Indian Strategic Power: Soft

To wield soft power, India must defend, assert and promote its culture of openness against the forces of intolerance and bigotry inside and outside the country.
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The Indian elections are over. What is all this talk of Indian strategic power? Not so fast...

As an Indian, I have become a little concerned about the proliferation of those who speak of India as a future 'world leader' or even as 'the next superpower.' The American publishers of my most recent book, The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone, even added a gratuitous subtitle suggesting that my volume was about "the emerging 21st century power."

Now, I appreciate that this is not entirely unreasonable. Many thinkers and writers I respect have spoken of India's geostrategic advantages, its economic dynamism, political stability, proven military capabilities, its nuclear, space and missile programs, the entrepreneurial energy of India's people, and the country's growing pool of young and skilled manpower as assuring India 'great power' status as a 'world leader' in the new century.

And yet I have a problem with that term. The notion of 'world leadership' is a curiously archaic one. The very phrase is redolent of Kipling ballads and James Bondian adventures. What makes a country a world leader? Is it population, in which case India is on course to top the charts, overtaking China as the world's most populous country by 2034? Is it military strength (India's is already the world's fourth-largest army) or nuclear capacity (India's status having been made clear in 1998, and last year formally recognized in the Indo-US nuclear deal)? Is it economic development? There, India has made extraordinary strides in recent years; it is already the world's fifth-largest economy in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms, and continues to climb, though too many of our people still live destitute, amidst despair and disrepair. Or could it be a combination of all these, allied to something altogether more difficult to define -- the 'soft power' of its culture?

Much of the conventional analysis of India's stature in the world relies on the all-too-familiar economic assumptions. But we are famously a land of paradoxes, and one of those paradoxes is that so many speak about India as a great power of the 21st century when we are not yet able to feed, educate and employ all our people. So it is not economic growth, military strength or population numbers that I would underscore when I think of India's potential leadership role in the world of the 21st century. Rather, if there is one attribute of independent India to which I think increasing attention should now be paid around the globe, it is the quality which India is already displaying in ample measure today -- its 'soft power.'

The notion of soft power is relatively new in international discourse. The term was coined by Harvard's Joseph Nye to describe the extraordinary strengths of the US that went well beyond American military dominance. Nye argued that "power is the ability to alter the behavior of others to get what you want, and there are three ways to do that: coercion (sticks), payments (carrots) and attraction (soft power). If you are able to attract others, you can economize on the sticks and carrots." Traditionally, power in world politics was seen in terms of military power: the side with the larger army was likely to win. But even in the past, this was not enough: after all, the US lost the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan, and the US discovered in its first few years in Iraq the wisdom of Talleyrand's adage that the one thing you cannot do with a bayonet is to sit on it. Enter soft power -- both as an alternative to hard power, and as a complement to it. To quote Nye again: "the soft power of a country rests primarily on three resources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority)."

I would go slightly beyond this: a country's soft power, to me, emerges from the world's perceptions of what that country is all about. The associations and attitudes conjured up in the global imagination by the mere mention of a country's name is often a more accurate gauge of its soft power than a dispassionate analysis of its foreign policies. In my view, hard power is exercised; soft power is evoked.

For Nye, the US is the archetypal exponent of soft power. The fact is that the US is the home of Boeing and Intel, Google and the iPod, Microsoft and MTV, Hollywood and Disneyland, McDonald's and Starbucks -- in short, of most of the major products that dominate daily life around our globe. The attractiveness of these assets, and of the American lifestyle of which they are emblematic, is that they permit the US to persuade others to adopt the agenda of the US, rather than it having to rely purely on the dissuasive or coercive 'hard power' of military force.

Of course, this can cut both ways. In a world of instant mass communications enabled by the Internet, countries are increasingly judged by a global public fed on an incessant diet of web news, televised images, videos taken on the cellphones of passers-by, and email gossip. The steep decline in America's image and standing after 9/11 is a direct reflection of global distaste for the instruments of American hard power: the Iraq invasion, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, torture, rendition, Blackwater's killings of Iraqi civilians.

