KP Nayar Diwali, like yoga since 2014, is going global. As this year’s Diwali approaches in a few days, a country in India’s extended neighbourhood is in the midst of preparing for the most ambitious and elaborate international celebration of the festival of lights that has ever been undertaken to be held next year. The United Arab Emirates has one of the biggest expatriate desi populations anywhere in the world, but that is far from the reason why Diwali will be a global event in that country next year. Dubai’s celebration of Diwali in 2020, in collaboration with India, will catapult the festive holiday to audiences from almost 190 countries in the ongoing mindboggling preparations. For the first time since the pioneering World Expo, held in 1851 in London to showcase the Industrial Revolution inventions, the six-month Expo 2020 Dubai, which will open on October 20 next year, will coincide with Diwali during its duration. The management has decided, therefore, that Diwali will be a “special event” at the Expo, one of the unique days to be celebrated on an unprecedented scale outside India. But it is not only in view of the mammoth effort to internationalise Diwali that Expo 2020 Dubai could be a historic opportunity for India. The next World Expo will be the biggest platform to showcase the “new” India, which is being talked about in the last five years. If India has, indeed, changed appreciably since 2014, projecting these changes before an anticipated audience of 25 million visitors is an occasion that is unlikely to offer itself anywhere else soon. A stunning Indian demonstration of its 21st century capabilities that can be sustained for six months will be potentially more beneficial for India economically and diplomatically than the combined promotions it has launched globally and speeches it has made at the UN, the World Trade Organisation, the Commonwealth and other similar summits in the last several years. As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. With unfavourable news on the economy, not just from domestic developments but also from the World Bank, rating agencies and other sources, making headlines every day, it has become imperative for India to counter them by demonstrating to the world that the “India story” is not a hype, but real. Expo 2020 Dubai is a robust vehicle to get there, but only if the government and other agencies involved in the preparations for this global exposition plan India’s participation with imagination and a clear vision. To rescue the India story from any precipitous fall in world capitals and global business centres, it is essential to think out of the box. What is needed is the same imagination that meticulously persuaded Thomas L Friedman, a well-respected columnist at The New York Times, to write a bestseller, The World is Flat, focusing on India’s rise in the last two decades. The government must embrace the platform offered by Expo 2020 Dubai and show the green light to demonstrate that in the current “Asian century”, India is there to lead and not be led or to be among the also-rans on the international business stage. Other countries, many leading ones, among the 190 participants in Expo 2020 Dubai are already doing that for themselves at a frenetic pace. In September, US President Donald Trump initiated sweeping action to change the law in the USA since 2000 that prohibited spending government funds on international exhibitions. He sought from the Congress $30 million for the State Department to construct America’s pavilion at Expo 2020. America’s plans for its Dubai pavilion are ambitious. It will show, among other marvels, robot surgeons and personal rocket ships. If you enter the pavilion, the feeling will be that the pavilion is moving. Surprising for some, belying the image and impressions of its crumbling economy, Pakistan has finalised detailed plans for a 50:50 public-private participation in the execution and management of its pavilion. In India, the most urgent task is to dispel the impression that Expo 2020 Dubai is another trade show. In recent world expos, now routinely held in a different part of the world every five years, India has been handicapped by the ill-conceived zeal of its businessmen to use the venues to sell their products. World expos are not marketplaces. They are gateways to the future, meant to demonstrate to the world at large how the human race will live in the next 15 or 20 years and how each participating country can contribute to the humanity’s quest for the future. In District 2020, an entire new city that is coming up between Dubai and Abu Dhabi as the vast venue of the next world expo, organisers of Expo 2020 Dubai expect India to be a “landmark” participant for this reason. If the Indian pavilion highlights this country’s innovation culture, its technological progress and its global reach through a worldwide desi diaspora network and its capacities, among other similar elements, the India story could not only survive abroad but also be taken forward effectively. If, on the other hand, the Indian pavilion is reduced to an expanded version of ‘Dilli Haat’, Delhi’s popular handicrafts market and food court, as happened at the 2010 expo in Shanghai, it would be a letdown for the world which is expecting much from India’s participation in its areas of strength in the 21st century. The present plans of the Narendra Modi government are to make the Indian pavilion a permanent structure in Dubai’s District 2020 even after the expo is over on April 10, 2021. The huge pavilion will be suitably re-purposed and made into a permanent exhibition on modern India, the only one of its kind anywhere in the world. That next stage also requires careful and expert planning. It constitutes a major challenge for India’s government, its private sector and its repositories of soft power, such as Bollywood, and its many centres of culture. Nothing of this nature has been attempted before. But a permanent exhibition on India in Dubai as a corollary of Expo 2020 Dubai will be a true of reflection of India’s excellent relations with the UAE, which is an outstanding success story of the Indian foreign policy in the last four years.
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