India's fragile soft power

India's fragile soft power

The Modi govt would do well to recognise the character of our soft power and stop the Parivar from undermining its very foundations.

India's fragile soft power

The Narendra Modi government, the first majority government since 1984, was expected to recast India’s foreign policy. However, it has mostly followed the previous government’s policies. This is not surprising because in large and stable democracies, major policies are mainly governed by deeper socio-economic factors.

There seems to be some change in style though. The personality-centric approach of Modi, the marginalisation of the external affairs minister, a willingness to air differences with other countries in public, and a greater stress on soft power, stand out. The last is part of a longer trend in India’s foreign policy and bears close scrutiny.

Assessments of India’s soft power stress our historical, spiritual, ethno-linguistic and cultural ties with other countries. The recent spat between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and between India and Nepal reveal the fragility of such bonds in international affairs. On the other hand, the close relationship of Buddhist Sri Lanka and Islamic Pakistan with China show that material and strategic considerations can outweigh socio-cultural differences.

The huge and persistent disparity in material power between India and the rest of the Indian sub-continent engenders insecurity in our neighbourhood despite shared heritage. Soft initiatives such as the Varanasi-Colombo flights cannot diminish that insecurity, which pushes countries in our neighbourhood to embrace outside powers irrespective of socio-cultural differences and makes India-bashing attractive in the politics of most of these countries.

India’s non-violent anti-colonial struggle and participation in the Non-Aligned Movement, which allowed for a sense of a shared cultural unity with other decolonising countries, have been other traditional sources of soft power. However, as the memories of colonialism recede and the West’s global dominance reduces, India will increasingly be judged by its present conduct more than its past credentials.

A recent example is illustrative. Pranab Mukherjee, the first Indian president to visit Ghana, unveiled a statue of Mahatma Gandhi at the University of Ghana. Later, a group of academics demanded its removal on the grounds that Gandhi was racist. They were motivated by historical revisionism, a growing sons-of-the-soil consciousness, and, possibly, a resentment against the mistreatment of African students in India.

Our diaspora, which boasts of several heads of states and governments, and CEOs of MNCs, is yet another traditional source of soft power. The diaspora is among the few of its kind in terms of size, global spread, and occupational, ethno-linguistic and religious diversities.

Unfortunately, our attention is skewed toward the North Atlantic region and a particular class within the diaspora. Madison Square-type show of strength is not the best way to engage the diaspora.

The sources of India’s contemporary global cultural appeal – Bollywood, cricket, Indian cuisine, new age spirituality, yoga, etc – are autonomous of the government, which in most cases cannot influence them except when obstructing them. For instance, we have effectively banned Pakistani sportspersons and artists from India. We cannot expect others to accept our cultural goods without ourselves being open to their offerings.

In the recent past, success in sectors such as IT, BT and space technology has also enhanced India’s visibility. The government can get some mileage out of private activity in this sector but cannot push private players to align with foreign policy. So, while Modi could visit TCS centres in Japan and Saudi Arabia, he did not get a similar opportunity in Iran.

The peaceful resolution of land and marine border disputes with Bangladesh, contributions to disaster relief across the Indian Ocean, Himalayan regions and UN peacekeeping missions, and small need-based development assistance, as in Afghanistan, have also contributed to our soft power.

Unfortunately, we do not have an ecosystem within which to harness soft power earned through such initiatives. For instance, in Nepal, the crass coverage by our private news channels allowed the anti-India lobby to whip up a backlash against India, which was not only the first but also the biggest source of assistance after the recent earthquake (hyper-nationalists in the media not only undermine democracy at home, but also hurt our interests abroad).

Cultural diversity

Much of our soft power, and the ability to deploy it, is therefore autonomous of the government and demands that the government nurture cultural diversity, openness and creativity, or at the very least, not curb them. By thrusting a monolithic identity upon India, the prime minister’s cow-crazy party is further shrinking the legroom available to the government to harness soft power.

Unlike Wahhabi Saudi Arabia or Han China, multi-cultural India’s soft power will always be a function of the health of its inclusive democracy. The Sangh Parivar’s Hindu nationalism will make India less attractive to scholars, artists, students and tourists from abroad and even the non-Hindu communities as well as liberal Hindus within the diaspora.

The Modi government would do well to recognise the character of our soft power and stop the Parivar from undermining its very foundations. Otherwise, the emerging mismatch between the values and icons advertised abroad and those promoted within the country will stall the country's soft power push - we cannot celebrate Taj Mahal and Aamir Khan abroad and attack them at home.

The government should also address our longstanding incapacity to complete brick-and-mortar projects on time. The under-developed Buddhist pilgrimage circuits and the shoddy arrangements for the Commonwealth Games are illustrative in this regard.

To conclude, the country’s soft power resources can be nurtured to advance its foreign policy interests if the government unobtrusively provides infrastructural support for soft projects and refrains from interfering in the cultural and social lives of people.

(The writer teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)

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