As the 21st century dawned, India began to be widely regarded as the next superpower. This optimism stemmed not just from its huge strides in the economic and military build-up that it has taken post the LPG reforms but from its growing soft power as well. Historically, India has been replete with soft power right from ancient times. Post-independence, India’s first foray into global affairs isn’t through military adventurism but by building upon what it has learned from its ancient wisdom and freedom struggle. As a result, non-violence, tolerance, brotherhood and spirituality, peaceful coexistence, etc., have become the guiding spirit and bedrock of India’s soft power. The halo of soft power that India projected during the cold-war era has garnered worldwide recognition for India.
Even in the past decade, from undertaking mammoth disaster relief operations during the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean to undertaking the world’s largest civilian evacuation during operation Rahat, India has been relentlessly augmenting its soft power to complement its global and regional ambitions. An arguable amount of halo still remains, but obviously, much of it laid dormant in the last 70 years.
What is Soft Power?
The term “soft power”, which was coined by Joseph S Nye in the late 1980s, is the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion. The traditional concept of soft power essentially banks on three elements, namely, foreign policy, culture, and political values. The foreign policy includes the relations with the foreign states, diplomacy, global outlook, and shared concern against global issues; culture encapsulates the ethos, attitudes, tolerance, world view, etc.; political values include the type of government, democracy, etc. This concept arose as aftermath strategies of nations post the cold-war era when peace was dawning upon the world. Ever since Nye came up with this concept, nations and its leaders across the globe have increasingly embraced this idea to enhance their sway globally utilising their heritage and values.
However, as the world entered the 3rd millennium, the definition of soft power was widened to incorporate the latest aspects of global affairs. Now the definition has moved away from the traditional criteria that include traditions, customs, ancient history, old monuments, statues, and ancient literature. Now it encompasses the rule of law, crime rate, constitution, security, constitution, traditional media, tourism, films, fine arts, social media education, values, character and trust in society. Not just arts and history, almost every aspect of the nation is being watched by other nations.
How is soft power measured?
An independent agency named Brand Finance calculates the soft power score of every nation each year and compiles the Global soft power Index. It uses the same criteria that we have seen in the extended definition of soft power. As per its rankings in 2021, Germany topped the list, followed by Japan and the UK. The USA is at 6th and sliding down quicker than the rest and China ranks 8th. Unfortunately, India slid further down to stand at 36th rank, down from 27th rank the previous year, the reasons for which we see later in the article.
India: A repertoire of Soft Power
Right from ancient times, India has been the epitome of soft power. Ashoka, Buddhism, Jainism, Ancient universities, etc. have immensely contributed to the assertion of India’s soft power globally. Even post the independence, India had always carried the halo of soft power along with it, so much so that Sirimavo Bandaranayake, the erstwhile leader of Sri Lanka, once famously remarked that India is the hope of third-world countries. Even today, India wields a wide range of soft power elements, such as
- Buddhism: Buddhism was widely touted as India’s gift to the world. Buddhism still forms a cultural link between India and the south east Asian nations. These old civilizational links and shared religious heritage were used by the former Prime minister Nehru and the present prime minister Narendra Modi, although with mixed results, to curate a common Asian identity.
- Spirituality: India is a land of spirituality, and it attracted many people from the world over. The organisations like Iskcon, the Isha foundation, Paramahamsa trust, etc., have often been frequented by international spiritual seekers. They carry the Indian message to the world. Thousands of years ago, when Europe was rushing in search of trade, Indians embarked on soul-searching spiritual journey. The spiritual wisdom was subscribed by tourists from the world over the back in ancient and medieval times.
- Bollywood: Regarded as the world’s largest film industry in terms of the number of films produced annually, Bollywood has been an immense contributor to India’s soft power. Indian movies have wide fan base and are watched and enjoyed worldwide, especially in the Middle East, North Africa, west Asia and Central Asia. Indian television shows like ‘Saas bhi kabhi bahu thi’, ‘Kumkum’, and others had a huge TRP in Afghanistan until they were banned recently. While ‘Saas bhi kabhi bahu thi’ was playing, Afghanistan roads wore a deserted look, like how Indian roads were deserted while Ramayana and Mahabharat were played a few decades ago. Former Prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh once recollected how during his foreign tours to middle-east he was apprised of the huge liking for Indian music and films.
When Natalie Di Luccio, an Italian-Canadian star singer from Toronto, sang Bollywood hits like ‘Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na’; Luo Ping- a Chinese TV reality show Super Idol 13’s contestant sang ‘Tujh main rab dikhta hai’ from a Shah Rukh Khan movie; a school chorus in USA chanted a superhit Tamil song from Shivaji movie; a Turkish boy sings the famous ‘Aawaara Hoon’ song from Raj Kapoor’s movie during a reality show and when Dubai appointed Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan as its ambassador; these aren’t one-off incidents or any aberrations, but they underscore the rising soft power of India.
- Cuisine: Indian cuisines, especially spices, have a wide fan base. Indian spices were traded right from ancient times. It is no exaggeration that the European traders set their eyes on India predominantly for the spices. Today, Indian culinary trends are widely cherished by Europeans and others.
