Home >Opinion >Harnessing India’s soft power advantage

Last week, a colleague, citing the humanitarian aid extended to the people affected by the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal (and those impacted by previous calamities in South Asia), made out a case for India’s growing soft power presence in the region.

The observation is spot on, though I am not sure whether this is, as claimed in the piece, part of a grand design ordained by South Block mandarins; instead, it is as most things about India, more a spontaneous response—which then ex post is neatly placed in a silo. Because if it were otherwise, India would have far more diplomatic credits than what it showcases at present.

The idea of soft power was formally coined by Joseph Nye, a Harvard University professor, in a 1990 tome—Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. It made a case, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the shift towards a unipolar world defined around US, for co-option rather than coercion.

He further developed this concept in another book—Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics—published in 2004. Since then, it has become part of the lexicon of global politics. The thing is that it has been coined in the context of an aggressive defence strategy pursued by the US—the 40th anniversary of the Vietnam war, which passed last week, is a classic example. Nye argued, especially as in the case of Vietnam where the US military was unable to hold its own, leave alone winning the hearts and minds of people, for employing non-military methods to further the US cause.

India’s case is, however, fundamentally different. It is probably, despite its location in a hostile and troubled neighbourhood, among the few countries in the world that have not launched a war. The five wars that it has been engaged in have been in reaction to aggression from Pakistan and China. Unlike the US, it has never sought to perpetuate its hegemony, either in the neighbourhood or elsewhere in the world.

But beginning with the new millennium, the Indian economy turned a corner as it were. In the 15 years since, it has powered on to transform from a $400 billion economy to a $2 trillion economy. Money talks. So what it did was to give India a spot on the global economic atlas. It was inevitable that global curiosity would soon pick on cultural icons of India; it also helped that this synchronized with the global information technology boom.

Just as Indian techies, some of them very high-profile successes, suddenly started finding favour across the US, the growing Indian economy was drawing attention. All of a sudden, the 1.5 million Indian Americans acquired an unprecedented focus. It was inevitable then that other pop icons like yoga, bhangra, mehendi and, of course, Indian cuisine soon started taking root (for example you had Floyd Cardoz serving as the chef in a fine-dining restaurant, Tabla in New York, serving fusion Indian food).

However, if you take a step back, it would be apparent that this had been happening for some time now. The West Asia boom fuelled by spurting oil prices inspired a generation of Indian expats to move to the region as support personnel—whether it be as construction workers or pure service sector employees. In fact, the 20 million or so non-resident Indians have been ambassadors (some forgettable, of course) for the country for a long time.

What changed was India’s economic transformation and simultaneously Indian foreign policy becoming bolder as the country started supping at the global high table. So, it was not surprising to see Indian personnel working closely in the rehab of war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq to rebuild or create new infrastructure—often at considerable personal risk to themselves.

At the same time, India was emerging as a destination—tourist as well as economic. To the curious foreigner, India as well as Indians were gradually acquiring an unprecedented profile. The rise of China had already tilted the global balance towards the East; India’s ascent only reaffirmed that the centre of the world in the future would be the East and not the West.

What it did in the process was to increase India’s self-confidence as well as raise its profile, especially in South Asia. Initially, this led to chaffing with most of its neighbours, especially since South Block ignored them, preferring instead to focus on mending ties with the US. Mercifully, this myopic policy has since seen a reset.

It is clear then that India packs enormous potential in terms of soft power. India’s biggest advantage is that it, despite possessing one of the world’s largest armies, does not offensively threaten another country. The trick is to harness this potential without being overt about it; as we have seen with the adventures undertaken by the US, there is but a fine line between war and peace.

Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at capitalcalculus@livemint.com. His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus

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