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Soft Power India

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Soft power is the country’s ability to influence others through its culture, history, ideas, music, philanthropy and most of all its weltanschauung. “The greatest source of power in international affairs today”, says Joseph Nye, Dean of Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University and the leading proponent of Soft power, “may lie in persuading other nations to see your interests as their interests.” Underlying this assertion – persuading others that our respective interests are aligned - is the fact that we live in a world where countries can no longer live in “splendid isolation”. Soft power essentially refers to non-military persuasive means for extending national influence, there have been debates over its exact scope and limits. The importance of Soft power is underscored by recent events that bear witness to the fact that military prowess alone does not guarantee universal respect. The United States of America, a country that best exemplified effective use of “Soft Power” in the 20th century, has in recent years squandered this most effective instrument of statecraft from its arsenal. Relying solely on military strength and unilateral actions the US alienated a vast majority of world opinion by its military intervention in Iraq, which was widely perceived as blatant unilateralism.  

The world has heard much about India's extraordinary transformation in recent years, and even of its claims to a share of "world leadership." Some of that is hyperbole, but in one respect, India's strength may be understated. The leading factors like population, military strength, economic development, by all measures contribute to make the country a world leader.

Globalization has been the juggernaut propelling interconnectedness and global media the glue that binds people across continent. Roots of India's soft power run deep. India's is a civilization that, over millennia, has offered refuge and, more importantly, religious and cultural freedom, to Jews, Parsis, several varieties of Christians, and Muslims. Jews came to the southwestern Indian coast centuries before Christ, with the destruction by the Babylonians of their First Temple, and they knew no persecution on Indian soil until the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century to inflict it. Christianity arrived on Indian soil with St. Thomas the Apostle, who came to the Malabar Coast some time before 52 A.D. and was welcomed on shore, or so oral legend has it, by a flute-playing Jewish girl. He made many converts, so there are Indians today whose ancestors were Christian well before any Europeans discovered Christianity. In Kerala, where Islam came through traders, travelers and missionaries, rather than by the sword, the Zamorin of Calicut was so impressed by the seafaring skills of this community that he issued a decree obliging each fisherman's family to bring up one son as a Muslim to man his all-Muslim navy! The India where the wail of the Muslim muezzin routinely blends with the chant of mantras at the Hindu temple, and where the tinkling of church bells accompanies the Sikh gurudwara's reading of verses from the Guru Granth Sahib, is an India that fully embraces the world. Indeed, the British historian E.P. Thompson wrote that this heritage of diversity is what makes India "perhaps the most important country for the future of the world. All the convergent influences of the world run through this society.... There is not a thought that is being thought in the West or East that is not active in some Indian mind."

A country’s soft power emerges from the world's perceptions of what that country is all about. The notion of soft power is relatively new in international discourse. The term was coined by Harvard's Joseph Nye to describe the extraordinary strengths of the US that went well beyond American military dominance. Nye argued that "power is the ability to alter the behavior of others to get what you want, and there are three ways to do that, they are coercion, payments (carrots) and attraction soft power. If you are able to attract others, you can economize on the sticks and carrots." Traditionally, power in world politics was seen in terms of military power: the side with the larger army was likely to win. But even in the past, this was not enough: after all, the US lost the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan, and the US discovered in its first few years in Iraq the wisdom of Talleyrand's adage that the one thing you cannot do with a bayonet is to sit on it. Enter soft power -- both as an alternative to hard power, and as a complement to it. The soft power of a country rests primarily on three resources: its culture in places where it is attractive to others, its political values when it lives up to them at home and abroad, and its foreign policies when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority." Soft powers are evoked and the associations and attitudes conjured up in the global imagination by the mere mention of a country's name is often a more accurate gauge of its soft power than a dispassionate analysis of its foreign policies.


