets you forget the past and it also fuels the desire for change at a rapid pace. Dr. N. Bhaskara Rao, writing for the Center for Media Studies, observed that “in the last fortnight of March 2009 there were more than a dozen instances from around the country that we saw news channels showing cash in large volumes being transported or distributed by political leaders in the context of Lok Sabha poll.” Although this kind of anecdotal observation needs to be vetted by empirically verifiable evidence, perception is reality in the public mind.
While the Internet makes India global, it is television that mirrors the actual realities and can uncover hidden problems including corruption and criminality. Television gives everyone easy access to information and even the most complex topic has to be simplified into terse statements, sound bites and visual moments. Television turns the abstract into the concrete and the visual. It can make corruption and injustice visible. An uneducated worker or a farmer can easily understand what is happening; and given the Indian habit of building quick grapevine communication, eventually every topic ends up in political discussion, and into the voting booth. So when television shows some parts of India clean and bright, naturally the voters, the urban and rural poor, may ask, what about us, the slumdogs? With cell-phone cameras everywhere, every “note for vote,” to borrow Dr. Rao’s phrase, can be captured for the 24/7 television.
It is legitimate for a farmer on the verge of suicide to ask the question: How can you leave us behind? Trickle down economy has not been good enough even for the United States; but for India the economic growth must reach every nook and cranny, the lowly and the humble, the rag pickers of Dharavi-Mumbai and the rat eaters, Musahars, of Bihar. I regard it as an assertion of the people’s right for equal access and equal opportunity to share the good life that one sees on television, soap operas and commercials. In other words, the pace of economy cannot be slowed down; rather it has to quicken to meet the rising aspirations created by television news media in India.
Since globalization, privatization and free market have begun to create more jobs, there’s no reason why any government, communist or otherwise, could afford to oppose the trend and still stay in power. On the contrary, one sees a growing trend in various states in India for generating competitive advantages to attract direct foreign investments and collaboration. I have always wondered why Kolkata lost Tata’s Nano, the little beautiful car which has become part of the global chatter. Competition: This is the global paradigm shift that Indians must understand. So if Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai rise, can Ahmedabad with Nano in its workshop remain far behind? In a competitive environment of the free marketplace, the states, communists or communalists, have to position themselves to attract private investments and encourage entrepreneurship. Information technology industry in India has reached a critical mass and in spite of the Satyam scandal it will continue growing. But India needs balanced development including massive emphasis on agriculture and rural development to spread wealth and reduce disparities. This is not to minimize the importance of information technology as an engine of economic growth. The change of government will not adversely affect the information technology base and the trust that Indian knowledge workers have been building for more than a decade. The Satyam hiccup would not change the fundamentals that India is a reliable source of off-shoring for major companies like General Electric, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and others, who value India’s knowledge workforce. One can say with confidence that the technology sector will continue to receive the excellent support that it has been have receiving regarding infrastructure and developmental policies. ITs foreign collaborators and partners need not have any concern. In fact whatever party or coalition comes to power in New Delhi, it will certainly make all-out efforts to ensure a growth friendly environment to attract foreign investment.
But at the same time we should keep in mind that since not everyone can go to IIT or IIM, jobs off-shored to India from the United States and Europe would play a marginal role in lifting people out of poverty and raising them into the growing middle class. There has to be something else, something much more dynamic like the rise of millions of cell-technology mobile small entrepreneurs who can grow like giants. The next leadership must forge millions of levers to lift India out of poverty.
This much I know that once again India’s millions of electorate will regretfully affirm that the age of giants, those larger than life men and women, Jawaharlal Nehru (Tryst with destiny), Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (Integration of states) and Indira Gandhi (Liberation of Bangladesh, accession of Sikkim, bank nationalization that has protected India from global financial crisis today), is over forever. Nonetheless, Dr. Manmohan Singh has been good enough for the country. He has kept the hurly-burly political alliance together for five years, persuaded the country to accept the path-breaking nuclear deal with the United States, braved the Mumbai terrorist attack, and on the top of it he has managed to keep up the average economic growth around 8 percent. Now it is the age of exploration of space, outer space, rural space and cyberspace, for which India needs bravehearts, men and women with courage, integrity and imagination. (ND Batra teaches communication and diplomacy at Norwich University. Readers can follow him at Twitter ( and access his blog at

