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  • Vinay Nair

Is there a strategic shift in India's Soft Power over the world?

As Indian-American comedian Hasan Minhaj put it rather hilariously in one of the most popular episodes of his Netflix show "Patriot Act", a whole lot of people seemingly LOVE Indians!

"I am Indian and Muslim. It is very weird to be something that people love and also be something that people do not like."
"Right, it’s like if one half of you was Oreo cookie and the other half was Muslim"

Hasan mused in his signature tone of unassuming sarcasm , even as his studio audience burst out laughing! While his dig at Islamophobia is a story for another day, the other half of his punchline left me wondering about the true extent of India's soft power.

Is it really as much of an Oreo cookie as Minhaj makes it out to be?

While the preeminence of the Indian diaspora in developed countries and the ubiquity of Indian hallmarks like yoga, Bollywood and chicken tikka masala might suggest that Minhaj's observation is rather astute, India's repeated exclusion from the SoftPower30 list year after year leaves us questioning whether we are really doing enough to take over the hearts and minds of people worldwide. Moreover, recent years have seen a perceptible shift in how our country projects, expands and consolidates its soft power, making it imperative to take a closer look and see how much of this shift has been shrewdly strategic.


A Quick Introduction to Soft Power

Dealing as we are with India's ability to capture the hearts of a global populace, it is probably best to borrow from handy piece of advice coming from the King of Hearts himself, and "begin at the beginning"!

What is soft power?

A term coined by American political scientist Joseph Nye, soft power refers to countries' ability to mould the preferences and perception of people in its favour through the use of non-coercive methods.

A lot of this appeal and attraction depends on the acceptability of the country's cultural elements, its political values and foreign policy.

To sum up, it is nothing but a nation's prowess in garnering goodwill through measures that have nothing to do with its military missions or a seat at the Security Council.

Tracing The Trajectory of India's Soft Power

Traditionally, the primary expressions of India's soft power have come through the wild popularity enjoyed by its cultural exports like Bollywood films and dramatic soap operas, the lure of wellness through the mystique of yoga and Ayurveda, and the success and academic mettle of its highly accomplished diaspora.

For years, the Government of India, itself has done little to promote its soft power. They hardly took a proactive role in harnessing it and the fruits of their efforts proved to be negligible compared to how organically the likes of Bollywood and Ayurveda won hearts abroad.

The image of Incredible India! grew and thrived on a unique blend of exoticism and excellence, rather than the government's concerted efforts.

In pop culture, India found representation as a land to be revered for its mystical Hindu spirituality. In real life, it was a source of many of the world's most consummate tech professionals and academicians. And so, fueled by strong cultural elements and academic brilliance, India's goodwill grew.

Despite some elements of the pop culture also branding India the land of the poor, and a country of unbridled corruption (sometimes with good reason), the country has somehow managed to enjoy a certain indulgence and adoration from the world populace in the decades gone by. If anything, India's high GDP growth rate over the past decade, has helped to dispel the exaggerated myths of poverty and propelled a more positive attitude towards this burgeoning economy.

As Indian politician and author Shashi Tharoor succinctly summed up in a Ted talk he delivered nine years ago,

India's soft power has been fuelled by a narrative of cultural richness and economic growth, one of the fastest in Asian soil. Add that to the sense of moral righteousness India has maintained since its independence in 1947, and you have got yourself a winning combination!

India's soft power has always been peppered with a seasoning of political correctness: right from Nehru's firm assertion of non alignment to dominant ideologies, to Indira Gandhi's successful garnering of international acceptability for its involvement in Bangladesh's liberation war against Pakistan. 

At the same time, India has continued to supply stellar talent to tech firms and universities in the developed world, with Indian-origin professionals taking over Silicon Valley and politicians with Indian roots landing seats in major Ministries and Cabinets across the globe. Its excellence in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) has been spearheaded by the rise of the IITs, even as its arts have made their way into the western world via a multitude of carriers.

So proficient have Indians been in furthering STEM in the countries they have gone to, that they have garnered quite a reputation for being the go-to people for all things tech: from "repairing a laptop" (as Tharoor laughed about in his Ted Talk) to leading tech behemoth Google itself.

The perception has become widespread enough even on pop culture, allowing businessman Rohan Oza to joke on Shark Tank that since he's Indian, his mathematics is a fair bit better than "rudimentary"!

Shifts in India's Soft Power Strategy

Narendra Modi led his Bharatiya Janata Party to a landslide win [Amit Dave/Reuters]

While the ubiquity of Indian excellence ruling pop culture has been the essence of India's soft power domination for decades, the Modi-led BJP government has set out to change that with concerted government efforts being introduced towards the same. While soft power has been considered largely immeasurable for the most part, India has recently set out to establish a trackable metric to evaluate its own soft power, working to improve its performance diligently.

According to reports from November 2018, India has seemingly put together a coordination committee led by Niti Aayog vice chairman Rajiv Kumar, to spearhead attempts to blitz into the hearts of the global population more determinedly. 

It is difficult to put a finger on why it was essential to formalize this foreign policy exercise, but it may have to do with India's fall from grace as the world's blue-eyed boy. With the Modi government repeatedly facing censure for alleged human rights violations against the minority population of Muslims, and increasing concerns around women's safety, India has experienced a certain erosion in the image of excellence it enjoyed, its economic backwardness notwithstanding. The slowdown in its GDP growth, and the crisis unfolding in its economy have not helped its case either.

Now is the time, more than ever, to roll out a more aggressive attempt to expand its soft power, and retain its favourable image in the minds of the masses, even as journalists repeatedly call to the dangers of possible dictatorial patterns showing up in India's handling of its domestic affairs.

With India having clamped down on civil rights in Kashmir in the wake of the abrogation of Article 370, the country has faced considerable backlash. However, thanks to the incredible showmanship and artful diplomacy of Prime Minister Modi, India has seemingly managed to buffer the wave of criticism threatening to smear its well-crafted image. 

From being the face of International Yoga Day, to wooing huge crowds of non resident Indians on American soil, Modi has successfully put together a dazzling pageant of perceptible political strength coupled with traditional promises of cultural magnificence and moral superiority, regardless of the allegations he faces and his notoriety for avoiding press scrutiny. He ran the show at the meeting he held at Madison Square Garden on his first United States trip as Indian Prime Minister, with the event drawing a crowd so massive that even US Presidential candidates would be proud of such a turnout. More recently, his showing at the Howdy Modi event also impressed onlookers and commentators, as the Indian leader subtly endorsed America's controversial Republican President Trump to a traditionally Democrat-loving NRI populace.

He also asserted his respect for diversity, refuting one of the chief charges many level against him, and used diplomacy and grace to justify the abrogation of Article 370, craftily pointing out that even the opposition had largely voted in favour of the move for the benefit of India at large. He presented himself as an equal to the mighty POTUS, while playing to the gallery as a supposed harbinger of peace, harmony and diversity. True or not, his assertions struck a chord with both NRIs and Americans, leaving a sweet aftertaste for the rest of the world as far as their perception of India is concerned.

Clearly, India's soft power strategy has undergone a definitive change over the years, with the government becoming more proactive in selling the idea of an Incredible India to the world. While the benefits are many, it is perhaps best to remember the word of caution Tharoor had left in one of his speeches on soft power, be as he may from a political party rival to Modi's. He explained that often a government's concerted efforts to expand its soft power comes across as a form of repulsive propaganda, which can prove to be quite counterproductive, as has often been in the case of China. As long as India treads carefully in that regard, its new soft power strategy should be seeing even more success than Bollywood films abroad!




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