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India: Culture as soft power

Since 2013 India has been the world’s third largest economy after China and the United States (on the basis of purchasing-power parity) and in overall GDP terms it was fifth largest,surpassing Britain in 2019 (IMF, 2019). In parallel with this economic power, India’s soft power is on the rise. With the revolution in media production and distribution, as well as in mobile and online communications, India’s cultural products and concepts now reach all corners of the globe. India’s publicdiplomacy strategy under the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi elected in 2014, has been to emphasize India’s intellectual, religious and cultural wealth using the country’s considerable media and creative industries and the global Indian diaspora, as reflected in a 2017 documentary, India Boundless - A Place in the Heart of the World, produced for the Public Diplomacy Division of India’s Ministry of External Affairs (India Boundless, 2017).

In his 2004 book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, Joseph Nye suggests that soft power is an integral part of foreign policy, especially for states seeking to ‘incorporate the soft dimensions into their strategies for wielding power’ (Nye, 2004: 1). Its role in foreign policy is important precisely because ‘in behavioural terms, simply put, soft power is attractive power’ (ibid.: 6), pursued in order to influence the behaviour of other states. Acknowledging Nye’s definition of soft power, developed primarily in relation to the US, this chapter will suggest that India’s global presence and influence - artistic, spiritual and intellectual - are rooted in its civilizational power. Its soft power assets, including mass media, diaspora, religion, culture and popular cinema, help to create awareness and appreciation of India globally (Tharoor, 2008,2012;Thussu, 2013; Kugiel, 2017).

This chapter examines the role of culture in promoting India’s soft power, with a special focus on links with key BRICS partners, especially China. The chapter discusses this within an historical perspective, particularly through Buddhism as, arguably, the most important and enduring idea to have emanated from Indic civilization and of particular significance in relation to China. Another important dimension of India’s international presence is its large and widespread English-speaking diaspora, increasingly viewed by the Indian government and corporations as a vital source of soft power. The chapter will go on to examine government efforts to promote Indian culture and contrast that with the success of the commercial and highly popular film industry, which has a global audience, thanks to the digitalization of commerce and media. India has the world’s second largest Internet population and its creative and cultural industries have the potential to circulate across various digital domains, resulting in globalized production, distribution and consumption practices.

Finally, the chapter will examine India’s global image as the world’s largest democracy, a particular distinction among the BRICS countries. India has retained and arguably strengthened democracy in a multi-lingual, multi-racial and multireligious society, a model now under threat in many Western democracies. Although India’s secular structures - both social and cultural - and pluralist ethos are being undermined by the current majoritarian government, the chapter argues that the still greater challenge for India’s soft power is its failure to eliminate poverty among so many of its citizens - India is home to the world’s largest number of people living in extreme poverty.

The rise in India’s global economic status has coincided with the relative economic decline of the West, creating the opportunity for an emerging economic power, such as India, to participate in global governance structures hitherto dominated by the US-led Western alliance (Narlikar, 2017; Karnard, 2018). Given its history as the only major democracy that did not blindly follow the West during the Cold War years but pursued a non-aligned foreign policy, India has the potential now to take up a more significant leadership role globally. Despite growing economic and strategic relations with Washington, it maintains close ties with other major and emerging powers, most notably with its BRICS partners. In addition, India’s presence at the Group of 77 developing nations and at the G-20 leading economies of the world has been effective in articulating a Southern perspective on global affairs.

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