Song of Tagore

Thou Hast Made Me Endless

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941 AD) the Nobel Laureate of 1913 was introduced to the West primarily through the collection of English translation of some of his poems/songs captioned as ‘Gitanjali’ (=Offering of Songs).More translations of his works followed by the poet himself and others after he had won the Nobel, including poems/songs, dramas, short stories etc. However, such efforts were sporadic and sluggish, mostly on individual initiative, which still remain so.As a result, a vast volume of the poet’s works remains un-translated while, it appears, it is an impossible proposition to translate even a substantial part of the poet’s total works to permit those, not privileged by the knowledge of Bengali language, a reasonably broad view of his myriad creations where unfathomable perceptional depth of top grade aesthetics runs through, literally true to his song “Thou hast made me endless / Such is Thy pleasure”.Notwithstanding this, an upsurge of Tagore translation took place in the last decade of the twentieth century by virtue of a good number of eminent poets/translators e.g. William Radice, Joe Winter, Ketaki Kushari Dyson, to name a few, all of whom left their valuable contribution to this oeuvre and my book
THE ECLIPSED SUN is a modest addition to this. I have put stress on a few aspects of the poet’s works, particularly those in his twilight years, which seemed to me quite inadequately covered so far. The followings are presented mostly based on this book. RAJAT DAS GUPTA: Calcutta: e-mail: &
Rabindra Sangeet – Songs of Rabindranath Tagore: (Part 2) – 6 samplesTranslator’s note: The songs of Rabindranath Tagore are known as Rabindrasangeet which number approx. 2500. It is no exaggeration to say that Rabindrasangeet has explored every corner of human emotion and perception to give them best possible expression. Their philosophical depth also is unparalleled in the music world. It may be claimed, Rabindrasangeet has climaxed wording of the ineffable in literature of all time. Anybody not knowing Bengali definitely miss this aesthetic treasure. A translation can at best explain the central idea of a song, but cannot surface the wonderful matching of music with the original poesy so intimate with its philosophical/spiritual canvas. Unfortunately, therefore, the best of Rabindrasangeet, with all its humanistic appeal of highest order, will remain confined within the Bengali circle. It may be possible, some highly talented musicians endowed with literary command also, will emerge with versions of Rabindrasangeet in other languages, equally appealing. Such experiment in Hindi has not been disappointing and has gained popularity. Hindi is of course quite close to Bengali which must have been a contributory factor to such success. But the Western languages are likely to pose insurmountable challenge to any such effort. While hoping that some highly talented musicians will some day perform this magic of perfect cloning of Rabindrasangeet even in the Western languages, a sensible suggestion in the meantime appears to be to keep its translation handy while the Westerners (and in general all not having access to Bengali) will give their ear to the original Bengali song and try to perceive its import. Those knowing Bengali can only sympathize those not so privileged for such a plight in their struggle to enjoy a song! Below appears translations of some Rabindrasangeets, with a few initial lines of the original Bengali given in Roman script to enable the listeners to relate the translation to the song.Amra dujana swarga khelana garibo na dharanite
Mugdho lalito asrugalito geete
[Notes: The song was composed in early thirties of 20th Century, presumably dedicated to the great revolutionary Jatindra Mohan Sengupta and his foreign (Irish, I guess) wife Nellie Sengupta, who had worked shoulder to shoulder with her husband in the freedom struggle for India. In 1932, on his return voyage from Europe, Jatindra was arrested by the British police near Bombay. He was since interned and eventually breathed his last on 22 July 1933 at Ranchi (in Eastern India). Many a couple dedicated to freedom struggle had similar plight at that time and, naturally we may assume, this song was directed to them all. Yet, its appeal extends universally, beyond a particular milieu, to all the couple whose objective is far beyond a mere happy family life to respond to the cause of service of the people at large.]

To compose the toy of heaven
Is not our aim craven –
In emotional songs occult
The nuptial night to exalt
In nostalgic charm
With a heart infirm
To beg at Fate’s feet
All our imploring to meet –
Is not for us intrepid
Both standing firm in our daring bid.

The banner of love we’ll hoist high
Along craggy path our perilous mission to vie;
The distress of the cruel day
Overwhelm us may;
Yet, for peace to languish
Or consolation we’ll not wish.
If the radar is broke, the sail torn,
To us this will be ever known,
That both of us are there
Even when Death at us will stare.

Both of us to vision the Earth there
And each other;
The desert heat to bear
Not to rush for the mirage mere
Evading truth to self beguile
This glory be ours all the while;
This message oh dearest
Be our heart’s closest –
Till we die
That you’re there; so am I.

