Can India emerge as the next soft power superpower?

“You are the symbols of India’s soft power. You are the unofficial ambassadors, the cultural ambassadors,” Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi told Indian immigrants in London, last year.

Over the last few years, India has emerged on the global stage as an economic and military great power leading many scholars and analysts to assess India’s past, present, and future. These scholars have extensively researched India’s  material indicators such as economic growth, military expansion, and demographic evolution. As a result, these researches have mainly neglected India’s efforts on enhancing its ‘soft power’ credentials by using the attractiveness of Indian culture, values, and policies. History is witness that a nation cannot be termed as a major power unless its culture, tradition carries a certain weight around the globe. The same applies to India : If India is considered as a Superpower in the future, it will not be just because of its economy or military dominance, but also because of its food, music, technology, and Bollywood. However, it is very difficult to define and measure soft power let alone measuring which of these resources have actually helped strengthen India’s global status.  Therefore this article attempts to analyse  India’s soft power potential, achievements and shortcomings.

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Indian Government’s ‘Incredible  India!’ international marketing campaign has received widespread success

However, before we move forward, we need to understand that India’s soft power has emerged until now independently of the government’s policies. In fact until 1991, India was considered as one of the most isolated countries on Earth. It is only since the turn of the millennium, has the Government recognized Indian soft power as an effective instrument of state policy. In other words, a soft power by default, India has now to enhance its co-optive power.

The problem with measuring soft power is that it is intangible. Hard power -like military and economic resources- can be directly measured and quantified. For example, it is easy to compare Indian and Chinese military expenditures. On the other hand, it is impossible to quantify the appeal of a country’s values, traditions, institutions or ambitions, which are inherently subjective and therefore contested. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that today, alongside China, India offers one of the most dynamic alternatives to Western cultural values. India’s film industry, Bollywood, is a strong example of India’s cultural attractiveness. It is today the world’s largest film industry, surpassing Hollywood.  Thanks to social media and internet, Bollywood movies and Indian soap operas have reached a growing global audience that has become increasingly familiar with Indian society and culture.

Another example of the permeability of Indian culture is the spread of Yoga, which is today practised by more than 20 million people in the United States alone. Indian cuisine, with its distinctive use of spices, has become popular worldwide.

The 30 million strong Indian diaspora is the largest diaspora population in the world. This is often touted as a major asset for Indian diplomacy. These immigrants have continue to play major roles in the political and economic spheres of these different countries. For example, the highly educated Indian-American community has played an important role in improving Indo-US relations by intense lobbying of American politicians and by giving a positive image of India to the American public.

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India is the largest Democracy on Earth

Perhaps the biggest asset for Indian soft power is the tag of the “world’s largest democracy”. India’s democratic record, is  unprecedented for most decolonised countries. The very fact that India has been able to preserve its stability, especially in a neighbourhood rife with ethnic and religious conflicts is testament to the metaphor of “Unity in Diversity”.

However, it is remains unclear that how has India utilized its soft power to  attain foreign policy objectives. Whereas American popular culture often fully supports the aims and the objectives of the US Government, India is yet to see that close alignment. For example, unlike Hollywood’s approach during the Cold War, Indian films usually do not promote a certain model for political and cultural development.

Despite its enormous potential, India’s soft power still languishes in mediocrity. This weakness is due to two primary reasons. First, the disregard of this invaluable asset by Indian diplomacy. The Government has only recently understood the importance of ‘cultural diplomacy’. Second, soft power cannot be sold and marketed without some initial hard power achievements. Remember, soft power does not strike people : hard power does. A country will only be able to realistically tell a success story if it has raw power to build its soft power on. While popular support for India abroad has largely been produced in a uninstitutional manner, New Delhi does have the ability to intensify soft power through ‘public diplomacy’ in a manner that popular perception becomes supportive of its foreign policy and national interests. This is what the United States did and continues to do.

As the world’s largest democracy, with a vibrant free press, India has important and strategic soft power advantages over the other rising power in the region, China. Because of India’s democratic experience, its rise (unlike China) has been perceived as complementing rather than challenging the existing international order. Not coincidentally, India’s public diplomacy over the last 5 years has sought to promote its soft power credentials in a battle for influence with China in Asia and around the world. A concrete example of this new soft power rivalry is visible in Africa today. Since India cannot match China’s massive financial investments in Africa, it has been concentrating on soft power resources such as its information technology capabilities and its affordable university courses to attract African students. At the same time it has promoted its image of the country which inspired the anti-colonial struggles of the last century and took a strong principled stand against apartheid to develop future partnerships in Africa. As a result, by publicising the pluralist nature of its politics and society, India intends to prove it is a cooperating, stabilising and exemplary rising power, in contrast to China’s more aggressive model.

Before we end, we need to put this analysis into context. Soft power cannot replace raw economic growth. India could project its soft power only because of its exemplary economic growth since the early 1990s. Today India holds the tag of the world’s fastest growing major economy. But the maintenance of this positive international image will require India to simultaneously become a more equitable and effcient society, a global economic power, and an economy that commands a major share of the global wealth, especially from global trade and investment. Recent political developments in India demonstrate that India still has a way to go to implement the macro-economic and structural reforms that will enable it to become an inclusive and prosperous economic reference, and with that, a soft power superpower.

” The thought of India often brings a smile to my face, in a way that China does not” – Nick Cull

Note:- All the opinions stated in the above article are the author’s own.

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