In charts: Unlocking India's soft power potential

India is doing well in terms of hard power; it needs to work on soft power.
India is doing well in terms of hard power; it needs to work on soft power.


Brand India seems to be everywhere on the global stage these days. Does it mean its global influence has increased in a meaningful way? Perhaps not—and it has some distance to cover to truly realize its soft power

The year 2023 has been a great year for Brand India. It began by bagging two Oscars, followed up by sending an indigenous rocket to the moon, and hosted a successful G20 summit, all this while being among the fastest growing economies in the world. As a result, India does seem to be everywhere these days. But has its global influence really increased in a meaningful way? One way to decide is by assessing India’s soft power—its ability to influence and persuade other nations rather than coerce them via economic or military action.

The “Global Soft Power Index", run by a UK-based brand valuation consultancy called Brand Finance, ranks nations by scoring public perceptions on key attributes that create an international image. These include familiarity with a nation and its brands, positive reputation, influence in the respondent’s country as well as globally, and eight additional pillars that drive soft power. In 2023, India was ranked 28th out of 121 nations, one spot up from its 2022 rank. The top five spots have gone to more-or-less the same countries since the index was launched in 2020.

India made it to the top 20 in four of the components of the index. It is perceived to have a rich cultural heritage—especially in the arts and food—and excels in science and innovation. Under the business pillar, India was ranked second in terms of future growth potential. But it lags behind in perceptions of governance, sustainability, and people and values. However, it is ranked only 65th in global reputation.

Soft power, hard strategy

Achieving soft power takes deliberate and well-strategized efforts spread over many years. Western nations have long relied on foreign aid to project soft power. Another tool is the use of government scholarships to support education, training, or exchange programmes for overseas students. Cultural diplomacy also boosts soft power. For example, the immense popularity of K-pop and K-dramas owe a great deal to support from the South Korean government. China has set up Confucius schools all over the world to promote the Mandarin language, and has an increasing focus on Africa and West Asia, where it wants to expand its influence. The British Council and Alliance française use language, food, wine tasting, art and cinema as soft power tools.

India has belatedly realized the need for a soft power strategy. Recently a Parliamentary panel made several recommendations to this end, including higher resources for international outreach, adoption of international best practices, and better collaboration between government agencies.

Economic impact

Soft power can be leveraged to generate economic benefits because familiarity with a nation’s products make people more likely to buy them. South Korea has successfully used the Korean wave to boost exports: a $100-million increase in K-content exports resulted in a $180-million rise in exports of consumer goods, found a 2022 report from the state-run Export-Import Bank of Korea. Cultural attraction also pulls in tourists, who bring in foreign exchange and support multiple sectors ranging from airlines to hotels. All tourism is not about scenic locales: Singapore markets itself as a prime location for conferences and conventions, with its soft power being that it offers a well-connected, efficient and secure location for global business travellers. Finally, rising global influence attracts foreign direct investment. For example, Netflix is expected to spend $1.9 billion on local content in the Asia-Pacific, because Japanese anime, Korean dramas and Indian movies are globally streamed and watched.

Smart power

Soft power is derived from a nation’s ideals, culture, institutions, quality of life, societal values and anything else that builds its international image. Hard power refers to the use of economic or military strength. A combination of the two—"smart power"—is an ideal strategy. For instance, China has cumulatively invested over $1 trillion under the Belt and Road Initiative, mainly to burnish its global image. Half of the current world leaders were educated in the US or the UK, yet instead of becoming complacent, these countries constantly strive to upgrade their university systems.

India is doing well in terms of hard power; it needs to work on soft power. A good starting point is to make Indian cities safer, cleaner and more attractive to visit, work and live in. Nations with sustainable cities and stable economies have a positive global reputation, and the ultimate soft power: they are role models for others.

The author is an independent writer on economics and finance.


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