Cultural Diplomacy Forum on India Showcases Subtle Strength of Soft Power

Dr. Shashi Tharoor delivers charismatic keynote address on soft power at the India Forum

In advance of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to Washington at the end of June, Meridian International Center brought together over 160 government officials, business representatives, journalists, cultural visionaries, and policymakers for an in-depth examination on U.S.-India relations. Meridian’s second-annual Cultural Diplomacy Forum explored political, economic, and cultural ties between the world’s largest democracy, India, and one of the world’s oldest democracies, the United States. The Forum served underscored Meridian’s view that business and government leaders must understand and appreciate the cultures and values of a nation to effectively engage with the leaders of that country and region.

Meridian President and CEO Ambassador Stuart Holliday launched the Cultural Diplomacy Forum on India through a fireside chat on the state of bilateral relations with Indian Ambassador Navtej Sarna and U.S. Ambassador Frank Wisner. Ambassador Sarna characterized the relationship as a true partnership in that the countries have a lot to offer each other right now. “Almost every major American company is invested in India to a very remarkable degree and what people may know less is that a large number of Indian corporates are invested in the United States,” he explained. Ambassador Wisner, the U.S. Ambassador to India from 1994 to 1997 and current an International Affairs Advisor at Square Patton Boggs, agreed with this ascertain. He also emphasized that both economically and geopolitically, a strong India is good for the United States. Later in the program, U.S. Department of Commence Deputy Assistant Secretary for Asia Diane Farrell reinforced the importance of the trade relationship stating that this will be high on the agenda during Prime Minister Modi’s state visit with President Donald Trump.

While Indian Parliamentarian Dr. Shashi Tharoor referenced the strategic importance of U.S.-India relations, his captivating keynote address revolved around why and how countries should pursue soft power. The former Under-Secretary General of the United Nations, Dr. Tharoor highlighted India’s arsenal of soft power tools from the well-known yoga and Bollywood examples to its less recognized business accession, such as Tata Motors’ acquisition of Jaguar Land Rover. “The key to soft power is to be the kind of society that everyone wants to see, share, and enjoy.” Dr. Tharoor cited three components of soft power: culture, political values, and a moral foreign policy. At the same time, he recognized that “soft power without hard power is an admission of weakness, while hard power without soft power is bullying.” An alumnus of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, Dr. Tharoor referenced the Meridian-administered U.S. government program as a shining example of American soft power.

Expanding on the soft power theme, a series of three panel discussions examined the impact of cultural and educational exchanges in forging closer ties; the convergence of innovation, expanding workforces and opportunity in both nations; and, the proliferation and influence of Indian cultures in the United States and around the world.

In her role as moderator, IRI Global Initiatives and Senior Gender Advisor Michelle Bekkering pressed those on the exchange panel on the value of people-to-people diplomacy. Whether through the immersive university study abroad program led by University of Delaware Professor Mahasveta Barua or the transformative nonviolence study tours designed by former Shell executive Mandar Apte, the overarching consensus was best summed up by David Mees. The State Department Liaison to the Smithsonian Institution stressed the significance of “the last three feet of contact” (i.e. face to face engagement) in overcoming social misconceptions and forging true life-long relationships that will bring our countries together.

A panel featuring several leaders from the corporate world illustrated the role of U.S. businesses in advancing elements of soft power. Led by Meridian’s Director of Corporate Relations Puru Trivedi, the conversation showcased efforts by Caterpillar Inc. and MasterCard to advance workforce development, particularly among women, in India. Kathryn Karol, Vice President for Global Government and Corporate Affairs at Caterpillar Inc., reviewed several areas that the company is taking to introduce more women into the heavy machinery/infrastructure industry. Among those is the “Breakthrough Leadership” initiative, which provides training for women leaders to enhance skills needed for management positions. MasterCard Vice President of Global Public Policy Sahra English focused on the shared value of innovation and entrepreneurship between the two nations and how MasterCard has tapped into this interest in “creating” in order to foster women-led small and medium-sized enterprises. Agreeing with English, Qlicket Founder and CEO Vivek Kumar cited the shared affinity towards technological innovation as one of many commonalities between his India and Pittsburgh-based workforces. Kumar’s start-up entrepreneur perspective served to compliment the established business viewpoints throughout the conversation.

Dr. Alyssa Ayres, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, led a final conversation focused on the rise of Indian cultures around the world. American actor and Bollywood star Omi Vaidya raised the point that Indian films are not only popular in countries with large Indian diaspora populations like Canada and the United States, but that they are also gaining immense popularity in China. While not attaining the same foothold as Indian cinema, Kuchipudi performer and choreographer Chitra Kalyandurg discussed classical Indian dance and how she fuses Kuchipudi with more contemporary styles, such as hip-hop. Kalyandurg and social entrepreneur Gouri Mirpuri also stressed the role of the diaspora in the emergence of Indian cultures. Mirpuri, who founded The HUB in Singapore and serves on various boards and committees thought Southeast Asia, noted that the new generation of Indian immigrants “has come with cultural innovation, not just imitation, and with the confidence to adapt and fuse Indian culture with Southeast Asian culture.”

The Forum also featured remarks by the first Indian-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (WA-7). In a taped recording, Congresswoman Jayapal brought up similarities found in the Constitutions of the United States and her birth country of India. “(They) both begin with ‘We the People’ signifying the investment of political power in people.” She also addressed India’s religious pluralism and the role of myriad religions in shaping the nation’s culture. As illustrated in Meridian’s Keeping Faith photography exhibition that is currently traveling across India, these two countries are among the most vibrant and complex multi-religious democracies in the world.

Following the afternoon of dialogue, the leaders congregated in Meridian’s Linden Garden for a celebration of Indian cultures. Beautiful spring weather served as the impeccable backdrop for performances by Nistha Raj on the violin, Deepak Ram on the bamboo flute, and the Natyabhoomi School of Dance. While some guests lined up for Henna body art by artist Nuriyah Iqbal, everyone dined on cuisine from Washington’s renowned modern Indian restaurant Rasika. By the end of the evening, it was clear to all in attendance that culture is as vital to this bilateral relationship as trade and security.

The Cultural Diplomacy Forum on India was made possible through the generous support of Caterpillar, MasterCard, Cyient, United Airlines, Judy Bishop, and Smita Shah.

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