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New Delhi: The 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal’s Kathmandu valley a little before noon on Saturday. Within hours, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called Nepal’s President Ram Baran Yadav and Prime Minister Sushil Koirala to offer help and support. And four hours after the quake struck, four Indian Air Force planes—including a C-130J Super Hercules—were on their way to Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport with blankets, a mobile “field hospital" and search and rescue teams.

The mission marked the start of Operation Maitri. The planes landed in Kathmandu before dusk, according to Indian Air Force officials. And a little past midnight on Saturday, an aircraft returned with the first batch of about 60 Indians rescued from Kathmandu.

That’s how India took the lead in the relief operations in Nepal. China, Pakistan, Israel, the US and others were followers.

Does this qualify for soft power projection? The term refers to foreign policy tools that nations can use to “achieve desired outcomes through attraction rather than coercion".

(Hillary Clinton, during her secretary of state confirmation hearing in January 2009, had called for the use of “‘smart power’, the full range of tools at our disposal—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural—picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation…With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy", she had said.)

As one of quake-stricken Nepal’s closest neighbours—sharing a common frontier with road and air connectivity, open borders that do not require visas, besides cultural, language and other commonalities between the two, India was perhaps the best placed to offer succour to Nepal.

But India’s thinking on its feet can also be viewed as an extension of a policy that Prime Minister Modi had scripted even before being sworn in to office—set India’s imprint firmly on its neighbourhood with invitations to all heads of government of South Asia to attend his swearing-in ceremony on 26 May. According to analysts, Modi’s doing so was clearly sending a signal to China that South Asia was India’s backyard. Against this backdrop, sending in men and equipment to Nepal in its hour of need could well be an apt illustration of the use of soft power.

(China has been increasing its influence in India’s periphery, including Nepal, with investments in infrastructure. And earlier this month, Chinese state media reported that the Chinese government has plans to build a railway that would connect to Nepal through a tunnel running under Mount Everest.)

India’s actions in Nepal, that sit well with its newly defined “leading power" ambitions, would be the second example of its use of soft power this month. Earlier this month, India evacuated some 4,600 Indians from war-stricken Yemen, deploying Air India aircraft and Indian Navy ships to ferry people. During the mission, which was overseen by minister of state for external affairs V.K. Singh, India also evacuated citizens of Britain, the US and France, besides 38 other national. According to a Reuters report, this was a “symbolic step in a country sensitive about its reliance on foreign aid in the decades following independence in 1947".

India’s efforts in Yemen were noted by CNN and BBC, with the latter’s Cairo-based correspondent Orla Guerin posting a picture of Air India crew which was part of the air sorties ferrying people out of Yemen. The Twitter post that accompanied the picture said: “The Air Indian crew who have flown repeated rescue missions to Sanaa. Today we joined them for a flying visit #Yemen." Another post by Guerin said: “On board a packed Air India flight evacuating civilians from Sanaa. Some were sitting 6 to a row #Yemen."

Other examples of India’s projection of soft power in recent times has been the rushing of drinking water consignments to the Maldives when the country was facing a crisis after a fire in Male’s water treatment plant in December. India also sent food aid to the Philippines after Hurricane Haiyan hit the Southeast Asian nation’s eastern coast in November 2013, killing at least 10,000.

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