The newly inaugurated chancery building of the Indian High Commission in Wellington has already begun unleashing the power of cultural diplomacy, which undeniably augurs well for the prospects of advancing India-New Zealand bilateral relations.

When the High Commissioner of India Muktesh Pardeshi inaugurated the new Chancery building last week, it was not just a culmination of the realisation of a long-held collective aspiration of the communities; it also marked the beginning of a new era of Indian diplomacy in New Zealand.

With the rise of India in recent decades, the face of India’s diplomacy, the self-belief of India’s diplomatic corps, and the assets employed in pursuance of India’s diplomatic goals overseas have considerably evolved. 

Cultural diplomacy has emerged as an additional tool to build new and strengthen existing connections overseas.

Experts concur that cultural diplomacy creates an additional space which softens the sharp edges of foreign policy, which many believe is primarily interest-driven.

Cultural diplomacy, on the other hand, is driven by the desire to showcase the country’s culture and values through various events and activities, concerts, and exhibitions – and forms an important constituent of the country’s “soft power.”

Ever since Joseph Nye’s concept of soft power had gained precedence in the world of international relations after the end of the cold war, nation-states aspiring for a bigger role in world affairs have consciously invested in enhancing their soft power.

Soft power in international relations is the ability to obtain preferred outcomes through attraction rather than coercion, and this is achieved by exporting values and traits acceptable to others voluntarily.

In this regard, India’s traditions of non-violence and pluralism, diversity and tolerance, its yoga and Ayurveda, diverse Indian food and curries, its Bollywood, Bhangra and classical dances of South India are well-known cultural exports that are widely acknowledged and accepted all around the world.

It’s another matter, though that how far these cultural exports helped India realise its goals remains a subject for investigation.

In recent years though, there has been a newfound interest within India’s political establishment to employ, display, and export India’s cultural attributes to the rest of the world with the goal of building bridges with the rest of the world.

In pursuance to this long-held and the newly reinvigorated zeal, many of India’s diplomatic missions overseas, such as in North America, Europe and Gulf states, have established and running dedicated cultural centres with the ambition of creating spaces and avenues of new engagement based on mutual like-mindedness.

The Oceania region within India’s outward worldview has largely been left out in this endeavour, and cultural diplomacy has not been incited purposely as a tool of relationship building.

It is not to say that cultural engagement has been completely absent in India’s engagement with countries and bilateral relations in the region. Rather it is just to say that there was the absence of an easily identifiable push from the Indian state in employing cultural tools to advance bilateral relations.

The inauguration of the new Chancery in Wellington – a purpose-built facility which houses a dedicated Indian cultural hub – will eventually give a hitherto unseen impetus to India’s cultural diplomacy in New Zealand and the hopefully wider region.

The latest announcement of the appointment of a new dedicated Cultural Associate from the government of India at the Chancery with a mandate to spread the awareness of Yoga in New Zealand is a case in point.

In recent years, there have been such appointments by the government of India to its many overseas diplomatic missions, particularly in North America and Europe – which captivates maximum attention of the Indian foreign policy elites and rightly so - for the pressing economic, defence, security relations and the size of diaspora communities driving those relationships. 

India’s missions in New Zealand, Australia and other countries of the Oceania region have largely remained amiss in receiving such push and support from the government of India – particularly in advancing cultural diplomacy.

The inauguration of the new Chancery building with an unmatched grandeur that includes an auditorium, kitchens and catering facilities, a library and accommodation for its staff and a square-shaped central courtyard is set to mark a new beginning.

The days ahead are set to see more active cultural diplomacy, which undeniably augurs well for the NZ-India bilateral relationship as more people-to-people connections will be fostered and promoted, which eventually can see unlocking some of the biggest stumbling block holding us back from achieving the full potential of this key relationship.