But this essay is not about the US. In his book, The Paradox of American Power, Nye took the analysis of soft power beyond the US; other nations too, he suggested, could acquire it. In today's information era, he wrote, three types of countries are likely to gain soft power and so succeed: "Those whose dominant cultures and ideals are closer to prevailing global norms (which now emphasize liberalism, pluralism, autonomy); those with the most access to multiple channels of communication and thus more influence over how issues are framed; and those whose credibility is enhanced by their domestic and international performance."

At first glance, this seems to be a prescription for reaffirming the contemporary reality of US dominance, since it is clear that no country scores more highly on all three categories than the US. But Nye himself admits this is not so: soft power has been pursued with success by other countries over the years. When France lost the war of 1870 to Prussia, one of its most important steps to rebuild the nation's shattered morale and enhance its prestige was to create the Alliance Française to promote French language and literature throughout the world. French culture has remained a major selling point for French diplomacy ever since. The UK has the British Council, the Swiss have Pro Helvetia, and Germany, Spain, Italy and Portugal have, respectively, Institutes named for Goethe, Cervantes, Dante Alighieri and Camoes. Today, China has started establishing 'Confucius Institutes' to promote Chinese culture internationally, and the Beijing Olympics have been a sustained exercise in the building up of soft power by an authoritarian state. The US itself has used officially sponsored initiatives, from the Voice of America to the Fulbright scholarships, to promote its soft power around the world. But soft power does not rely merely on governmental action: arguably, for the US, Hollywood and MTV have done more to promote the idea of America as a desirable and admirable society than any US governmental endeavor. Soft power, in other words, is created partly by governments, and partly despite governments; partly by deliberate action, partly by accident.

What does this mean for India? It means acknowledging that India's claims to a significant leadership role in the world of the 21st century lie in the aspects and products of Indian society and culture that the world finds attractive. These assets may not directly persuade others to support India, but they go a long way toward enhancing India's intangible standing in the world's eyes.

The roots of India's soft power run deep. India's is a civilization that, over millennia, has offered refuge and, more importantly, religious and cultural freedom, to Jews, Parsis, several varieties of Christians, and Muslims. Jews came to the southwestern Indian coast centuries before Christ, with the destruction by the Babylonians of their First Temple, and they knew no persecution on Indian soil until the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century to inflict it. Christianity arrived on Indian soil with St. Thomas the Apostle ('Doubting Thomas'), who came to the Malabar coast some time before 52 A.D. and was welcomed on shore, or so oral legend has it, by a flute-playing Jewish girl. He made many converts, so there are Indians today whose ancestors were Christian well before any Europeans discovered Christianity. In Kerala, where Islam came through traders, travelers and missionaries, rather than by the sword, the Zamorin of Calicut was so impressed by the seafaring skills of this community that he issued a decree obliging each fisherman's family to bring up one son as a Muslim to man his all-Muslim navy! The India where the wail of the Muslim muezzin routinely blends with the chant of mantras at the Hindu temple, and where the tinkling of church bells accompanies the Sikh gurudwara's reading of verses from the Guru Granth Sahib, is an India that fully embraces the world. Indeed, the British historian E.P. Thompson wrote that this heritage of diversity is what makes India "perhaps the most important country for the future of the world. All the convergent influences of the world run through this society.... There is not a thought that is being thought in the West or East that is not active in some Indian mind."

That Indian mind has been shaped by remarkably diverse forces: ancient Hindu tradition, myth and scripture; the impact of Islam and Christianity; and two centuries of British colonial rule. The result is unique. Though there are some who think and speak of India as a Hindu country, Indian civilization today is an evolved hybrid. We cannot speak of Indian culture today without qawwali, the poetry of Ghalib, or for that matter the game of cricket, our de facto national sport. When an Indian dons 'national dress' for a formal event, he wears a variant of the sherwani, which did not exist before the Muslim invasions of India. When Indian Hindus voted recently in the cynical and contrived competition to select the 'new seven wonders' of the modern world, they voted for the Taj Mahal constructed by a Mughal king, not for Angkor Wat, the most magnificent architectural product of their religion. In the breadth (and not just the depth) of its cultural heritage lies some of India's soft power.

