India’s Waning Soft Power

"The beautiful, imperfect and still work-in-progress ‘Idea of India’ that inspired a Mandela, a Vaclav Havel or a Barack Obama is in retreat."

India’s Waning Soft Power

Leading political scientist and former dean of the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Joseph Nye, had propounded the theory of soft power. He had described soft power as, “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.”

Given India’s civilisational depth, entrenched democracy and commitment to morality and ‘unity in diversity’, it was only a matter of time before India recaptured global imagination. The post-liberalization India opened itself to the global highway and found an interested market for its intangible wares and values that accompanied the ‘Idea of India’. Even before the conceptual articulation of the term soft power, former Chinese Ambassador to India, Hu Shih, had famously said, “India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border.”

The national treasure trove was brimming with vivid antiquity, yoga, spiritualism, thriving entertainment industry, culture, civility and polity that prided on plurality, non-violence and independent institutions that reflected the nobility of its hallowed Constitution -- the attraction was instantaneous and palpable. Except suddenly, something seems amiss and barring the hard-sell of yoga, the undeniable promise of Indian soft power is missing, and perceptions in the neighbourhood warrant concerns.

The 2019 Statista Global ranking for the top 30 countries on soft power did not have India. Instead, countries like China, the Russian Federation, Turkey, etc., made the surprising cut.

Despite the brouhaha of India having ‘arrived on the world stage’ and with the whirlwind trips by its national leadership, the rare lead in celebrating and appropriating the ‘International Yoga Day’ notwithstanding, the perceptions about India were not as rose-tinted as internally claimed. While the likes of China, Russia and Turkey were indeed talked about globally, a lot of that had to do with their belligerent, expansionist and aggressive stands as opposed to any winning appeal. Yet India punched below them?

The usual practice is to rubbish such rankings by international agencies, indulge in some whataboutery and to persist with the convenient echo-chamber bravado of India having finally ‘arrived on the world stage.’ The other option is to go beyond jingoistic fervour, auto-denial mode and, instead, to introspect and question ourselves.

Beyond China and Pakistan, why are our traditional allies in Nepal, Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka seeking what they ostensibly call a more ‘balanced’ relationship (euphemism for correcting the traditional ‘pro-India’ tilt) with Delhi? Why are the regional murmurs of India’s ‘big brother’ attitude growing louder and louder? Indeed, China has baited them with its supposed largesse (read, debt-traps), but that automatically suggests that Indian soft power could not compensate for Chinese ‘payments’ or reassure them of protection against the nefarious designs of the Dragon?

A great game is afoot in South East Asia; Graphical Representation

The tone, tenor and visible moorings of any dispensation of the day impact its perceived soft power. Nye says Trump’s presidency has eroded American soft power with its inconsistencies with truth, arrogance, and a culture of intolerant politics that has debased the currency of trust and respect. This would not be the view shared by Donald Trump himself or by his loyalists, who are enthralled by his suggestions of ‘hard power’, even as impartial and unbiased reactions from across the world would suggest otherwise. It is important to question if we, too, have been carried away by our make-believe muscularity and ‘arrival on the global centre-stage’?

Culturally, the hardening of anchorage from the inclusive tenets of pacifism to disconcerting nativism, to now even to revisionism, has polarised our society like never before. Societal dissonance and communal riots were always an integral part of the Indian reality and its faultlines, but the sanctified contextualisation of the same as an inevitable step to correct and rewrite history does incalculable disservice to the perceived spirit of India.

The ‘us versus them’ narrative within the country was never more glaring, and the same will not go unnoticed globally. Faith has got weaponised and the accompanying ‘divide’, seemingly institutionalised. But it is militating not just in the eyes of the internal ‘others’, but even a neighbouring nation with the same majoritarian faith has provocatively decided to define its own version of holy texts by counter-claiming and appropriating places of divine births!

Political discourse, language and temper have hit new lows. Proudly independent institutions which were relatively free of political interference and biases are said to be creaking. Statesmanship of a Nehru, Narasimha Rao, Vajpayee or a Manmohan Singh is on the retreat – intellect is pooh-poohed as ‘pseudo-intellectual’, liberality as ‘libtards’ and the moral conscience of the nation, i.e. Mahatma Gandhi, now shares public imagination with the man who shot him. All in the name of ‘correcting history’.

Those questioning the direction of the country could be easily labelled seditious and ‘anti-national’. The beautiful, imperfect and still work-in-progress ‘Idea of India’ that was slowly coming out of its closeted shell and which inspired a Mandela, a Vaclav Havel or a Barack Obama is now slowly closing those doors, and working on new found uber-nationalistic impulse that has so far not benefited the socio-economic upliftment, economy, fight against the pandemic or even the restive borders.

It is true that soft power alone does not suffice in the 21st century, and it needs to be added to hard power, to truly act as an invaluable force-multiplier. The required ‘smart power’ of today need not be either soft or hard, but both. Conversely, China is over-accelerating on its hard power and that could undo its own cause, as increasingly the real intent behind the Chinese ‘aid’, is getting questioned.

That cannot lull us into complacency or status quoist impulses. Ironically, we are underleveraging the assets that we have, and which initially wowed the world, and we instead posture with those that we neither possess nor perhaps need to possess. The sad diminishment of our soft power in recent years is a fact, and it shows in our ranking.

(Commissioned in and subsequently commanded 17th Rajput, the author fought in the 1965 & 1971 wars and various counter-insurgency operations in J&K and North East. He was the Military, Naval & Air Attaché for the East & South Africa Region. Later he was the Military Secretary to Presidents, KR Narayanan & APJ Abdul Kalam. He was the ‘Colonel of the Regiment’ of the Rajput Regiment, President’s Bodyguards, and the Army Physical Training Corps. He retired as the Director General of Military Training. He is currently a columnist for leading publications.)

(This article was first published in 'The Deccan Herald' and has been reproduced with due permission from the author in the larger interest of the military fraternity. Views expressed are the authors own and do not reflect the editorial policy of MVI.)


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