Saturday, August 27, 2011

Biryani Diplomacy

Calls from Shahzeb Shaikha in Pakistan's Daily Times for gastrodiplomacy in the form of "Biryani Diplomacy"!  Luv it!:
It is time to break away from the stiffness — dry cleaned designer jackets, gold and silver cufflinks, sparkling jewelry and air-conditioned drawing rooms. Pakistan and India should go back to their roots, and their leaders and diplomats should roll up their sleeves, loosen their ties and take their fellow counterparts to the local biryani joint.

New dialogue between the South Asian rivals calls for a new form of diplomacy, where top officials can go out, eat familiar cuisines and sit between the very people whose fate they are negotiating. This would give them a feel of how welcoming and hospitable one neighbour can be to another. It would also remind the bureaucrats and top politicians of the daily struggle of the ordinary workers who cook and clean and serve them their lunch, working hard for their livelihoods. If US President Obama and Russian President Medvedev can sit between regular Americans in a local hamburger joint in Virginia, surely Prime Ministers Singh and Gilani can catch a bite at Student Biryani or Biryani Centre. Away from the lavish chandeliers of the Secretariat and the aiwans, Pakistanis could show their Indian counterparts that the biryani on the other side of the border is worth timely and regular visits. They could catch a spicy bird — chicken tikka — in the evening on another visit.
The purpose is to remove this air of hostility and murkiness of past wars. Let both sides learn that the struggle to balance power in South Asia has kept two potential trading partners distant for 64 years. No Coke or Pepsi, only sweet lassi or sugarcane (ganna) juice for drinks. Our ability to speak common languages should further cultural exchange — like trips to Mohenjo-Daro and the Red Fort in return for the Taj Mahal and Akshardham. Both countries should initiate a student exchange programme and promote joint educational ties. Combining efforts in science and technological advancement could help Pakistan attract some of the international acclaim India has earned.

If our North American counterparts visit, we should introduce them to Mr Burger. Let us show them that ours can out-taste the Big Macs and Whoppers of Macdonald’s and Burger King. In this light, I also suggest the ‘Cuisine Corps’, a government-funded group of paid volunteers, made up of students, adults and cooks, who go on a one-year mission abroad to immerse and live with the local population, cook Pakistani dishes and feed the hungry. Missions should extend from Central America to the deserts of Africa and poverty-stricken neighbourhoods of the Middle East and South Asia. We could also have a similar programme within Pakistan.

These measures are symbols of soft power. The positive projection of Pakistani people and culture can win us praise, attract tourists and improve our image. The richness of our culture, clothing, food, music and language are national treasures we can offer in the face of our current problems. Such an initiative should cater to those whom we serve. Sitting between common Pakistanis, PM Gilani can reassure them that he too is of the people and working for the people. President Asif Ali Zardari could also follow suit. Once in a while, he should roll up his sleeves, take a lunch break and head to a local biryani joint.

The point is for leaders to better their public outreach and improve their standing with the public. They know well that in a year and a half they have to go back to the polls and ask the same people for votes. Pakistani politicians have always fallen short of selling themselves in a legitimate manner. The voters must be able to relate to them. They must be able to say, “Hmm, Yousaf Raza Gilani is someone I can go out and have a biryani with. He is likeable.” For India-Pakistan relations, guns, missiles and soldiers are out — cardamom, garam masala and sajji are in.
Kudos to Shaikha for the biryani diplomacy, the only problem is that the notions are at the diplomatic level and not for public diplomacy consumption.

Having traveled to Pakistan, and having written about the cosmopolitan side of Pakistan, I can appreciate the Pakistani desire to offer a more nuanced picture of the country. Unfortunately, the nation brand is currently pretty toxic and no repackaging is going to fix it. Rather than trying to start with a major rebranding, starting small and focusing on issues like culinary diplomacy is much smarter. Gastrodiplomacy and the promotion of Pakistani food would be a positive first step to showcasing another side of Pakistan. The richness of Pakistani cuisine would be a positive introduction to the culture of Pakistan to many places that currently have negative perceptions.  

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