‘Wed in India’ makes sense, and it isn’t about soft power

Weddings abroad may reinforce the image of India as a country marked by stark inequality and conflicts of identity, where ostentation and flaunting of wealth co-exist with widespread poverty.
Weddings abroad may reinforce the image of India as a country marked by stark inequality and conflicts of identity, where ostentation and flaunting of wealth co-exist with widespread poverty.

Summary

  • It’s unclear if lavish Indian weddings held abroad enhance India’s appeal but those held here clearly aid the economy. As Joseph Nye says, both soft and hard power matter, but we have much further to go on both.

The penchant for destination weddings among affluent Indians prompts a slight reinterpretation of Khalid Hosseini’s line in his book A Thousand Splendid Suns: “I will follow you to the ends of the world [to marry you]." And it’s no surprise that the Prime Minister’s call urging Indians to wed in India has sparked diverse reactions. Some question the need to do so, since weddings abroad could potentially bring intangible benefits to India in the form of ‘soft power,’ which might be difficult to quantify. Coined by political scientist Joseph Nye Jr., soft power refers to a country’s ability to influence other countries without resorting to coercive measures like wars or sanctions. It can be a valuable tool for a nation’s success and has been effectively wielded by countries like South Korea, as discussed in one of my previous columns (bit.ly/3RLOcCH). Korean soft power was the result of a meticulously crafted economic policy that brought together multiple stakeholders, fostering a creative economy and leading to a surge in cultural exports.

Soft power, as gauged by a country’s likeability and trustworthiness, plays a pivotal role in determining a nation’s international standing and capability, and yields substantial financial dividends in the form of both the quantity and quality of foreign direct investment (FDI). A 2020 British Council report delves into the sources of soft power in seven focus countries: the UK, Germany, Japan, the US, China, Russia and India (bit.ly/3TusYdE).

The report, which gauges youth perceptions across the G20 nations, reveals that India ranks the lowest in terms of all four metrics used to measure soft power: overall attractiveness (51%), trust in people (36%), trust in government (28%), and trust in institutions (28%). In contrast, the UK, boasting the highest overall attractiveness, scored 81%, 67%, 56% and 64% respectively on those four indicators. It is concerning that 27% of the G20 youth find India unattractive, while 35% rate India low on the trust parameter for people, 35% rate trust in government as low, and a substantial 36% rate India low on trust in institutions. This is a sobering reality check for India’s soft-power ambitions.

It is interesting to see how India could bolster such soft power. The report highlights that India’s cultural and historic attractions (60%), its arts encompassing music, theatre, literature, visual arts and film (49%) and its history (48%) are perceived as the top three characteristics that make India attractive. Intriguingly, cultural and historic attractions emerge as the primary source of soft power for five of the seven focus countries. Clearly, India needs to concentrate on these sources uniformly recognized as potent contributors to soft power.

However, there are areas where India significantly underperformed, ranking abysmally low, with less than 15% of respondents finding specific characteristics attractive in India. These include India’s technology and infrastructure; its brands, products and services; its social and political institutions; its education system and institutions; its science, research and innovative capabilities; its sporting teams, events and achievements; the current and past actions of its government; and its reputation for safety and security. Clearly, significant efforts are needed in these areas to shape overseas youth perceptions of India and to provide a more holistic perspective of the country’s attractiveness.

The study found that qualities such as openness and a fair justice system were major drivers of trust in people, while a state’s contribution to the development of poorer countries and its ability to collaborate constructively with other governments were seen as major drivers of trust in governments.

Talking of Indian destination weddings abroad, it remains debatable whether they can contribute positively to India’s soft power. Weddings abroad may reinforce the image of India as a country marked by stark inequality and conflicts of identity, where ostentation and flaunting of wealth co-exist with widespread poverty. Any soft influence, thus, is likelier to be negative and could erode India’s credibility as the ‘Land of the Mahatma.’

Moreover, such weddings can potentially hurt the Indian economy through outflow of foreign exchange. A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that India’s outflow of foreign exchange in 2022-23 on account of personal, cultural and recreation services was above $5.6 billion, as opposed to inflows of about $3.9 billion from the export of such services. Significant multiplier and accelerator effects would follow the wedding industry—estimated to be India’s fourth largest. Recent estimates by the Confederation of All India Traders for the 2023 wedding season—from 23 November to 15 December—placed the wedding business pie at 4.74 trillion, with about 3.8 million weddings conducted during this period. The equivalent ‘market size’ in the annual marriage season of 2021 was paced at 3 trillion and in 2022 at 3.75 trillion.

India needs to make more comprehensive efforts to build its soft power than relying on a few affluent individuals getting married in exotic destinations. Moreover, in the contemporary world, soft power alone may not suffice; a combination of both soft and hard power—what is known as ‘smart power’—is required. As succinctly summarized once by Joseph Nye while discussing whether a nation should be feared or loved, “In today’s world, it is best to be both."

These are the author’s personal views.

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