 The US is the archetypal exponent of soft power. The fact is that the US is the home of Boeing and Intel, Google and the iPod, Microsoft and MTV, Hollywood and Disneyland, McDonald's and Starbucks, in short, of most of the major products that dominate daily life around our globe. The attractiveness of these assets, and of the American lifestyle of which they are emblematic, is that they permit the US to persuade others to adopt the agenda of the US, rather than it having to rely purely on the dissuasive or coercive 'hard power' of military force. In today's information era, he wrote, three types of countries are likely to gain soft power and so succeed: "Those whose dominant cultures and ideals are closer to prevailing global norms which now emphasize liberalism, pluralism, autonomy, those with the most access to multiple channels of communication and thus more influence over how issues are framed, and those whose credibility is enhanced by their domestic and international performance.”

Across the world, millions of people are reveling in the burst of creativity coming from India and Asia's other cultural giant, China. As China and India have rejected the grim socialism of their past and opened up their minds, borders and markets, a new generation of artists from these countries have been taking Chinese and Indian pop and fine culture to new levels of sophistication. They are expressing and explaining their experience to the world on their own terms, and an America redefining itself as a multicultural nation within a globalized world is soaking it up. Bollywood musicals are dazzling US audiences and playing to packed houses across the country. China's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has become the highest grossing non-English film of all time. On the street in many an American city, teenage girls have taken to wearing a Hindu-style "dot" between their eyes, and boys to tattooing themselves with Chinese characters they cannot read.

In more rarified circles, Chinese and Indian artists are winning acclamation at the highest levels. In 2000, the Paris-based Chinese novelist Gao Xingjian claimed China's first Nobel Prize in literature. In 2001, the award went to a member of the Indian Diaspora, V.S. Naipaul. And a Bollywood film, Lagaan, became the first Indian film nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar since 1957. Even as culture czars and consumers celebrate India's and China's dramatic reentry into the popular imagination, they are unwittingly driving another dynamic.

Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, calls it "soft power" - the influence and attractiveness a nation acquires when others are drawn to its culture and ideas. Nye, who developed the concept, says soft power enables a nation "to achieve desired outcomes in international affairs through attraction rather than coercion."  Recently, soft power was largely an American weapon. Washington had learned to wield its soft power as astutely as its "hard," or military and financial, might. Adherents of Nye's theory believe the Cold War was won as much by Radio Free Europe, Motown and Hollywood as it was by President Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program.

The most vivid illustration of India's efforts to use soft power as a tool of foreign policy came recently in Afghanistan. When the Taliban fell in Afghanistan, Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh was one of the first dignitaries into Kabul and welcome the interim Karzai government. Unlike other visitors, Singh, who was eager for India to replace Pakistan as the neighbor of influence, packed his plane not with supplies of food, medicines or arms, but with tapes of Bollywood movies and music that were quickly distributed across the city.

New Delhi's objective is clear - to influence other nations, particularly America, with a view to winning friendship, investment and political support in its rivalry with Pakistan. On a recent visit to the US, B.K. Agnihotri, a senior BJP leader, exhorted Indians in America to "train in propaganda" and hosted a series of workshops to coach Indians in "educating US media" on such issues as the conflict in Kashmir.

China has been less savvy in understanding and using its growing soft power in the US, but its intention to manage its image through the media is no less certain. Ironically, much of the soft power that could accrue to China through the novels and films Chinese artists produce is diluted by the government's attempts to squelch works it sees as subversive. While Beijing, like New Delhi, promotes the export of selected films, it also heavily censors its own filmmakers and imposes tight restrictions on the import of US films into China.

Besides cultural influences, Nye says, a substantial dimension of China's attractiveness and soft power comes from its economic success. This, he says, has won the grudging respect of the West, and has caused developing nations to want to emulate China.

Maintaining this economic success story has been critical for the Chinese government, both to retain its credibility and to attract more foreign investment. Each year, it posts official economic growth rates of 7 or 8 percent - figures that many international economists look at with great skepticism, given that China has entered the most difficult stage of overhauling its moribund state sector and that hundreds of millions of Chinese are now unemployed or underemployed. Still, the Chinese government's message to the outside world is that China is in a dynamic stage of growth, confidently expanding its economy and taking its rightful place among the world's economic players and top powers.

