Apart from arts and dance, Bollywood and cuisine, India’s soft power resides in it being a society that respected its minorities, stood with the Gandhian values of non-violence, and called itself world’s biggest — inclusive and pluralistic — democracy
Long before the term ‘soft power’ was coined and explained, it was being used as a diplomacy tool by states to influence other states — to achieve their national objectives.
To its credit, soft power as a foreign policy tool relies on how a state imagines itself internally. In particular, it relies on the cultural and political values espoused and practiced within states that are then used to humanise a state’s image. Often these are used to reduce tensions. In a way, it is more about people and the concrete choices they make than the opaque choices of an abstract state.
As one of the biggest farmers’ protests turned violent in the capital city of Delhi a few days ago, this could both be an ironic and opportune moment to discuss India’s soft power.
As Pakistanis, we may have found consolation in the image of a poverty-stricken India in the early decades after Partition. But we acknowledge the shared history and rich culture more as a way of life for us, the state-peddled narrative of India as ‘anti-Islam’ and ‘enemy state’ notwithstanding. Indian film and music are a part of Pakistanis’ collective consciousness (see how a whole cinema industry has come crumbling down with Indian films being disallowed following political tensions). Our yoga instructors have conveniently replaced ‘Om’ with ‘Allah Hoo’ chants but to yoga we must turn.
Today, in post-liberalisation India, Pakistanis would like to believe that the Modi regime is eroding the country’s soft power like never before. They do that with a tinge of sadness, because without that they will have nothing left to look up to.
But India’s soft power has wider implications beyond this immediate narrow enemy-neighbour lens.
Politician Shashi Tharoor thinks the old calculations of hard power, manifested in military might and economic indicators, are no longer sufficient. He is stating the obvious when he mentions the strength of India’s civilisational values. Apart from its arts and dance, Bollywood and cuisine, theatre and sport, this soft power resides in how India was understood as a society that respected its minorities, had religious freedoms, and stood with the Gandhian values of non-violence.
That it chose to call itself world’s biggest — inclusive and pluralistic — democracy where elections were held regularly, leading to peaceful transfer of power, added to its charm. India’s principled political stands in its earlier years in terms of foreign policy — becoming instrumental in the Non-Aligned Movement and boycott of South Africa’s apartheid regime — earned it such a reputation that the world not just did not question India’s interference in East Pakistan, it actively stood by it.
In a world polarised between developed and developing states, India cannot really reap the benefits. Countries’ soft power standing is calculated on their per capita income etc. and India lags far behind the developed world. Even image wise, it suffers. The rich culture and political freedoms are weighed against India’s corruption, treatment of women, poverty, not good climate for business, child labour and pollution etc.
The Indian mind and talent refuse to accept these bureaucratic limitations and continue to spread the cultural values as far as they go.
The BJP government under Modi was mindful of India’s soft power in its first tenure that began in 2014. It created as many opportunities as it could, beginning with getting the United Nations to declare an international day of yoga, and engaging with the Indian diaspora. Within the country, it acted in fascistic ways but the international community looked the other way.
The second tenure started on an even more sour note. The treatment of minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, changing of Kashmir valley’s autonomous status in the constitution, rising intolerance, a brutal response to protests against Citizenship Amendment Act, lynch mobs, desecration of worship places, the farmers’ protest and the impunity of the government are all making headline news.
Today, India’s soft power – that thrived on its pluralism – is at war against a Hindu theocracy. Only one side can win this war.
The writer is a senior journalist and the director of HRCP