One of the few generalizations that can safely be made about India is that nothing can be taken for granted about the country. Not even its name: for the word India comes from the river Indus, which flows in Pakistan. (That anomaly is easily explained, of course, since what is today Pakistan was hacked off the stooped shoulders of India by the departing British in 1947). Indian nationalism is therefore a rare phenomenon indeed. It is not based on language (since our Constitution recognizes 23, and there are 35, according to the ethnolinguists, that are spoken by more than a million people each -- not to mention 22,000 distinct dialects). It is not based on geography (the 'natural' geography of the subcontinent -- framed by the mountains and the sea -- was hacked by the partition of 1947). It is not based on ethnicity (the 'Indian' accommodates a diversity of racial types, and many Indians have more in common ethnically with foreigners than with other Indians: Indian Punjabis and Bengalis, for instance, are ethnically kin to Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, respectively, with whom they have more in common than with Poonawalas or Bangaloreans). And it is not based on religion (we are home to every faith known to mankind, with the possible exception of Shintoism, and Hinduism -- a faith without a national organization, no established church or ecclesiastical hierarchy, no Hindu Pope, no Hindu Mecca, no single scared book, no uniform beliefs or modes of worship, not even a Hindu Sunday -- exemplifies as much our diversity as it does our common cultural heritage). Indian nationalism is the nationalism of an idea, the idea of an ever-ever land -- emerging from an ancient civilization, united by a shared history, sustained by pluralist democracy. Pluralism is a reality that emerges from the very nature of the country; it is a choice made inevitable by India's geography and reaffirmed by its history.

We are a land of rich diversities: I have observed in the past that we are all minorities in India. This land imposes no narrow conformities on its citizens: you can be many things and one thing. You can be a good Muslim, a good Keralite and a good Indian all at once. So the idea of India is of one land embracing many. It is the idea that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, color, culture, cuisine, conviction, costume and custom, and still rally around a democratic consensus. That consensus is around the simple principle that, in a democracy, you do not really need to agree -- except on the ground rules of how you will disagree. Part of the reason for India being respected in the world is that it has survived all the stresses and strains that have beset it -- and that led so many to predict its imminent disintegration -- by maintaining consensus on how to manage without consensus.

The world of the 21st century will increasingly be a world in which the use of hard power carries with it the odium of mass global public disapproval, whereas the blossoming of soft power, which lends itself more easily to the information era, will constitute a country's principal asset. Soft power is not about conquering others, but about being yourself. Increasingly, countries are judged by the soft-power elements they project onto the global consciousness -- either deliberately (through the export of cultural products, the cultivation of foreign publics or even international propaganda) or unwittingly (through the ways in which they are perceived as a result of news stories about them in the global mass media).

India produces various kinds of culture, notably including the films of Bollywood, now reaching ever-wider international audiences. The triumph of Slumdog Millionaire at the 2009 Oscars both reflects and reinforces this trend. Bollywood is bringing its brand of glitzy entertainment not just to the Indian diaspora in the US, UK or Canada, but around the globe, to the screens of Syrians and Senegalese alike. A Senegalese friend told me of his illiterate mother who takes a bus to Dakar every month to watch a Bollywood film: she does not understand the Hindi dialogue, and cannot read the French subtitles, but these films are made to be understood despite such handicaps; she can still catch their spirit and understand the stories, and people like her look at India with stars in their eyes as a result. An Indian diplomat friend in Damascus a few years ago told me that the only publicly-displayed portraits in that city that were as big as those of then-President Hafez al-Assad were those of the Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan. Indian art, classical music and dance have a similar effect. So does the work of Indian fashion designers, now striding across the world's catwalks. Indian cuisine, spreading around the world, raises our culture higher in people's reckoning; as the French have long known, the way to foreigners' hearts is through their palates. The proliferation of Indian restaurants around the world has been little short of astonishing. In England today, Indian curry houses employ more people than the iron and steel, coal and shipbuilding industries combined. (So the Empire can strike back.)