Toward that end, China has welcomed the visibility that has come with hosting such events in the 1990s as the Asian Games and the UN International Women's Conference. In this new century, many Chinese are overjoyed at the fact that Beijing will host the 2008 Olympics - a chance to show the world what China can do. A flurry of construction and renovation projects has already begun, and several of the worst polluting factories in Beijing have been ordered to clean up or shut down.

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Even as China and India use soft power, successfully, to improve their international image, front pages have been carrying a different kind of story. China's exports of weapons and technology to Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Pakistan and Iran, its aggression toward Taiwan and its crackdown on dissidents has troubled Washington and much of the world community. India's slide into Hindu religious fundamentalism and its accompanying belligerence toward Kashmiris and Pakistan has brought the subcontinent to the brink of nuclear war four times in the last four years.

US and world response to these actions has been muted. Some analysts say that India's and China's rising soft power in the US has limited the options Washington can use against them, complicating Washington's already delicate relationship with both countries.

Nye said that "When a country gets very popular with the American public it gets somewhat harder for Washington to follow a hard line against them" .

For example, in the dispute over Kashmir, increasing numbers of Americans seem to be taking a more indulgent view of an India they have come to understand much better than its Islamic counterpart, Pakistan.

Increasingly, the astute use of popular media and public events by governments is eroding the fine line that used to separate propaganda and soft power. While this is nothing new - Hitler used the Olympics to showcase a new Germany in 1933 and the Allies made imaginative propaganda use of films like Casablanca - artists and writers such as Ha Jin say the process of using art for politics is "a kind of violation." But other Chinese and Indian artists are, increasingly, supporting the direct state actions New Delhi and Beijing are taking to build their soft power.

The perceived "cultural hegemony" of America has rankled many such Chinese and Indians. Eileen Chow, an associate professor of Asian studies at Harvard University, says there is "an unabashed nationalism" in China and India, and a tendency to see America as the mean street bully trying to keep them down. Many Indian and Chinese artists feel that the US media has neglected them and portrayed their nations inaccurately. Many of them, with their new sense of empowerment, are determined to combat this. In China, Chow says, there is growing desire among artists for their nation to recapture its previous positions of eminence in the world and an appreciation of what it means to be Chinese.

"Nationalist sentiment is mined in China, because the party is totally bankrupt intellectually," Chow says. "By getting people excited about China, young people feel very proud of their culture and their politics."

Indians, too, yearn for greater recognition and respect for their ancient culture, and for a more influential place in the modern world. Like the Chinese, they celebrate any sign that this is happening. When the Indian film Lagaan won its Oscar nomination, the jubilant reaction in the media, among politicians and on the street was similar to that after India tested its nuclear weapons - a celebration that India had shown the world just what it could do.

The massive Chinese and Indian expatriate communities in the US - 2.4 million and 1.7 million respectively - also play a critical role in promoting the political interests and culture of their home countries. Both have powerful lobbies in Washington. The Indian community, which is now America's richest ethnic minority, has become particularly effective in influencing US policy toward South Asia, and the soft power gained from ever-increasing American interest in Indian ?lm and literature has boosted their efforts.

"If you look at places like New Jersey and New York City, you are seeing that more Indian Americans are getting involved in politics," said Parag Khandhar, a policy associate at the Asian-American Federation Census Information Centre. Many US-based affiliates of the Hindu nationalist parties that currently rule India have also tried to infiltrate the US public school system, offering to make seemingly benign "cultural presentations" to students, says Vijay Prashad, director of International Studies at Trinity College in Connecticut. In reality, Prashad says, the presentations are far from accurate or fair. They are instead, he says, designed to spread the Hindu nationalist view of India and India-Pakistan relations.

