Promoting Poland in India: A Long Way to Go

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Despite 60 years of friendly diplomatic relations, Poland and India still suffer from limited mutual understanding, knowledge and visibility. Information deficit and irregular contact mean that both countries have low priority for each other on their respective political agendas. Even if the understanding of India in Poland is limited, one can safely assume that knowledge about Poland in India is even worse.

Poland rarely feature in the Indian media, its general recognisability is low, and even Indian elites know very little about Poland’s politics, culture or history. Since many more Indians have heard about the Netherlands, rather than Poland, it is quite common for Poles travelling to India to be mistaken for Dutch. They have to explain patiently that Poland is not the same as Holland. Even if older generations have some memories of Poland as a fellow socialist country, the young generation – the majority in India today – would have no image of Poland at all.

There are many reasons why Poland is so little known in India. The first is connected with India and the Indo-centrism of its media and politics. In a country so big, diverse and complex, there are enough domestic issues to attract attention, and external affairs do not occupy a lot of space in newspapers, or on TV or radio news. If Indians pay any attention to foreign news, they are interested mostly in their neighbourhood, especially relations with Pakistan and China, and global powers, foremost being the United States.

Low visibility in India is, in fact, a problem for the whole European Union. The fact that most Indian foreign correspondents are based in London means that India sees Europe from a British perspective, which used to attach only little attention to Central Europe. As a result, information about Poland very rarely reaches the common man in India and without concerted efforts, this won’t change.

The second reason refers to Poland and Polish-Indian ties. Both countries had no colonial relationship, and the historic affinity developed during the Cold War was lost in the two decades following their transformations. Poland, a country with a population and territory smaller than most Indian states, does not seem to be an equal partner. A trade flow at below $2 billion means that Poland does not even rank among India’s top 50 trade partners. Even if several Indian firms have invested in Poland, it is just a small fraction of their FDI in the EU.

Polish investments in India are even more rare, and there are no Polish brands which are well-known in India (unlike, for example, the Czech Republic’s Skoda). To make things worse, the level of people-to-people contact is very low. In 2013, there were only around 10,000 visitors from India, and less than 400 Indian students studying at Polish universities (as compared to 4,000 in Ukraine, for instance). Last but not the least, while Indians are becoming increasingly interested in countries with visible Indian diaspora, in Poland this community is rather small (around 3,000) and little known.

The Missing Links

Against this backdrop, there is, however, a growing recognition in Poland that low visibility is among the major obstacles to a stronger political partnership, and to the export of Polish products to India. In recent years, the government has stepped up its promotion and information activities in India, which includes the establishment of the Polish Institute of Culture in New Delhi in June 2012. The institute has since organised dozens of cultural events, from jazz concerts to film screenings and public lectures in Delhi and other major cities.

Polish guests have become regular participants in the International Film Festival in Goa and the Jaipur Literature Festival. Thus, Poland has become slightly more visible in Indian media and cultural life.

In addition, a programme for cultural cooperation, agreed in 2010, allowed closer cooperation between museums, galleries and artists, including the restoration of Stephan Norblin paintings at the palace of the Maharaja in Udaipur. An agreement for audio-visual cooperation kick-started co-production on numerous projects, including two documentaries completed recently (Chitranjali and Little Poland in India), highlighting important episodes of common history.

In 2013, two centres of Polish and Central European studies were opened at Calcutta and Manipal universities. Cooperation between academics and experts was further strengthened by regular contacts between Warsaw University and its network of a dozen Indian partners, and between the Polish Institute of International Affairs and the Indian Council of World Affairs. Road shows and trade missions to India, which present Poland as a land of business opportunities, have become more common.

Although there has been a remarkable progress in promoting Poland in India, there are still several gaps in this approach. The current policy lacks a broader long-term vision, programme continuity, and stable financing. The Polish Institute is under-staffed and under-funded considering the scale and size of India. Moreover, its base at the embassy premises in a diplomatic enclave in Delhi largely decreases its accessibility, and prevents it from truly becoming a centre of Polish culture. Luckily, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, the organisation with the principal responsibility for promoting Polish culture abroad, has begun to pay attention to India. After organising cultural programmes in China, Japan and Korea, it will focus on India in the coming years.