- Yoga: Yoga is widely regarded as India’s modern gift to the world. Though it has been in practise globally for the past few decades, in recent years, it has attained new levels of fame, thanks to the efforts of rejuvenated efforts by the government. The recent incident of Argentina’s federal police to inculcate Yoga classes for its personnel for stress management highlights the previous assertion.
- CEOs: The fact that many of the world’s largest MNCs are being headed by the Indians added to India’s prestige and thus to the soft power. For example, Sundar Pichai- Alphabet, Satya Nadella- Microsoft, Sanjay Mehrotra- Micron Technology, Parag Agrawal- Twitter, Shantanu Narayen- Adobe Inc, Leena Nair- Chanel, Arvind Krishna- IBM, Nikesh Arora- Palo Alto Networks, etc., have all contributed to India growing stature.
- Cricket: Though it was born in England, India has championed this game like nobody else, particularly in the recent past. India’s excellency in cricket has placed India in the global atlas of sports, which otherwise was usually bereft of India’s footprints. Cricket helped India garner a lot of goodwill in Afghanistan. Especially the Indian Premier League (IPL) is a projection of India’s soft power across the cricketing fraternity.
- Political Values: Underlying the tag of world’s largest democracy, there is a successful democracy that withered many storms post-independence. India’s experiment with democracy is an inspiration to the world that democracy works even in an illiterate and diverse nation. Contrary to many of its contemporary independent nations, especially its western neighbour, India has been successfully holding regular, free and fair elections. Besides, India carries a reputation of providing equal opportunities to all communities to partake in governance.
- Role in Global Affairs: India never shied away from taking an active role in global affairs. India championed the cause of third world countries by formulating a non-alignment movement, so much so that India was looked upon as an intermediary between the west and the third world countries. Similarly, India’s penchant for a non-violent world, nuclear-weapon-free world, Vasudaiva kutumbakam, self-declared climate goals, etc., has garnered an international reputation.
- Unlike the other powerhouses like the USA, Russia, China and others, India’s soft power predominantly emanates from its moral, ethical and cultural values. It was India’s moral compass that drove India to provide asylum to the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama in 1959 despite being wary of the inevitable ramifications. Similarly, India’s ethical stand on boycott of South Africa’s apartheid regime won it accolades from the post-colonial African nations. India’s bold move of not taking sides during the Korean crisis was another feather in the cap of India’s principled stand that was bereft of personal interests.
Are we Encashing it?
So far, we’ve learnt about India’s rich repertoire of soft power credentials. But the question is, are we utilizing it? Have we been able to assert it?
Let us recollect what the famous Chinese diplomat once remarked, “India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border”. But a few decades later, China stormed into the world’s top 10 in the soft power index 2021 (released by Brand Finance agency), and India languishes at 36th position in the same index. Agency cited the growing civil unrest and agitations in India as the primary reasons behind India’s slide down in the rankings. India’s dismal record in the assertion of its soft power reflects in many others failures in the recent past. India’s inability to win the security council’s permanent membership, NSG membership, arrive at a permanent solution for India’s food subsidies and concede the sway over India’s neighbours to China, etc., have been highlighting India’s inability to encash its repertoire of soft power.
Why are we falling behind?
- Stuck to narrow definition: India still banks on its past laurels. But in geopolitics, what really matters is what you are today and not what you did in the past. This is a direct result of our failure to recognise the modern seven pillars of soft power like governance, corruption, rule of law, education, traditional & social media, etc. Rather, we are content with basking in the glories of our past, i.e., customs, traditions, monuments, statues, etc.
- Crunch of resources: Indian government hasn’t taken enough proactive measures in spreading Indian culture to the world. Much of the diffusion of India’s culture is down to individual efforts. So far, MEA has setup only about 34 Indian Cultural Centres (ICC) across the world, whereas China has setup almost 500 Confucius Institutes to stamp its cultural footprint on world cultural atlas. There is little wonder that China stormed into the top 10 list of the world soft power index while India isn’t anywhere nearer to it.
- Failure in leveraging Bollywood: Government has done too little to take our films to global platforms. Despite being the producer of the highest number of films globally, i.e., 1500 films, still our share in global cinema revenue is a mere 1%. While films from smaller countries like South Korea and Iran have been increasingly spreading their outreach globally, our government, through the National Film Development Corporation, which itself is badly impoverished, participates in only fewer international film festivals. As a result, our films are stranded with fewer avenues to reach an international audience.
- Handicapped tourism: Despite having a multitude of tourist spots, natural landscapes and the world’s 6th highest number of UNESCO heritage sites, India still fails to attract international tourists. France, which is of the size of one large Indian state, attracts nearly 7 crore tourists annually, whereas India manages merely 80 lakhs annually. This is primarily of two reasons. Firstly, we failed to advertise our heritage, architectures and natural landscapes as much as others did, and secondly, we failed in providing basic amenities at the tourist spots. Even something like Taj mahal, regarded as India’s biggest tourist destination, lacks basic refreshment amenities. This reflects the poor state of affairs in our tourism development. Crime rate against foreign tourists is another dissuading factor.
