Interview: India’s Soft Power

Interview: India’s Soft Power


Joseph Nye defined soft power as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.” Ever since Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister and began travelling the world on carefully scripted, much publicized missions, a lot is being spoken about the country’s soft power – how the land of the Buddha, yoga and Shah Rukh Khan, and no longer just elephants and snake charmers, is out to conquer global hearts. But will India’s butter chicken masala really feed its foreign policies?

Daya Kishan Thussu’s Communicating India’s Soft Power: Buddha to Bollywood, publicized as the first book-length study on India’s soft power, helps deliver some answers. First published in 2013 by Palgrave/Macmillan in their Global Public Diplomacy Series, the book’s South Asia edition has been published by Sage India this year.

Thussu is Professor of International Communication and Co-Director of the India Media Centre, Westminster University. He has authored and edited 16 books on global media and communications. He speaks to The Diplomat about his book, India as a soft power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s successes with the diaspora and his failure in projecting the legacy of Indian Islam, and the current environment of minority persecution in the country.

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How did your book happen?

It emerged from a conference I had convened at the University of Westminster in collaboration with the Public Diplomacy Division of Ministry of External Affairs. Little work has been done on this aspect, which is the communicative aspect of ideas. Indian influence outside India has a very long history. That’s the first point to make. The general discourse about soft power, which is a relatively recent idea, needs to be historicized and looked at in a slightly different way. What constitutes India today as a nation state is first of all a very old civilization. That was my starting point, to look at India not as a standard kind of soft power, but think of an Indian version of it.

Can India’s soft power help it get a lead in global politics?

Only if the government makes a concerted effort to promote it – Indian soft power has enormous influence in the world – from religious and spiritual aspects to popular culture and its IT-related expertise, crucial in today’s increasingly digitized world.

You’ve said that India has the potential to play a crucial role in ending the “clash of civilizations?” In what ways? Do you see that happening?

The current government in India is obviously not particularly keen to emphasize the historical legacy of Islam that India has, or South Asia has. If the British had not divided us we would have been the world’s largest Muslim country, in terms of absolute numbers. Indian Islam because of its history and interactions with Indic religions, like Hinduism and Buddhism or Jainism, has a very strong tradition of tolerance, Sufism for example. So my argument was that India had the potential to promote a different version of Islam, which is more tolerant than the kind of extremist version that we see in many Arab countries. However, with the BJP government coming to power and the so-called “love jihad” and “gharwapsi” gaining currency in the media, there has been very little attempt to promote an Indian Islam within the global sphere. It is a shame and a missed opportunity.

It is also a reality that if India wants to be taken seriously internationally it has to deal with its fault lines – social and political fault lines, and religious divisions. My argument that India could build a counter narrative was essentially based on the idea that India has a different version of Islam and it has a lot of Muslims living within the country. I don’t think our governments and policy makers, even before Modi came to power, really took this particularly seriously. Think of Buddhism, for instance. Think of what the Chinese government is doing. China has the largest population of Buddhists in the world. You go to Shanghai or Beijing, and look at their museums. How wonderfully they have kept all the amazing Buddhist art, paintings, etc. All this in a country where it was seriously undermined for many decades. Even today religion is not something they celebrate, but they’ve used Buddhism as part of their public diplomacy in Central, East and Southeast Asia. I have to say to Modi’s credit that he did promote Buddhism. Wherever he went, in Japan or South Korea or China, he emphasized the Buddhist links that India has with these countries. I don’t think the government has done as much for Islam. If anything, generally speaking, there is a sense of persecution – minorities being threatened in this Hinduized version of history and Indian civilization. And you see that in public discourses in the last year or two which I think is a very unfortunate thing.

What do you think of Modi’s engagement with the diaspora?

I think what Modi has been good at is connecting with the Indian diaspora. Of course, it is contrived in the sense that it is only talking to diasporas in certain parts of the world, mostly the U.S. and the U.K., largely the upper class, business-oriented. This diaspora as part of the foreign policy establishment is quite significant. I think the Modi government, and prior to that, the [Atal Behari] Vajpayee government, engaged with this dimension of the diaspora and it has created a certain perception of India, certainly in the U.S., but also and parts of Europe.

I think Modi’s very clear attempt to woo this constituency has been very successful, for example when he came to London in November last year, apparently there were 80,000 people at the rally and they can’t all have been a hired RSS [the right-wing Hindu nationalist organization, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] crowd. So there is something in this area, there is energy and there is movement. The way the prime minister and external affairs minister have handled certain situations, for example the Yemen rescue, is a case in point. [External Affairs Minister Sushma] Swaraj was personally tweeting about it, something refreshingly original for an Indian foreign minister. I see it as a very positive sign. The Manmohan Singh government was not as active as Modi’s. In the globalized world, the Indian diaspora is the second largest diaspora in the world and the largest English speaking diaspora. In terms of connectivity, in terms of spreading our culture around the world, it’s a very important instrument.

India’s dealings with its neighbors, like Nepal, have not been particularly flattering. Isn’t there a gap between what India projects through its soft power and its foreign policies?

This is not something typical to Indian policy establishments. The Western world is particularly good at it as far as hypocrisy is concerned. Think of Syria, think of Iran, think of Vietnam. There’s a long history of how in the name of democracy and freedom so much damage has been done. In comparison, India has a very clean record.

How would you rate the current global perception of India? What keeps India from becoming truly attractive to outsiders?

By and large I would argue it is positive, though there are problems arising out of our persistent and pervasive poverty, caste, class and gender-related violence. India is not seen as an emerging power that will threaten our, as in the Western, interests, unlike China. (Through) our food, films, artistes, writers, there has been a very long tradition of interacting with the wider world. Think of Ravi Shankar, he was popularizing classical music way back in the 60s. India could do a lot more, with its yoga, cuisine, languages and philosophies. Goodwill is there, the foundation is there, the diaspora is there. And now in terms of purchasing power parity, India is the third-largest economy in the world. It’s a massive market, so there is an economic interest in India, more recently with Modi’s Make-in-India program doing things that China did in the 1990s.

But to my mind the fundamental problem in India, and one that is not going to go away soon, is its failure to provide decent living conditions to a majority of its people. One can talk about India’s great culture and civilization, cinema and whatever. Despite very impressive economic growth through the last three decades, India remains home to the [world’s] largest number of extremely poor people, 300 million plus. And here we are speaking of abject poverty, extreme poverty. At one level the country has the capacity to send a vessel, Mangalayaan, to Mars for the cost of a major Hollywood film. But they can’t address the key issues, like basic health or basic sanitation. Bangladesh has a better record than us. Unless we are able to address that, our soft power will sound hollow.

Another thing is the idea of creating this us-vs-them discourse, not thankfully by the PM himself but certainly people and groups around him. That’s quite worrisome. If you emphasis those fault lines rather than trying to bridge them and sorting out the more fundamental problems Indian soft power will remain an ideal.

We must develop our own version of how to deal with poverty. In my book I discussed this under the heading, De-Westoxication: Going beyond Marx and Macaulay. We have to think of new approaches and not just look at the West for models and ideas because the Chinese have achieved a lot more employing a very indigenous model, what they call capitalism with Chinese characteristics. I am not recommending that we should have censorship, etc., but to get its balance right. They educated women, they provided basic health services and education to all and today the literacy rate in China is nearly 100 per cent. We are still struggling. It’s a shame that next year we will be celebrating 70 years of independence and we are still talking about clean toilets.

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