In a world where revolutions are wrought on social media, soft power is the spin that gives a nation its star turn. Some like Italy and the US just have it. Others cultivate and build it. As French philosopher Raymond-Claude-Ferdinand Aron once said: “In the present world, every great power is identified with a great idea.” What then is India’s “one great idea” that defines the country and gives it a clearly identifiable image?
None, it would seem. The London-based lifestyle magazine Monocle just aired its third annual Soft Power Survey, which the editors say “is an attempt to push the debate on where soft power comes from and how to use it.” In the list headed by the UK, India doesn’t make it to the top 20. Those that do include 13 European countries, with even Belgium, which according to the editors “does the dull stuff best”, making the cut.
There are lessons to be learnt from how other nations have leveraged their scarce soft resources to carve a distinct identity for themselves. Just look at the way London rode the Olympics by showcasing its diversity and how India blew it with the Commonwealth games. The survey also talks of Brazil’s multiculturalism, Italy’s “slow food” movement, Finland’s positioning as a nation of “problem solvers”, South Korea’s tech tag (along with Psy’s Gangnam) and Japan’s fashion and craftsmanship. Indeed, cuisine, culture, charity and literature are some of the most common themes that propel a nation to soft power supremacy.
Joseph Nye, who coined the term “soft power” in the late 1980s, defined it as the ability to attract and persuade, as opposed to hard power, which is the ability to coerce. Soft power, Nye said, arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals and policies.
So how does a nation build and exude this soft power? Can you spend your way to it much like you can to build your hard power? In 2005, India joined the UN Democracy Fund contributing $25 million to it, the second-biggest donation after the US’ $38 million. The Fund’s activities include electoral assistance and programs to strengthen the rule of law and to ﬁght corruption. And yet, would most people the world over associate India with a clean electoral system? In any case, the problem with economic power is that India’s resources are limited, China’s almost unlimited.
Moralpolitik of the kind espoused by Nehru and practised as non-alignment and the Panchsheel doctrine were much too pacific and devoid of a larger goal underpinning the pious pronouncements. Soft power is pretty lame unless it helps in conflict resolution. The world knowing about Amitabh Bachchan does not help diplomatic overture. Here the quality of our diplomacy has much to answer. Linking India Day in every country to our goals and aims is something that requires much more focused work. In every country, for example, we need to measure a conversion quotient of how our culture and values have moved people to understand us, and sometimes go along with us. Much of the world does want to drink Coke and go to Disneyland and seek the “good life” in the US, thus drawing the best minds to it, which ups its innovation quotient. But Coke and Disneyland also ricochet as emblems of excess in more self-denying cultures. This little dialectic, this yin-yang has brought much woe to the US that is seen as no respecter of other cultures.
After all, the sigma of all attributes of a country (and India’s includes grinding poverty and corruption) makes up soft power. That is why soft power shapes opinion with unpredictable results as it is from multiple sources.
India has forfeited its technology space by simply becoming an errand boy for software. From spice-centre to the world, it has abdicated its diverse culinary tradition to the blandness of fast food. The Scandinavians have usurped the reuse and recycle terrain, something perfected to an art by Indians, while we extol vile plastic embrace. This has happened insidiously because we have not sat back and discovered the zeitgeist of New India and how to sell it seductively. This lies hidden somewhere between its past and its vision of the future. Uncovering it is the first step in building the soft power we so desperately need.