* * * * * * * * * * * ** ** *
Tumi hatath haway bheshe asha dhan
Tai hatath paoyae chamke othe mon
[Note: God’s revelation to us is off and on in course of our life, without notice or ritualistic processes, but even through the simplest objects of Nature if we keep our perceptions open.]

Thou art my treasure windfall
So my mind does startle.
On my secret travel
Thy abrupt reveal I marvel –
In the wind fragrant
On Thy fancies errant.

Daily as we come and go
Each other we do not know;
Kicking up dust visit many
To convey message hardly any;
All of a sudden Thy flute yonder
Alerts the lost passenger.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * ** * *
Tomar holo shuru, amar holo shara
Tomay amay mile emni bahe dhara

[Note: Among the Hindu gods, Vishnu is the protector of Creation while e Shiva is for its destruction. One will agree, concepts of Vishnu and Shiva are more philosophical, rather than religious, to perceive this dual faces of Existence. This song brings out this very philosophical perception.]

You set out as I end;
Such a stream founts as we blend.
For you the light does glitter,
At home with mate you are.
For me is the night,
The stars above only I sight.
You have the shore,
For me the seas roar.
You have station,
Mine is motion.
You preserve, I undo,
You fear, I brave in lieu.

* * * * * * * * * * * * **
Bhenge mor gharer chabi niye jabi ke amare, Bandhu amar
Na paye tomar dekha aka aka din je amar kate nare
[Note: While we are confined to the narrow limits of our life, we pine for a bigger significance of our existence beyond our mundane boundaries. This song wonderfully brings out the distress of the human soul seeking exit beyond its confinement and, in the case of the Poet, I believe the eternal Truth is his quest.]

Who’ll break loose oh
My room’s lock for my bondage to go,
That from me does fend
Thou, oh my friend!
Without Thy sight
Lone days are my plight.
Is the night over
The Sun soon to appear
At the horizon Eastern
My rescue to earn;
By the long road ahead
Thy chariot to my door will be led?
In the sky stars countless
Stare at me blink less
Awaiting the dawn
With Thy floodlight to be gone.
The travelers in the morning
All come amidst din;
Pass their pageants with music
Thy glory to seek
In the flowers blooming
Tunes struck by the Sun’s golden string.

* * ** * * * * * * * * * * * * ** **
Charanrekha tabo je pathe dile lekhi
Chinnha aji tari apani ghuchale ki
[Note: Everything beautiful in our life is only transitory. Yet. the Poet’s conviction is that only the eternal Truth manifests in these temporal.]

On the path Thou left Thy footprints
To-day to blot out all its hints.
Pollens of Ashoka (*) rendered Thy dust crimson (*= tree)
Only to be lost in the grass on Thy lawn.
Ends flowering,
Birds forget to sing;
The southern wind ceases
Oblivious, self-forfeits as it pleases.
Yet, the Immortal did they not carry,
In death will end its memory?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
He nutan dakha dik arbar
Janmero prathama subhakshan

[Note: There has been a boom of celebration of birthday parties of young and adults alike in the Western style even in our country with the trite song ‘Happy birthday to you …..etc.’ preceded by the ritual of cutting/eating of delicious birthday cakes to be followed by sumptuous dishes and, of course, the incumbents are flooded with costly gifts from their guests. Thus, the birthday parties do provide plenty of enjoyment. However, it may be interesting to compare this ethos with that which pervades the whole of Bengal during the Kabi Paksha (Poet’s fortnight) which starts on the 25th day of Baisakh (this month in the Bengali calendar synchronizes with the mid April to mid May period), the birthday of the Poet, when the entire clime here is inundated with Tagore’s songs/recitals etc. in various functions taking us deep into the perception of Creation’s mystery, which we badly miss in our said birthday rituals which, one may feel, are in utter mediocrity once one has experienced the ecstasy and philosophical height in Kabi Paksha. Out of many other recitals relevant to the profundity of ‘birthday’ the following song is sure to be heard on this occasion ]

O Ever New, may Thee reappear
Through Life’s holy primal hour;
With the mist torn
Like Sun be Thy manifestation.
From the midst of inane
Thy victory be over its bane.
Let be hailed by Thy glow
And my heart’s trumpet blow;
Music of Life’s marvel
Infinity’s eternal wonder to reveal;
The clarion call to the Ever New be sent
At the advent
Of Baisakh the twenty fifth
For its un-blighting gift.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Obama and Afghanistan