Globalization has both sparked and allayed many Indians' fears that economic liberalization will bring with it cultural imperialism of a particularly insidious kind -- that Baywatch and burgers will supplant Bharatanatyam dances and bhelpuri snacks. Instead, India's recent experience with Western consumer products demonstrates that we can drink Coca-Cola without becoming Coca-colonized. Indians will not become any less Indian if, in Mahatma Gandhi's metaphor, we open the doors and windows of our country and let foreign winds blow through our house -- because Indians are strong enough not to be blown off their feet by these winds. Our popular culture has proved resilient enough to compete successfully with MTV and McDonald's. Besides, the strength of 'Indianness' lies in its ability to absorb foreign influences, and to transform them -- by a peculiarly Indian alchemy -- into something that belongs naturally on the soil of India.

Indeed, from the export of Bollywood to bhangra dances, India has demonstrated that it is a player in globalization, not merely a subject of it. India benefits from the future and the past -- from the international appeal of its traditional practices (from ayurveda to yoga, both accelerating in popularity across the globe) and the transformed image of the country created by its thriving diaspora. Information technology has made its own contribution to India's soft power. When Americans in Silicon Valley speak of the IITs (the Indian Institutes of Technology) with the same reverence that they used to accord to MIT, and the Indianness of engineers and software developers is taken as synonymous with mathematical and scientific excellence, it is India that gains in respect. Sometimes this has unintended consequences. I met an Indian the other day -- a history major like me -- who told me of transiting through Schiphol airport in Amsterdam and being accosted by an anxious European crying out: "You're Indian! You're Indian! Can you help me fix my laptop?" The old stereotype of Indians was that of snake-charmers and fakirs lying on beds of nails; now it is that every Indian must be a software guru or a computer geek.

In the information age, Joseph Nye has argued, it is often the side which has the better story that wins. India must remain the 'land of the better story.' As a society with a free press and a thriving mass media, with a people whose creative energies are daily encouraged to express themselves in a variety of appealing ways, India has an extraordinary ability to tell stories that are more persuasive and attractive than those of its rivals. This is not about propaganda; indeed, it will not work if it is directed from above, least of all by government. But its impact, though intangible, can be huge.

To take one example: Afghanistan is clearly a crucial country for India's national security, as it is for the US's. President Obama has spoken of reinforcing American and NATO military capacity there. But the most interesting asset for India in Afghanistan does not come out of a military mission: it does not have one. It comes, instead, from one simple fact: Do not try to telephone an Afghan at 8:30 in the evening. That is when the Indian TV soap opera Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, dubbed into Dari, is telecast on Tolo TV, and no one wishes to miss it. It is reportedly the most popular television show in Afghan history (at least until the onset of Afghan Idol last year), considered directly responsible for a spike in the sale of generator sets, and even for absences from religious functions which clash with its broadcast times. (This has provoked visceral opposition to the show from the mullahs, who wish to shut it down). Saas has so thoroughly captured the public imagination in Afghanistan that, in this deeply conservative Islamic country where family problems are usually hidden behind the veil, it is an Indian TV show that has come to dominate society's discussion of family issues. I have read reports of wedding banquets being interrupted so that the guests could huddle around the television for half an hour, and even of an increase in crime at 8:30pm because watchmen are sneaking a look at the TV, rather than minding the store. One Reuters dispatch recounted how robbers in Mazar-i-Sharif stripped a vehicle of its wheels and mirrors recently during the telecast time and wrote on the car, in an allusion to the show's heroine, "Tulsi Zindabad" (long live Tulsi). That is soft power, and India does not have to thank the government or charge the taxpayer for its exercise. Instead, Indians too can simply say, "Tulsi Zindabad."

Of course, official government policy can also play a role. Pavan Varma, the current head of the Indian Council on Cultural Relations, has argued that "culturally, India is a superpower," and that cultural diplomacy must be pursued for political ends. So India is highly visible at cultural shows around the world, and the ICCR is rather good at organizing Festivals of India in assorted foreign cities. That is good, but I am not a fan of propaganda, which most people tend to see for what it is. I believe that the message that really gets through is that of who we are, not what we want to show.