Washington is disconcerted by such initiatives, and by the increasing dilution of its own soft power. Calls are being made from all ends of the political spectrum to rebuild the United States Information Service (USIS) and increase funding to such public diplomacy initiatives as VOA. A report by the Center for the Study of the Presidency, an influential think tank, cautions against the growing media power being acquired by other nations. It warns that "some of the information revolution's benefits have been turned against (America)." The US, it says, needs a "new public communications strategy to preempt...rising anti-American sentiments and negative perceptions."

Though such concerns are focused around the Middle East where such Islamic information services as the Al Jazeera cable network are transmitting a very different reality of the world to its audiences, India's and China's increasing efforts to wield their own soft power have not gone unnoticed in Washington.

Adm. Bill Owens, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says the US must "rebuild (its) capabilities to speak to the world about America and what it truly represents." Owens says the growth in foreign media "threatens America's fundamental interests. Negative perceptions are often a diffuse threat, but over time, such perceptions can erode our power abroad."

President Bush appears to believe that soft power can indeed play a vital role in projecting and protecting American power. The president has promised to consider restructuring and refunding the US public diplomacy machine, and he recently appointed a former advertising executive, Charlotte Beers, as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. Beers gained fame on Madison Avenue for sharply increasing the sales of Uncle Ben's rice. One of her first actions in her new position has been to launch a new radio station for the Middle East, called Radio Sawa, or Radio Together. Beers has said she hopes the station will help change the political climate in the region, offering Middle Eastern youth an endless stream of Britney Spears and other pop music recordings, interspersed with carefully edited news bulletins. While there has been plenty of criticism of Radio Sawa, local journalists and diplomats confirm that it is fast becoming ubiquitous.

As the world transitions from an era of old-fashioned brute power into an information age, the added emphasis on soft power is natural. Just as China and India acquired their own nuclear weapons as a way of standing up to US dominance in what was and still remains the chief determinant of strategic power in the last century, both nations are now moving to claim their own positions in the US-dominated domain of soft power.

The repercussions of India and China exploding into the American cultural imagination could be as significant as the explosions that blasted them into the nuclear club, although they will play out more subtly and over a longer period of time. Though neither India nor China can really challenge the US, their rapid attainment of strong positions in both areas is leading the US to shore up its own position in both fields. While Washington plans to safeguard its nuclear omnipotence with the controversial Missile Defense Initiative, it is also moving quietly to strengthen its soft power.

US trade negotiators have turned up the heat on China to allow the import of more American movies. India's resistance to opening its media and publishing industry to foreign investors is also slowly being worn down by US pressure. Meanwhile, the US has created legal and invisible barriers to foreign media seeking entry into the US.

Like consumer marketers competing for a slice of public mindshare, Washington, Beijing and New Delhi are increasingly trying to win hearts and minds. Superficially, this may not seem an altogether bad thing. The battle for minds may be insidious, but at least it is not gory. Yet, as the US founding fathers warned, the good judgment of citizens is essential to their freedoms. As public perceptions are increasingly manipulated, there is a risk of misjudging what is actual and what is artifice, making citizens less vigilant and less aware of how politics are actually playing out on the global stage.

 Defining the "soft power" as the ability of a country to attract others with its culture, social values and foreign policies, Tharoor said India can join the rank of global superpowers with the impact of Bollywood, yoga, cuisine, ayurveda and others. To be acknowledged as a global power India needs to unlock its vast potential to be a Soft power.  Indians are uniquely positioned to tap into the characteristics like  an ancient culture, expanding economy, vibrant democracy, spirituality, diversity, and a widespread Diaspora that  provide India with core attributes that are attractive to the World. Examples of success abound, Bollywood today reaches an audience twice as large as that of Hollywood, its Information Technology industry competes globally, Yoga has become mainstream in the west, and even the IIT’s and IIM’s have become synonymous with world class education.

