Gift of English to woo Mongolia

New Delhi, May 4: When Prime Minister Narendra Modi flies to Ulan Bator next week, he will carry with him an unlikely gift from a government that has made Hindi a linguistic priority: the promise of an English-medium school.
Mongolia has requested India to help set up a secondary school in its capital to feed the growing demand for English in a country where Russian and Chinese were for decades the only major foreign languages learned by the local population.
India has agreed to commit to the school during Modi's trip among multiple soft diplomacy initiatives that New Delhi hopes will help it unlock Mongolia's massive mineral resources, including uranium, and send China a quiet signal.
"This is a truly historic visit and the promise will demonstrate the potential of this relationship," Sanjaasuren Bayara, Mongolia's ambassador to India, told The Telegraph. "There is massive respect in Mongolia for India's education system."
Modi will be the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Mongolia. He will arrive in Ulan Bator on May 16 from Shanghai and will leave the next day for Seoul, the third leg of his three-nation East Asia trip.
In Ulan Bator, Modi will hold talks with Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj - the country's most prominent post-communist leader -- and Prime Minister Chimediin Saikhanbileg.
For India, the visit is strategically important because Ulan Bator has a relationship with Beijing not very different from the one between New Delhi and other South Asian capitals.
In effect, India is quietly signalling payback -- using the discomfort in Mongolia with "Big Brother" China to create strategic space for itself, just as Beijing has tried to use similar sentiments in South Asia against New Delhi.
Indian and Mongolian negotiators are working on an agreement to try and elevate their relationship to the status of a "strategic partnership" during Modi's trip, officials from the two nations independently told this newspaper.
Mongolia, which shed communism for multi-party democracy peacefully in 1990, has in recent years also begun to open up its mineral wealth. This has drawn western companies and diggers in droves even as Ulan Bator fine-tunes its regulatory framework in the sector.
Apart from uranium, the country has known deposits of gold, coal, copper, tin, tungsten and molybdenum.
Indian and Mongolian defence officers already travel to each other's military schools for training, and this relationship could be expanded during the Prime Minister's visit, officials said.
But for Modi to break new ground with Mongolia, he will first need to correct perceptions in Ulan Bator about a relationship his predecessors ignored.
Mongolia's top leaders have made multiple India trips: President Elbegdorj in 2009, the then Prime Minister Nambaryn Enkhbayar in 2004, and an earlier President, Natsagiin Bagabandi, in 2001. But just two Indian Presidents -- Pratibha Patil and R. Venkatraman --- and no Prime Ministers have ever visited Mongolia.
That's where India is counting on soft diplomacy to break the ice.
Modi, officials said, will present Elbegdorj with a sapling of the holy Bodhi tree from Bodh Gaya to signal the centuries-old ties that bind India and a predominantly Buddhist Mongolia.
India, during Modi's trip, will also commit medical equipment for cancer treatment in Mongolia. But it is education where Mongolia is primarily looking for Indian help.
Enkh Batsaikhan, an MBA student in Pune who is among over 200 Mongolian students currently in India, corroborated the view.
"For a country like ours, there's nothing more important right now than modern education that exposes young Mongolians to the world," Batsaikhan said over the phone. "If India can help us with that, Mongolia will remain eternally grateful."
Modi will, during his trip, promise to set up a new information technology institute in addition to the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Centre for Excellence in Information and Communication Technology already in Ulan Bator, officials said.
The Prime Minister will commit to upgrading an art design school named after former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, also in the Mongolian capital.
Yet it is the English-medium secondary school that Mongolia is most looking forward to, the country's ambassador said. Mongolia has already earmarked land for the project, right next to the Rajiv Gandhi design school.
The Modi government has trained greater focus on Hindi than its predecessor, even emphasising the language in diplomacy. The foreign ministry has set up a Hindi division for the first time, under joint secretary Mridul Kumar, to promote the use of the language in official work.
But the language that interests Mongolia is English, the second most popular foreign language in that country today after Russian, and more in demand than even Chinese.
That demand, though, is bumping up against an affordability challenge. Only a clutch of private schools in Mongolia use English as their medium of teaching, catering only to the elite of Mongolian society, ambassador Bayara said.
A public school supported by India through funds, teachers and curricula could serve as a template Mongolia can then replicate, he added.
"What Mongolians respect most about Indian education is its combination of quality and affordability," Bayara said. "That's what we would like to bring to Mongolia too."
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