Obama’s War
Milton Bearden writes in Foreign Affairs:
“Since the United States first dispatched troops to Afghanistan in October 2001, the war in Afghanistan has been an orphan of U.S. policy. But with the release last week of a revamped U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, the conflict has, by default, become Barack Obama's war.”
Read the full article

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Obama as global shepherd

President as global shepherd

ND Batra
From The Statesman

Reflecting on the G-20 meeting in London, it would appear that world leaders of the most powerful economies had succeeded in realising that concerted action was needed to halt the precipitous global economic slide and begin taking concrete steps to effect global recovery, regardless of the primary source of the trouble; which of course everyone knows started with the United States banking system’s disastrous financial innovations like sub-prime lending, credit default swaps, liar’s loans, et cetera.

Although the time for finger pointing and mutual recriminations, as some Asian and European leaders had been doing earlier, seemed to be over, the contentious issue was what would work the best to lift all boats, for example, whether to inject fiscal stimulus to let credit flow again and kick start the recovery or to erect regulatory frame work to control Wall Street’s rapacious capitalism. That was the great Atlantic divide the G-20 communiqué tried to bridge with rhetorical flourishes such as “The era of banking secrecy is over.” Much credit is being given to President Barack Obama for parlaying his well-honed campaign-style charm offensive into global diplomacy, which certainly is true.

Wherever Mr Obama and his graceful lovely wife Michelle Obama went, they won people’s hearts and minds. Through their grand symbolic gestures, eloquent speeches and transparent smiles, America seemed to be refurbishing its image sullied by the Iraq war and the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

But no less could be said of other leaders also including the powerful European duo, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Chancellor Markel Angela of Germany, who asserted that the Anglo-Saxon form of unbridled marketplace capitalism is dangerous for the new world order, especially now when the global economy has become so integrated that a single Wall Street investment bank failure could cause worldwide financial tsunami. The world just cannot leave the United States to its own financial devices, however innovative they may be.

With Prime Minister Gordon Brown, like his predecessor Tony Blaire, being secure in the American safe haven of “special relationship,” the new Europe is essentially a Franco-German Europe. And in the ultimate analysis, French and German leaders prevailed in their views that mandatory stimulus spending by individual countries as the US and the UK have been insisting, would not work without a global regulatory structure.

Although China and Russia, prior to the Summit, made lot of noise about creating a new global currency under the tutelage of the IMF, they had no takers. As Nobel economist Paul Krugman said in his New York column, China is in a dollar trap. The IMF’s Special Drawing Rights (SDR) is a convertible mechanism based on a basket of currencies including the dollar, pound, euro and Japanese yen. Nothing should worry China more than the value of the dollar, whose collapse will wipe out China’s massive, rather frightening, foreign exchange reserves.

China and other developing countries have to determine the optimum level of foreign exchange reserves beyond which the accumulation becomes more of a liability than an asset. China’s excessive dependence upon exports and obscene accumulation of foreign exchange reserves is as much responsible for global financial crisis as the US fraudulent and criminal lending practices.

China and the United States have let down the world, but Mr Obama would not say so much so bluntly. Measured as he is always in his public utterances, Mr Obama said in his post-Summit radio-Internet address: “Ultimately, the only way out of a recession that is global in scope is with a response that is global in coordination.” In broad terms, there was an agreement that banks need to start lending again in order to stimulate growth and generate jobs, but Europeans were unsure about the wisdom of infusing their economies with massive multi-billion dollar stimulus packages, the kind of seemingly bold steps that the Obama administration has announced, for example, to buy toxic bank assets and shore up their finances so that they start lending again.

European leaders see the global crisis primarily as a consequence of lack of financial controls and most of the G-20 communiqué is about establishing the regulatory framework, including the closure of tax havens (Switzerland, Hong Kong, Macao, Mauritius, for example) and close supervision of hedge funds and private equity firms. But it was the eye-catching amount of $1.1 trillion through the IMF and World Bank in loans and guarantees to help developing countries, who have been badly affected by economic downturn, that answered the question, Where is the beef? “The whole world has been touched by this devastating downturn, and today, the world’s leaders have responded with an unprecedented set of comprehensive and coordinated actions,” said Mr Obama, calling the agreement “a turning point in our pursuit of global economic recovery.” The market responded to his optimism with a surge and the Dow closed over 8,000 in spite of the increasing US unemployment figures. Looking from a glass half-full half-empty perspective, the Obama stimulus package for the global economy through domestic spending, which was rejected by the Europeans, might be seen as being funneled though the International Monetary Fund ~ in spite of the IMF’s dubious reputation of being an organisation whose actions in the past, some believe, have caused more harm than good to the recipients of its loans. But beggars have no choice.