 India’s philanthropic efforts in the reconstruction of Afghanistan and more recently the aid offered to countries affected by the tsunami underscores our concern for the world around us. For India to truly become a tour de force in the community of nations, it needs to look at its weaknesses and turn by relishing the opportunity of exposing it’s potent to the world, a vision that would have to be rooted in the success stories of the country. India can become the architect of a new dream; a dream that would undo the misery of poverty, a dream for a global understanding, a dream for creating a world that shall be a better place tomorrow than it is today.  This dream can only be accomplished by taking bold steps and articulating attributes that will inspire others to believe in India. As India enters the second decade of this new century with all its concomitant possibilities, it can become a global power by becoming the arbiter of a world that offers opportunities to the vast majority who live below poverty levels, a world free of prejudices, a world engaged in dialogue and learning, a world where global consciousness will encompass the realm of social, cultural, political, environmental, religious and economic understanding.  Like any good edifice the foundation of India’s vision would need to be re-enforced with its own success in creating a better future for its citizens.

In the breadth and not just the depth of its cultural heritage lies some of India's soft power, that the Indian mind has been shaped by remarkably diverse forces: ancient Hindu tradition, myth and scripture; the impact of Islam and Christianity; and two centuries of British colonial rule. The result is unique. Culturally, India is a superpower," and that cultural diplomacy must be pursued for political ends. So India is highly visible at cultural shows around the world, and the ICCR is rather good at organizing Festivals of India in assorted foreign cities. Despite the fact that there are some who think and speak of India as a Hindu country, Indian civilization today is an evolved hybrid. We cannot speak of Indian culture today without qawwali, the poetry of Ghalib, or for that matter the game of cricket, our de facto national sport. When an Indian dons 'national dress' for a formal event, he wears a variant of the sherwani, which did not exist before the Muslim invasions of India. When Indian Hindus voted recently in the cynical and contrived competition to select the 'new seven wonders' of the modern world, they voted for the Taj Mahal constructed by a Mughal king, not for Angkor Wat, the most magnificent architectural product of their religion. Indian nationalism is the nationalism of an idea, the idea of an ever-ever land, emerging from an ancient civilization, united by a shared history, sustained by pluralist democracy. Pluralism is a reality that emerges from the very nature of the country; it is a choice made inevitable by India's geography and reaffirmed by its history.

But every time there are reports of sectarian violence or a pogrom, like the savagery in Gujarat in 2002, or a nativity attack like those by a fringe group in February on women drinking at a pub in Mangalore, India suffers a huge setback to our soft power. Soft power will not come from a narrow or restricted version of Indianness, confined to the sectarian prejudices of some of the self-appointed guardians of Indian culture ('Bharatiya Sanskriti'). It must instead proudly reflect the multi-religious identities of our people, our linguistic diversity and the myriad manifestations of our creative energies. India must maintain its true heritage in the eyes of the world.


And that will mean acknowledging that the central battle in contemporary Indian culture is that between those who, to borrow Walt Whitman's phrase, acknowledge that we are vast -- we contain multitudes -- and those who have presumptuously taken it upon themselves to define (in increasingly narrow terms) what is 'truly' Indian. Pluralist India must, by definition, tolerate plural expressions of its many identities. To allow any self-appointed arbiters of Indian culture to impose their hypocrisy and double standards on the rest of us is to permit them to define Indianness down until it ceases to be Indian. To wield soft power, India must defend, assert and promote its culture of openness against the forces of intolerance and bigotry inside and outside the country.

It helps that India is anything but the unchanging land of timeless cliché. There is an extraordinary degree of change and ferment in our democracy. Dramatic transformations are taking place that amount to little short of an ongoing revolution in politics, economics, society and culture. Both politics and caste relations have witnessed convulsive changes: who could have imagined for 3,000 years ,that a woman from the 'untouchable' community of would rule India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, as Kumari Mayawati now does with a secure majority It is still true that in many parts of India, when you cast your vote, you vote your caste. But that too has brought about profound alterations in the country, as the lower castes have taken advantage of the ballot to seize electoral power.

These changes are little short of revolutionary. But the Indian revolution is a democratic one, sustained by a larger idea of India: an India that safeguards the common space available to each identity -- an India that celebrates diversity. If America is a melting pot, then to me India is a thali -- a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast.