It is important to make better use of existing instruments and mechanisms of cultural cooperation. For instance, two centres of Polish studies do not run any degree course on Poland or Central Europe, and have limited support from Poland in terms of academic staff and financing. In India, there is just one place (Delhi University) where one can learn Polish. Unlike other European culture institutes, the Polish Institute does not offer language classes to cater to the needs of Indians, potentially interested in Poland.

Poland is not seen by Indians as an important destination for higher education, and the Polish government provides little incentive to change that. It is true that the majority of Indian students in Europe prefer to get their education in the UK (76 percent in 2009), but other non-English speaking countries, such as France and Germany, are also attracting a rising number of students. This suggests that expanding degree courses in English offered at Polish universities, together with active state support and promotion of education could draw more students to Poland. For instance, there are at least 8 major scholarship schemes available for Indian nationals willing to study in the UK, while France offers 6 programmes to encourage studies at their universities, and Germany has allotted €6 million to develop academic exchanges with India.

The Way Forward

Despite increased efforts to promote Poland in India in recent years, there are still great challenges ahead. There are numerous practical steps that Poland can take to address the remaining challenges and weak points in the current approach, which calls for tremendous political will.

First, the government should step up financing for cultural cooperation and promotion in India. The Polish Institute would need more resources, appropriate for a country of 1.2 billion people, to make its presence better felt, not only in Delhi, but also in other cities. Long-term funding for projects between artists, academics and social activists would further boost cultural cooperation and joint research. This should include commissioning of an annual public opinion survey in India in order to track changing perceptions of Poland.

The government may also consider increasing financial and structural support for the two existing centres of Polish studies to transform them into research and teaching divisions with regular degree courses in European and Polish studies. In order to promote educational opportunities offered by Polish universities, it is crucial to launch India-specific scholarship schemes for studies in Poland. Government stipends can work as a lever to attract more Indians to study in Poland on a commercial basis, taking advantage of lower fees and costs of living than in Western Europe. In addition, launching language classes would help people to prepare for studies in Poland. The Polish Institute is the most appropriate organisation to manage this task, along the same lines as the Goethe Institute and the Alliance Françoise.

In recognition of the growing Indian community in Poland, the government may use their potential to make the country more attractive. Publicising positive examples of Indians living in Poland and their economic success stories would be helpful in promoting the image of Poland as a country that welcomes Indians, and in attracting more Indian investments.

Another interesting opportunity is to co-finance more Bollywood productions in Poland, as it is well-known that Indian tourists like to visit places they know from their favourite movies. Visits of Bollywood stars such as Amitabh Bachchan (Kraków, 2011), and Salman Khan (Warsaw, 2014) caught the attention of the Polish media.

Similarly, Poland could use its celebrities for promotional activities in India. For instance, the best known Poles in India are probably sport stars such as footballer Robert Lewandowski and tennis player Agnieszka Radwańska, who could become involved in promotional and tourism campaigns for the Indian market.

Moreover, it is important to take further steps in order to facilitate greater mobility and people-to-people contacts. This would include easing visa processing, establishing a direct flight connection between Delhi and Warsaw, and strengthening cooperation between academia, think tanks and the media. The Polish government can sponsor a programme of short-term stay in Poland (1-3 months) for Indian correspondents and conduct regular study tours for journalists in order to increase the presence of Poland in the Indian media.

Finally, stronger political and economic links will naturally help improve visibility of Poland in India. Since media attention is usually focussed on high level visits, it is extremely important to organise a visit of the new Indian prime minister to Poland, which would be for the first time in 35 years. As the cheers of welcome for Jawaharlal Nehru in Warsaw in 1955 proved, such a visit can be a high point in generating mutual interest and admiration.

Patryk Kugiel is an Analyst (South Asia) at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM).

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