Although Mr Obama’s all embracing inclusive diplomacy shepherded the G-20 Summit superbly, it was essentially an European theatrical performance. The so-called BRIC countries were seen but not heard much.

(ND Batra teaches communications and diplomacy at Norwich University)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Advertisment can stimulate the economy

When the economy is down, call the adman

From The Statesman

In spite of the fact that unemployment has been rising, more than 90 percent Americans still have their jobs. But people are not spending liberally as they used to do. In this season of recession here and depression there, the adman’s song and dance is becoming extremely loud and captivating.
In the United States, advertising since long has been a most important mode of social, political and economic discourse; it is partly so because the adman knows how to cut through the glut of information and hit the target audience with promises of fulfillment of needs and desires.

The adman knows who you are: your taste in wining and dining; your preferences for the car; whether you love kids or pets or both; what’s in your medicine cabinet; what’s in your refrigerator; whether you play golf or video games. He knows what you do each part of the day and how to reach you through your demographic-psychographic profile. The adman researches people not as individual human beings but clusters of interests, preferences and tastes; as communities of shared values, seeking similar pleasures. The adman is a cultural spy as well as promoter of culture.

You need to observe how the adman cleverly propels millions of children to toy stores in order to get to the parents’ pocket books. He does it through after-school television programmes and Saturday morning cartoons, programmes that alternate with commercials so rapidly that the kids can’t make sense whether they are watching programmes or commercials. And at the same time kids feel fascinated with imaginative characters from SpongeBob SquarePants to Power Rangers.

Few parents know how to withstand the pressure from their children, ranging from outright grumpiness to passive-aggressive non-communication. Even in these difficult days when household budgeting is a challenge for many families, children come first. Children and teenagers’ consumer market is huge. Adman turns everything into “cool,” and that is the buzzword.

But imagine how the adman is dealing with a most rational group in the United States, the physicians. Direct-to-the patient “Ask Your Doctor” ads about prescription drugs, which are mostly aimed at the elderly and women, have become so common that sometimes you wonder if Americans suffer from every global disease ranging from allergies and erectile dysfunction to sagging breasts in urgent need for uplifting.

A typical “Ask Your Doctor” advertisement, for example, Detrol, which is used for incontinence and overactive bladder, may show a happy middle-aged couple walking on the beach hand in hand, so happy because they have discovered Detrol through their doctor; or middle age buddies who can sit through an entire baseball game without rushing to the bathroom.

Through these direct-to-patient ads that seem to give vital and authoritative information, the adman uses persuasion to elbow people to take the initiative and ask their physician why this drug is right for them. Of course in a rapid-fire speed-reading mode, the narrator issues warnings for the drug’s side-effects.

In a behavioural advertisement, the adman appeals directly to people’s emotions and tickles the image they have of themselves especially when he sells a value product such as an expensive luxury car to uppity rising people trying to catch up with their neighbours. But by mixing both kinds of appeals, emotional and informative, many pharmaceutical companies make a direct pitch to patients from “If Viagra isn’t everything you hoped for, don’t give up” because there is Cialis for 36 hours and even for daily use to “Now I trust my heart to Lipitor”; and so on.

Many drug manufacturers are using television celebrities to push their prescription drugs, a strategy that might make a physician wonder if it’s worthwhile to resist the pressure and lose his or her patients to another healthcare provider.

The adman’s approach to these two large and almost captive markets, children and the elderly, is quite similar. To get to parents, the adman, like a magician, snares children by creating what is “cool”; to get to physicians, he goes to their patients by using a direct and immediate health benefit appeal. Both appeals use subtle emotional pressures, pushing on ethical boundaries.

But in spite of all his faults, the adman is indispensable to a free market society. The adman impacts society in multifarious ways by bringing buyers and sellers together in the marketplace of goods, services and ideas, and thereby helps distribute economic and intellectual resources of the society.

The social discourse today is all about stimulating the economy through buying and selling because in a consumer society like the United States if the trips to shopping malls diminish, so would the economy. Sooner or later, therefore, the adman would get us because he can take us everywhere we want to be. And he keeps the economy moving even in these times of recession when our lives have become rather fearful of tomorrows. The American adman may be President Obama’s best ally in fighting the economic downturn.

