Pepper negotiations with soft power

By Dev Nadkarni

To western eyes since times immemorial, India is nothing if it is not a surfeit of emotions, a bundle of contradictions, a sensory overload, a functioning anarchy as someone rather pithily put it. Some are turned off by it at the very outset, others are curious enough to return and give it another go, while still others attain nirvana – both of the spiritual kind and more lately the delightfully delicious commercial kind.

Making sense of India can be a lifelong pursuit. Winning Indian hearts is comparatively easier. As Prime Minister John Key found out last week during his state visit. Throwing in Bollywood and cricket – India’s two greatest obsessions that have both turned out to be billion dollar money spinners for thousands of people – Mr Key and New Zealand were instant news in the country.

This was a great demonstration of leveraging New Zealand’s soft power. The concept of soft power is somewhat fuzzy and trying to put one’s finger on what exactly is New Zealand’s soft power would doubtless elicit a range of possibilities. But everyone agrees that New Zealand has a great positive brand that is instantly recognized anywhere in the world.

Friendly, clean and green, nice guys to have around, innovative, inventive, a nation that punches far above its weight in many areas of human endeavour – all hugely positive attributes. The Prime Minister reinforced that long held image of the average New Zealander during his engagements with a wide section of people in New Delhi and Mumbai.

It is now a question of blending that niceness with the harder realities of negotiating the remaining rounds of the proposed Free Trade Agreement. Having gained experience of going through all the hoops of the FTA with China, New Zealand is better positioned to negotiate such deals.

But dealing with India will undoubtedly be easier because of a number of reasons at least procedurally – we speak the same language, have the same legal systems born out of the British system, share a common colonial legacy and have a wider range of common business interests.

None of that, however, guarantees a smooth run up to the FTA, which everyone likes to believe will be done, dusted and signed by the end of the first quarter of next year. Though the Prime Minister’s cricket and Bollywood diplomacy would help oil the wheels of the deal to an extent and help put smiles around the negotiating tables, it will need hard nosed pragmatism on the part of both parties to yield to the other as much as practicable without compromising core interests before the deal is a goer.

There will be sensitive issues to be skirted or ironed out – some of these will be perceptional, as in the case of agriculture and dairy. It will be important for New Zealand to emphasise that these will ultimately work to the benefit of Indian farmers and dairymen, since what is being proposed is largely of a non-competing nature.

Logic almost always goes for a toss when politics enters. This is where emotions kick in and that’s when it all gets irrational. Agriculture and dairy are highly emotional issues in India and must be handled carefully. That’s where perhaps New Zealand can bring its soft power into play and demonstrate how its innovativeness and productivity expertise can help Indian dairy farmers and agriculturists.

That would be a good way for New Zealand to worm its way into the agricultural sector rather than stick to more conventional approaches centred on tariff negotiations.

Going by last week’s visit, there is little doubt that New Zealand has changed its approach toward India and has learned the art of mixing a bit of soft power with emotion and passion while keeping a firm hold on hard nosed business imperatives. It is a strategy that is all to the good.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, July 2011