For soft power is not just what we can deliberately and consciously exhibit or put on display; it is rather how others see what we are, whether or not we are trying to show it to the world. To take a totally different example: Politically, the sight in May 2004 -- after the world's largest exercise in democratic franchise (but then every Indian election is the world's largest exercise in democratic franchise!) -- of a leader of Roman Catholic background (Sonia Gandhi) making way for a Sikh (Manmohan Singh) to be sworn in as Prime Minister by a Muslim (President Abdul Kalam), in a country 81% Hindu, caught the world's imagination and won its admiration. (I was traveling in the Gulf on behalf of the UN at the time, and the reactions of my Arab interlocutors to what had happened in India could not have been more gratifying).

So it is not just material accomplishments that enhance India's soft power. Even more important are the values and principles for which India stands. After all, Mahatma Gandhi won India its independence through the use of soft power -- because non-violence and satyagraha were indeed classic uses of soft power before the term was even coined. India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was also a skilled exponent of soft power: he developed a role for India in the world based entirely on its civilizational history and its moral standing, making India the voice of the oppressed and the marginalized against the big power hegemons of the day. This gave the country enormous standing and prestige across the world for some years, and strengthened our own self-respect as we stood -- proud and independent -- on the world stage. But the great flaw in Nehru's approach was that his soft power was unrelated to any acquisition of hard power: as the humiliation of the military defeat by China in 1962 demonstrated, soft power has crippling limitations in national security terms. Instead of Theodore Roosevelt's maxim, "speak softly and carry a big stick," Nehru's India spoke loudly, but had no stick at all. But in a tough neighborhood, the rhetoric of peace can only take you so far. Soft power becomes credible when there is hard power behind it; that is why the US has been able to make so much of its soft power.

Recent Indian history offers a somewhat mixed picture when it comes to the effective use of hard power. The 1971 war with Pakistan, leading to the emergence of Bangladesh, remains the preeminent example, but there are few others -- the repelling of Pakistani intruders from the Kargil heights in 1999, and a swift paratroop intervention in the Maldives to reverse a coup against President Gayoom in 1996, providing rare instances of hard power success. Against these examples are the said 1962 China war, the spectacular failures of the Indian Peacekeeping Force in Sri Lanka in 1987 (the Force withdrew after incurring heavy casualties in an unplanned war with the Tamil insurgents), the hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft to Kandahar in 1999, resulting in the craven release of detained terrorists from Indian jails, the repeated 'bleeding' of the country through terrorist incidents planned and directed from Pakistan, and innumerable unprovoked incidents on the Bangladesh border involving Indian loss of life. India is often caught in a cleft stick on such matters: it typically treads softly in its anxiety not to come across as a regional bully and, in so doing, it emboldens those who are prepared to test it. As a result, India has been noticeably reluctant to evolve a strategic doctrine based on hard power. Indeed, there is a sense in which most Indians still think that would be unseemly.

This helps explain India's growing consciousness of its soft power -- though, of course, New Delhi knows that its soft power cannot solve its security challenges. After all, an Islamist terrorist who enjoys a Bollywood movie will still have no compunction about setting off a bomb in a Delhi market, and the US has already learned that the perpetrators of 9/11 ate their last dinner at a Mc-Donald's. To counter the terrorist threat, there is no substitute for hard power. Hard power without soft power stirs up resentments and enmities; soft power without hard power is a confession of weakness. Where soft power works is in attracting enough goodwill from ordinary people to reduce the sources of support and succour that the terrorists enjoy, and without which they cannot function.

But this means that India also needs to solve its internal problems before it can play any role of leadership in the world. We must ensure that we do enough to keep our people healthy, well-fed, and secure - not just from jihadi terrorism, but from the daily terror of poverty, hunger and ill health. Progress is being made: India can take satisfaction from its success in carrying out three kinds of revolutions in feeding its people - the 'green revolution' in food grains, the 'white revolution' in milk production and, at least to some degree, a 'blue revolution' in the development of our fisheries. But the benefits of these revolutions have not yet reached the third of our population still living below the poverty line. We must ensure that they do, or our soft power will ring hollow - at home and abroad.