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

China, US, India

Battle of ideas shall continue

From The Statesman

Before the global financial meltdown began last September, the whole world watched with fascination the unstoppable rise of China as a model of economic progress. China as a global workshop ~ that exports, exports, and exports ~ became an exemplar of the energy born of nationalistic commercialism.

Except for those pesky Tibetans and their conniving agents abroad, it looked China had become a global brand with a single dominant story of harmony and peaceful rise. But now because these bankrupt Americans and Europeans are not buying much, many factory sites in China look like a vast wasteland. The euphoria of Asian values and uniqueness is no longer visible. China of course is not crumbling like a cookie but it is also not speeding like a shining silver bullet train.
China as an idea has to compete with others in the international marketplace of ideas. So you can never say that the battle of ideas has been finally won. For example, we did not realise that the end the Soviet Union was not the end of the battle of ideas but rather the beginning of new ones. Think of history as a dynamic landscape where the battle of ideas continues.

Some people, especially those trained in propaganda believe that all that a country needs is a new image and therefore it must re-brand itself. It is not that easy. Even a most authoritarian nation cannot control the message and its image even though it may be the sole source of information about itself. Of course you can never control the image of an open society because there are so many independent actors, institutions and corporations competing for attention.

For example, the Slumdog Millionaire image of India can never be done away. When some of my colleagues ask me as to how accurate is the portrayal of India in the movie, I say it’s a beautiful and accurate “misrepresentation” of India. But Mumbai slumgdogs are better than Mother Teresa’s hopeless downtrodden. Add to this tapestry, the millions of Indians who are using their mobile phones to become entrepreneurs; and the Tata Nano; and the rise of silicon whiz kids in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Gurgaon, Kolkata, et al, and you have a throbbing compelling image of India.

Similarly, Hollywood, IBM, Google, Microsoft, Wal-Mart and all others contribute to the US image abroad. But now you add to this mélange the financial meltdown, increasing joblessness, and the bloody news from Afghanistan! The US image abroad is the materialisation of what the USA is doing at home and abroad.

Foreigners who see only Hollywood violent movies and video games are likely to have a distorted image of the USA. But if you bring them to university campuses, cultural centres, and workplaces, you would see the image of the USA in their minds change radically. Keeping the dynamic nature of the emergent image, it should not be difficult to understand why the public perception of the USA differs from one country to another. The image depends upon the quality and the extent of its presence and its usefulness to the host country.

Even the smartest public diplomacy campaign won’t change perceptions overnight especially when America is deeply engaged in multiple missions abroad. Events might occur beyond its control, which could further blur the image in some countries. China’s presence in the USA is huge but poor quality China-made toys, tainted pet foods and defective tyres have shattered its image of a reliable manufacturer. No amount of public relations or threat of going to WTO as it recently tried to do with India over toys would help China unless it realises that good products are manufactured by countries where the Press is free, where there is political and corporate transparency.

The always-on 24-hour global communication, blogs, instant messaging, and news cycles, make it impossible for practitioners of public relations to devise a central strategy to impose a message control, as it can be done in advertising campaigns for a product or a political candidate. In an environment of unbridled communication, you might still control the message, but you cannot control the meaning when instant alternative interpretations are available.

Each nation is different, so what works in Indonesia may not work in Pakistan. The challenge is to find the right vehicle to carry the message for a specific local audience. Public diplomats must use local leaders to champion and advance their cause and they should do so in such a manner that it makes the local people feel good while at the same time generating goodwill towards the country that is using information culture to foster goodwill. Hollywood is still the best cultural export, but US popular culture, due to proliferation of senseless violence and explicit sex, creates negative impressions in foreign audiences, in spite of the fact the world has been spending billions of dollars importing American entertainment.

The paradox is that in spite of negative feelings about American popular culture that it depicts profanity, nudity, mayhem and crime, the popularity of mass culture, even in the Islamic world, remains strong. In countries like India and the USA, corporations, educational institutions, and non-profits organisations represent most precious values such as individual initiative, innovativeness, entrepreneurship, freedom of speech, and competition. Google and Apple, for example, embody as much of what America stands for as does Hollywood.

India’s massive general election starting 16 April in which an electorate of 714 million would participate makes the idea of India very persuasive and appealing. I would rather have free and fair elections in India than a glamorous summer Olympics.

(ND Batra blogs at and teaches communications at Norwich University.)

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