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How effective is India’s soft power?

Unlike China or Russia, India’s soft power initiatives are not centrally managed by the government (Sinha-Palit, 2017). Indeed, the government takes a backseat, while India’s creative and cultural industry, its religions and spirituality, as well as its active diaspora and commercial corporations help promote Indian interests abroad, a phenomenon likely to accelerate in a networked world. However, the intangible nature of soft power makes it hard, if not impossible, to measure. To increase India’s soft power, especially among other developing nations, would require India’s policymakers to seriously address the daily deprivation that millions of its citizens suffer. Images of India tend to highlight violence, inequality and the abuse of women, minorities and other disadvantaged sections of society.

Despite its impressive economic performance in the past two decades, India is still home to more poor people than the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa (Kohli, 2012; Dreze and Sen, 2013). On virtually every international index, India remains low in the ranking of nations: according to the UN-defined Human Development Index, India fared worst among its BRICS compatriots, ranking in 2018 at 129 out of total of 189 countries for which data was analysed (Human Development Report, 2019). Although in the past two decades the number of those in extreme poverty in democratic India has been significantly reduced by 300 million, its record pales in comparison with China, a one-party authoritarian state, which has been able to raise 700 million of its citizens out of extreme poverty. The exponents of India’s soft power must consider why India’s example of a multicultural democracy has not been generally appreciated by other developing countries, many of which view with admiration if not awe the Chinese model of development as worth emulating. India continues to be seen outside India as a nation of extreme poverty, social inequalities and communal strife.Yet India is a major donor to the least developed countries and, since 1964, the Indian Technical and Cooperation Programme has been a ‘visible symbol of India’s role and contribution to South-South cooperation’ and one of the ‘major pillars of India’s soft power diplomacy’ (Government of India, 2019: 245).

The Modi government’s reluctance to engage more fully with India’s 200 million Muslims - the world’s largest minority - is driven by a populist Hindu nationalism. Its emphasis in promoting India’s Buddhist and Hindu legacy is in striking contrast with its silence on the positive aspects of India’s Islamic legacy: had British imperialism not divided India in 1947, it would have been the world’s largest Muslim country in terms of population. The Islamic legacy -in terms of music, cuisine, language, arts and architecture - is intertwined in the cultural fabric of contemporary India (Ahmed, 2019). To exclude it from the national cultural narrative is likely to undermine India’s soft power efforts, especially among the 50 Muslim-majority nations in the world with which India has deep cultural and commercial ties. In addition, a large proportion of Indian Muslims are poor and marginalized, especially in terms of gender discrimination. If India has to evolve into a developed country, it cannot afford to ignore, let alone antagonize, its largest minority. Modi’s public diplomacy could focus instead on projecting India as home to a tolerant version of Islam, contributing to a ‘dialogue’ rather than ‘clash’ of civilizations.

Apart from ideological reasons, prompted by this majoritarian mindset, efforts to promote India’s soft power are also hampered by the rather limited resource base of its diplomatic infrastructure: the country has fewer than 1,000 diplomats serving in 169 missions and consulates across the globe: in comparison the figure for China is 7,500. As one commentator has rightly observed,‘India’s assets are countered by its considerable liabilities’ (Kugiel, 2017: 157). One result of such an under-resourced diplomatic service is that India has thus far not succeeded in its long-standing demand for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council or a more recent request to the membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

One way to deal with this structural problem is to encourage the commercial sector to participate in the policy arena, a pattern well-established in the US. Modi’s outreach to private think tanks to project an Indian perspective on global affairs has been generally successful. The most significant manifestation of this publicprivate partnership is the annual Raisina Dialogue, which marked its fifth anniversary in 2020. Organized by the Ministry of External Affairs in collaboration with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), India’s leading think tank based in New Delhi, this has emerged as a major international event where an Indian perspective on global issues is discussed and debated. The ORF is also a crucial organization in terms of India’s BRICS diplomacy, providing policy input and hosting events about BRICS-related issues. Other such collaborations include organizing events and conferences with the Gateway of India Dialogue, conducted with the Mumbaibased think-tank, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

Although India has traditionally followed a non-aligned foreign policy, eschewing Cold War bloc politics, under Modi’s leadership there has been an unmistakable shift towards the US, partly justified by the growing military, economic and cultural ties that bind the world’s largest and its richest democracies (Narlikar, 2017). The bilateral trade between the two nations is worth over SI20 billion annually and the strong and vocal Indian diaspora makes the relationship multi-faceted. Modi’s government has cooperated with the US in such areas as defence and intelligence sharing and in checking Chinese advances in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. Nevertheless, India is also keen to emphasize the multi-polarity of world power relationships. It has been suggested that‘India has not sacrificed one dimension of power for another but is in the midst of building up a comprehensive smart power strategy’ (Kugiel, 2017: 57).

Beyond majoritarian considerations, Modi and his mandarins should recognize that India’s soft power will only be effective internationally when the country is able to substantially reduce, if not eliminate, the pervasive and persistent poverty in which a majority of its citizens live. If this could be achieved within a multicultural and multi-lingual democracy, then India would indeed offer a new development model and, together with a more effective public diplomacy, its status as a major civilizational and economic power would receive due recognition around the world. Until this happens, as one commentator notes: ‘India remains in a transitory phase where its hard power is yet to become preponderant even regionally to the point where it can meaningfully project its soft power in order to create a political environment conducive to its international goals’ (Mukheijee, 2014: 55). Within the context of the BRICS group, India could deploy its considerable cultural power to follow the Buddhist idea of the Madhya Marg (the middle path), becoming a link between its BRICS partners China and Russia, and the Western world.

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