- Growing extremism at home: The recent incidents like cow lynching atrocities, minister garlanding cow lynchers, anti-minority provocations by the leaders, spokesperson of a political party insulting other faiths, blaming one particular community for the spread of covid, etc., have dented India’s secularistic credentials. As a result, there has been increasing animosity against India in west Asia, particularly in the recent past.
- Authoritative trends: India is slipping down on the democratic index due to anti-democratic activities like excessive use of sedition law, locking up journalists in jails, curbing on freedom of speech, mob justice, etc., which have culminated in sliding down on world soft power index. Recently India further slid down to 53rd rank in Democracy index and to 142nd rank on press freedom index.
Soft power isn’t something what we have, but what others think of us. According to the 2013 Pew Global Attitudes survey, only 46 percent of Americans have a positive impression of India.
With the growing focus on assertion of soft power by the countries, the Indian government has taken several initiatives to not fall behind in the race.
- Capacity Building: India through the ITEC program, primarily India focuses on three main components: providing training in India, sending teams of experts to partner countries and providing equipment for project sites. Under this program, India has helped many countries, especially the African Nations to build infrastructural projects.
- Global commitments: Despite being one of the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emitters, India hasn’t shied away from sharing the responsibility of contributing to the global efforts to deal with climate change. Our initiative of the International solar alliance, INDC commitments, campaigning for nuclear arms-free world, etc., underscore our shared concerns for the global cause.
- Indian Council for Cultural Relations: An agency setup by the government, with its presence in around 35 countries to promote Indian cultural activities abroad.
- Project Mausam: To win over the confidence of and to rejuvenate the cultural relations with Indian Ocean states.
- Incredible India campaign: Run by the ministry of tourism to attract global tourists to India.
- Activities of ASI: Archaeological survey of India undertakes monument reformation activities in several Asian countries.
- Grants & concessional finance: India offers several grants and loans at concessional rates to under developed and developing countries.
What Needs to be Done
- Institutional framework: Germany has setup Goethe Institute, China has its Confucius institutes, and France operates the Alliance Francaise institutes. These agencies have their branches in all the major cities and universities of the world. They rigorously engage in spreading their respective cultural traits to other regions. On similar lines, India should rejuvenate their counterpart, i.e., the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), or create a newer institute that is more youth oriented. India should make sure that ICCR is adequately funded and proper resources are provided at its disposal.
- Plug the Delivery deficit: India is notorious for its inability to stick to its commitments and deadlines. This has been a common complaint by many of the countries with which India has active engagements. This has been the reason behind India being sidelined by the Iran government from the Chabahar port contract. India should find ways to deliver what’s promised within the deadlines so that countries don’t lose hope in India and look for alternatives as Nepal has done recently.
- Widen the scope of soft power: India should realise that the world has moved over the traditional definition of soft power and that the latest definition incorporates many affairs of governance as well. India should work on civil liberties, fundamental rights, strengthening the democratic institutions, corruption, poverty, etc.
- Smart Power: Assertion of mere soft power would not yield much results. Although hard power and soft power look bipolar, there is always a correlation between both. Soft power without the backing of a strong economy and military might not bear fruits. Similarly, sheer hard power with scant regard for soft power isn’t conducive and advisable. This proportionate combination of hard and soft power, i.e., muscle power and attraction, is known as ‘smart power’. While India makes efforts to enhance soft power, it shouldn’t lose focus on building up its economic and military might parallelly.
- Shun the big-brother attitude: Our neighbouring states often rue about India’s Big Brother attitude. The recent oil embargo imposed by India on Nepal testifies to their claims. India should realise that much water has flown in the Ganges since the 1950s, and our neighbours have evolved to the point that they are asserting self-determination and complete sovereignty. India shouldn’t tinker with their internal affairs and respect their sovereignty.
- Arrest the ascension of religious extremism: The world is watching us. The growing religious extremism at home is widely being publicised in the international media. This reflects in the descent of India on global political indices. Government should come down hard on the fringe elements and the fake propagandas on the social media.
- Attract the tourists: Bringing foreigners to India and making them experience our heritage first-hand is more effective than taking the image of our heritage to the other nations. Hence, Government should start sanitising the tourist destinations, provide state of art amenities at least at the UNESCO sites, provide a safe environment for the tourists. India has an immense tourism potential, which shouldn’t be let to go in vain.
To conclude, India should refine and retune its soft power credentials to untap its true potential and to resurrect its national image. Its spirituality and ancient wisdom should be taken to all the corners of the world. Its shortfalls or anomalies in governance and socio-political affairs should be addressed to claim its due role in the geo-politics. If it could get these things right and combine them appropriately with its growing economic and military might, it can wield the potential to take itself to higher pedestal and project itself as the ‘rising global soft power’, that would ultimately help it to march towards becoming 21st century’s super power.
- Rise of India as a Global Soft Power | Diplomatist
- Why is India’s Soft Power Still Untapped? (thewire.in)
- 5 Ways India Can Become a Soft Power Superpower – The Diplomat
- Indias Soft Power B (rgics.org)
- Soft power; Why are we slipping down (indiatimes.com)