The conclave of Indian envoys in New Delhi, which has become an annual feature, focuses on issues of current importance in foreign policy. Its agenda will show the priorities of the ministry of external affairs. Terrorism, Pakistan and China are recurring themes, but economic and cultural diplomacy also receive attention.
The concerned ministers are invited to interact with the envoys. Conspicuous by his absence this year was Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi. Not that he was unavailable or unwilling; he was simply not invited.
Among the Cabinet ministers who work closely with the Indian missions abroad is the minister who looks after the Diaspora, as there is hardly any country in the world without an Indian community.
The MOIA is practically an extension of the MEA because the only instrument it has in dealing with the Diaspora is our mission network.
Defence, commerce and education ministries have their own officers stationed in the relevant missions, but the MOIA has officers only in two or three missions and, therefore, the MOIA has to necessarily bank on MEA personnel.
Minister Ravi, who is not only a hands-on minister but also a person who makes it a point to remain in touch with the heads of mission and the Diaspora itself from Africa to the Americas, would have shared his vision and strategy with the envoys.
Not inviting the minister to address the envoys was, therefore, a serious omission, which reflects the low priority accorded by the MEA to Diaspora diplomacy.
At the political level, there is recognition of the utility of the Diaspora as an instrument of diplomacy, ever since Rajiv Gandhi changed the traditional Diaspora policy of only 'being alive to their welfare and interests' to active engagement with the objective of securing investment, technology and political influence for India.
He demonstrated the new policy at the time of the first coup in Fiji by sanctioning the country and taking upon himself the task of getting Fiji expelled from the Commonwealth as it practised discrimination against Fiji citizens of Indian origin.
He raised expectations around the world that India will stand by the Diaspora, whether in prosperity or in adversity.
Successive governments, regardless of party affiliations, have tried to meet the demands of the Diaspora in a progressive manner.
The Persons of Indian Origin card, the Overseas Citizen of India card, the annual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Delhi and the regional PBDs in different parts of the globe, the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman and the MOIA itself with its subsidiary outfits, are devices established from time to time for the purpose.
They may not have fulfilled the aspirations of the Diaspora in full, but have gone a long way in impelling them to be the advocates of Indian causes in their countries of adoption.
The missions, which are required to administer these facilities abroad, do perform their job, but often half-heartedly, because Diaspora diplomacy has not assumed the same importance as political, economic and cultural diplomacy, though it encompasses all these areas in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom.
In countries like Mauritius, Fiji, Surinam and Guyana and recently in the Gulf countries, diplomats go with the realisation that they have to deal with the Diaspora, but in the high profile missions there is a tendency to relegate the Diaspora work to secondary importance.
Years of practice and prejudice cannot be erased in a day. In the olden days, diplomats considered the demands of the Diaspora as distractions at best and the interactions did not go beyond social and cultural contacts.
Invitations were sent to the Indian community twice a year to celebrate national days, but there was no strategy to utilise it for any diplomatic purposes.
Today, there is a resolve to use the community as a resource for attaining foreign policy goals, but no defined strategy on which there is a consensus.
It is left to the individual heads of mission to resort to their own devices to deal with the Diaspora.
The Indian Diaspora is as diverse as India itself. The challenges in Fiji are different from those in the US or the UK.
However, an occasion like the conclave of heads of mission is an opportunity to compare notes with the MOIA and to evolve a strategy.
The MEA must accord a higher level of priority to Diaspora diplomacy if the government's objectives in this regard are to be reached.
Creation of a separate ministry does not absolve the Indian Foreign Service of the responsibility to implement the government's decisions.
Could not the MEA provide a suitable officer to head a division of the MOIA? The two ministries should work in unison, not in competition as they tend to do.
A regional Pravasi Bharatiya Divas for Africa has just been concluded in Durban, South Africa. The South African government made it a great celebration of the ties with India, coming as it did on the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi and the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first batch of indentured labourers.
President Zuma himself attended the closing ceremony and made a memorable speech on what South Africa owes to India. He urged India to use the tremendous goodwill it has in Africa for the good of Indians and Africans.
But the representation from India was confined to the minister for MOIA and a minister of state from the ministry of human resource development.
Of course, the high commissioner to South Africa and the consul general in Durban played a major role. But there was hardly any representation from the rest of Africa in what was a regional conference.
Did our missions in the rest of Africa carry the message to the communities in those countries? How many of them were invited?
The Durban Conference was a splendid occasion to showcase India's links with Africa. The Africa division should have given greater attention to the conference, particularly since it is in the process of evolving a strategy to counter the efforts of other countries to replace the Indian influence in Africa.
This is the time for us to convert the image of the Indian Diaspora in Africa into a benign one. It does not consist of labourers, petty traders and money lenders anymore. There are skilled workers, businessmen and bankers. They have risen to the challenges of globalisation and they should be seen as nation-builders and not exploiters.
The change of image is necessary and India needs to be a catalyst. We missed a splendid opportunity to do this in Durban.
It is not long since India and its Diaspora discovered each other and realised that each has to gain from the other.
Our Diaspora diplomacy is still in its infancy. The facilities that have been put in place have their teething troubles.
Holders of Overseas Indian Citizens cards are bewildered that they still need a visa to enter India. Prejudices remain about investing in India and setting up businesses.
Our missions are not yet Diaspora friendly, except where individual officers accord priority for this work.
The mindset of some that Indians abroad are being pampered unnecessarily has to change. Unless the MEA and MOIA work together, not to speak of the ministry of home affairs, many of the problems cannot be ironed out.
The government and the Diaspora also need to reorient themselves to working together if the Diaspora diplomacy initiated by Rajiv Gandhi and nurtured by successive prime ministers should succeed.
T P Sreenivasan, a former Indian ambassador, is currently a member of the National Security Board.