India's civilizational ethos has been an immeasurable asset for our country. It is essential that India not allow the spectra of religious intolerance and political opportunism to undermine the soft power which is its greatest asset in the world of the 21st century. Maintain that, and true leadership in our globalizing world, the kind that has to do with principles, values and standards -- will follow.

This will require the more systematic development of a soft power strategy than India currently has. So far, such strategic advantages as have accrued from India's soft power  ,goodwill for the country amongst African, Arab and Afghan publics, for instance - has been a largely unplanned byproduct of the normal emanations of Indian culture. Such goodwill has not been systematically harnessed as a strategic asset by New Delhi. It is ironic that, in and around the 2008 Olympics, authoritarian China showed a greater determination to use its hard-power strengths to cultivate a soft-power strategy for itself on the world stage. India will not need to try as hard, but it will need to do more than it currently does to lever its natural soft power into a valuable instrument of its global strategy.

In TED talk, Shashi Tharoor, author, activist, and Indian minister of state for external affairs, talks about soft power from India’s perspective.  From measures of soft power as esoteric as increased burglary rates in certain Afghan cities at 8.30 pm every day - the time when a madly popular Indian soap opera is broadcast on Afghan television and property is left unguarded so everyone can watch, to the extraordinary meld of cultures at the heart of Indian democracy, this is a vibrant and practical discussion of Joseph Nye’s concept of soft power in a particular cultural reality.  

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Brazil last month, apart from bilateral meetings in the capital Brasilia, the biggest draw was India night where pop singer Remo Fernandes belted out some Hindi and Portuguese numbers. More than half of the Brazilian Cabinet was on the dance floor. Post summit, the hosts are still relishing the taste of India they had on that starry September night. A whole new role for Bollywood, noting India's 'soft power', especially the film industry, can be put to use as an important instrument of foreign policy.

"The soft power of India in some ways can be a very important instrument of foreign policy. Cultural relations, India's film industry, Bollywood...I find wherever I go in the Middle East, in Africa, people talk about Indian films," Singh told IFS probationers at his residence.

While India may still have miles to go in its quest to be a global political power, the world is already embracing it as a cultural superpower. From Bollywood films and food to authors like Kiran Desai conquering the Booker Street, brand India has seen transformation of sorts.

India is the one of the fastest growing economies in the world. In the last five years, India has averaged a phenomenal 8.775% growth, as measured by GDP at constant prices. In spite of the ongoing economic downturn faced by the world, India’s growth rate is projected to remain the second highest in the world, next only to China. To sustain this tremendous growth led by infrastructure, services and manufacturing, India needs to be ‘Energy Self-Sufficient’. India’s energy demand has been growing at a far greater pace than its economy. As a result, as seen in figure 1, the gap between the GDP growth and power generation has been consistently increasing since the start of this century.

if India wants to be a source of attraction to others, it is not enough to attend to these basic needs. It must preserve the precious pluralism that is such a civilizational asset in our globalizing world. Our democracy, our thriving free media, our contentious civil society fora, our energetic human rights groups, and the repeated spectacle of our remarkable general elections, have all made of India a rare example of the successful management of diversity in the developing world. It adds to India's soft power when its non-governmental organizations actively defend human rights, promote environmentalism, and fight injustice. It is a vital asset that the Indian press is free, lively, irreverent, and disdainful of sacred cows.

There’s the international spin-off of India just being itself. India's remarkable pluralism was on display after national elections in May 2004, when a leader with a Roman Catholic background Sonia Gandhi made way for a Sikh Manmohan Singh to be sworn in as prime minister by a Muslim President Abdul Kalam—in a country that is 81 percent Hindu. No strutting nationalist chauvinism could ever have accomplished for India's standing in the world what that one moment did—all the more so since it was not directed at the world.

There's still much for India to do to ensure that its people are healthy, well fed, and secure. Progress is being made: The battle against poverty is slowly being won. But India's greatest prospects for winning admiration in the twenty-first century may lie not in what it does, but simply in what it is.

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