At the same time, if India wants to be a source of attraction to others, it is not enough to attend to these basic needs. It must preserve the precious pluralism that is such a civilizational asset in our globalizing world. Our democracy, our thriving free media, our contentious civil society fora, our energetic human rights groups, and the repeated spectacle of our remarkable general elections, have all made of India a rare example of the successful management of diversity in the developing world. It adds to India's soft power when its non-governmental organizations actively defend human rights, promote environmentalism, fight injustice. It is a vital asset that the Indian press is free, lively, irreverent, disdainful of sacred cows.

But every time there are reports of sectarian violence or a pogrom, like the savagery in Gujarat in 2002, or a nativist attack like those by a fringe group in February on women drinking at a pub in Mangalore, India suffers a huge setback to our soft power. Soft power will not come from a narrow or restricted version of Indianness, confined to the sectarian prejudices of some of the self-appointed guardians of Indian culture ('Bharatiya Sanskriti'). It must instead proudly reflect the multi-religious identities of our people, our linguistic diversity and the myriad manifestations of our creative energies. India must maintain its true heritage in the eyes of the world.

And that will mean acknowledging that the central battle in contemporary Indian culture is that between those who, to borrow Walt Whitman's phrase, acknowledge that we are vast -- we contain multitudes -- and those who have presumptuously taken it upon themselves to define (in increasingly narrow terms) what is 'truly' Indian. Pluralist India must, by definition, tolerate plural expressions of its many identities. To allow any self-appointed arbiters of Indian culture to impose their hypocrisy and double standards on the rest of us is to permit them to define Indianness down until it ceases to be Indian. To wield soft power, India must defend, assert and promote its culture of openness against the forces of intolerance and bigotry inside and outside the country.

It helps that India is anything but the unchanging land of timeless cliché. There is an extraordinary degree of change and ferment in our democracy. Dramatic transformations are taking place that amount to little short of an ongoing revolution -- in politics, economics, society and culture. Both politics and caste relations have witnessed convulsive changes: who could have imagined -- for 3,000 years -- that a woman from the 'untouchable' community of outcastes (now called 'Dalits') would rule India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, as Kumari Mayawati now does with a secure majority? It is still true that in many parts of India, when you cast your vote, you vote your caste. But that too has brought about profound alterations in the country, as the lower castes have taken advantage of the ballot to seize electoral power.

These changes are little short of revolutionary. But the Indian revolution is a democratic one, sustained by a larger idea of India: an India that safeguards the common space available to each identity -- an India that celebrates diversity. If America is a melting pot, then to me India is a thali -- a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast.

India's civilizational ethos has been an immeasurable asset for our country. It is essential that India not allow the spectre of religious intolerance and political opportunism to undermine the soft power which is its greatest asset in the world of the 21st century. Maintain that, and true leadership in our globalizing world -- the kind that has to do with principles, values and standards -- will follow.

This will require the more systematic development of a soft power strategy than India currently has. So far, such strategic advantages as have accrued from India's soft power - goodwill for the country amongst African, Arab and Afghan publics, for instance - has been a largely unplanned byproduct of the normal emanations of Indian culture. Such goodwill has not been systematically harnessed as a strategic asset by New Delhi. It is ironic that, in and around the 2008 Olympics, authoritarian China showed a greater determination to use its hard-power strengths to cultivate a soft-power strategy for itself on the world stage. India will not need to try as hard, but it will need to do more than it currently does to lever its natural soft power into a valuable instrument of its global strategy.

I believe that the India that has entered its seventh decade as an independent country is one open to the contention of ideas and interests within it, unafraid of the prowess or the products of the outside world, wedded to the democratic pluralism that is India's greatest strength, and determined to liberate and fulfill the creative energies of its people. Such an India truly enjoys soft power, and that may well be the most valuable way in which it can offer leadership to the 21st century world.

NOTE: This article was originally published in Global Brief ( on May 13, 2009

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