The Pulse | Diplomacy | South Asia

The Trouble With India’s Soft Power Apparatus

New Delhi needs a more coherent strategy for where it chooses to invest in Indian Cultural Centers overseas.

By Anubhav Roy for
The Trouble With India’s Soft Power Apparatus
Credit: Facebook/ Swami Vivekananda Cultural Centre, Paramaribo

Visitors to the official websites of India’s diplomatic missions overseas are nowadays being greeted by prompts offering to redirect them to the “Performance Smart Board,” an interactive, one-stop dashboard highlighting the initiatives, achievements, and assets of India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). One of its tabs intended to reflect the “global footprint” of Indian diplomacy geo-tags the Indian Cultural Centers (ICCs) dotting various countries. With many of them named after prominent figures like Vivekananda, Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru, and Shastri, the government of India assigns these centers a “significant role in promoting India’s soft power strength” through an array of activities, events, and programs, from organizing workshops on yoga and Hindi to showcasing folk dance spectacles and hosting conferences.

Mostly stationed in capital cities, the 36 ICCs operational at present leave no stones unturned in promoting India’s cultural kaleidoscope with enterprising zest. The center in neighboring Colombo, as a sample, hosted conclaves for the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas and the Hindi Diwas, an academic lecture on “ancient Indian knowledge traditions,” and a Bharat Natyam recital within the first month of 2020. When glanced at on a list, the location of the ICCs appears to be fairly commensurate to the radius of each region they intend to cover: there are six centers in South Asia; five each in Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia; four in the Asia-Pacific; three in Central Asia; and one each in Iran, Russia, and China. When examined closely on a map of the world, however, their spread and potential for outreach in accordance with India’s bilateral and regional priorities seem inadequate. With the exceptions of Iran and Mexico, the Middle East and North America are not catered to despite most of their constituent countries being key trading and strategic partners of India.

One could, of course, argue that the maintenance of excess diplomatic assets overseas – especially cultural centers designed to spend state funds lavishly – would be redundant in regions with a dense presence of diasporic Indians, who organically act as the unofficial flag-bearers of India’s culture. Such an argument would, however, be contravened by the absence of ICCs in the Nordic and East European subregions, where the influence of the Indian diaspora remains scant even as India’s foreign policy stakes rise. That argument would also not be helped by the concentration of three ICCs in the Caribbean, two in South Africa, and one in Fiji despite each housing a sizeable populace of Indian origin. Moreover, India’s official sources seem to display an odd lack of coherence in mapping the ICCs abroad, with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) omitting the ICC in Australia from its list; an MEA annexure erroneously claiming the existence of official centers in Saudi Arabia and the UAE; and the MEA’s “Performance Smart Dashboard” spotting only 34 ICCs.

India, evidently, is yet to standardize the policy practice of sealing and emblemizing the positive shifts in its bilateral alliances with the installation of ICCs. New Delhi, for instance, is negotiating a free-trade agreement with Peru, where Indian companies like Reliance, TCS, Tech Mahindra, IFFCO, Zuari Agro, and Redbus enjoy notable penetration. In May 2018, Indian Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu included Peru in his first official overseas tour. Yet, the opportunity to inaugurate an ICC in the third-largest country of the South American continent was missed. Other countries that hold enough bilateral worth for India but not enough diasporic goodwill ambassadors — such as Nigeria, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, and the Philippines — still lack ICCs. This inadequacy seems unavoidably glaring, as robust cultural diplomacy has traditionally been a primary pillar of India’s soft power.

Since the posting of the first ICCs at Moscow and Jakarta in 1989, India has been adding at least one new cultural center for each passing year, on average, instituting a network that appears encouragingly more than that of China, which maintains 20 cultural centers. Since 2004, however, China has banked on a more premium – even if controversial – apparatus to invigorate its cultural diplomacy further: the Confucius Institutes (CIs). Fettered to its Ministry of Education for their initial emphasis on promoting languages, the CIs now precede China’s cultural centers in terms of repute, seeking to rival a British Council, Alliance Française, or Goethe Institut. Despite their credibility being dented by allegations of censorship and corporate espionage, Beijing continues to operate about 500 CIs globally in collaboration with top universities, eclipsing India’s network of ICCs.

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Such aggressive expansion is unsurprising, given the global curiosity – even necessity – for China’s languages, script, and culture, which has boomed along with the Asian giant’s clout as a global investor and influencer. On the “Soft Power 30” rankings of 2019, China broke into the top 10 on the sub-indices of engagement and cultural appeal. It would, nevertheless, be unfair to expect the ICCs to match the demand, financing, or expanse enjoyed by China’s CIs. With that said, it is also true that India needs to break past clichés and improve its game in the institutional promotion and proliferation of its vast cultural vibrancy overseas. In this regard, ensuring the stationing of an ICC in each of the top 20 trading partner countries of India – including Belgium, the UAE, Nigeria, and Singapore – could be a welcome step. The new additions must, of course, continue to be well-reasoned. The UAE, for instance, has the highest concentration of Indian migrants in the world, some of whom run an unofficial Indian Social and Cultural Center at Abu Dhabi. Yet, given the growing worth of the Emirates for New Delhi, an ICC in Dubai or Sharjah would be quite warranted.

Instead of rashly rushing to outshine the soft power assets of other countries, it would be most prudent for India to focus on carefully sowing each ICC in harmony with the progress of its bilateral engagements and the course of its foreign policy. Take the case of the changes and constants in India’s relationship with Israel. On one hand, New Delhi’s multisectoral partnership with Tel Aviv has deepened at an unprecedented pace under the Modi administration. On the other, with its ties to Islamic countries like Iraq and the UAE growing in parallel, India has continued to pull out tricks from the traditional nonalignment playbook vis-à-vis Palestine, perpetuating aid and even openly expressing hope for seeing it as an “independent state.” To suit this balancing act, the diplomatic impingement of an ICC in Israel, which appears to be in the cards, must be considered before instituting it.

The proposed ICC in Israel can be posted at the demographically mixed, heritage city of Jerusalem instead of the relatively mono-ethnic, diplomatically conducive metropolitan of Tel Aviv. Several rationales may justify this. One, an ICC in not a consular outpost per se and shall formally be an overseas arm of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), not the MEA. Two, the century-old Hebrew University of Jerusalem – which promotes Indian studies – is a feasible fit for intellectual associations. Three, Jerusalem holds a fascinating site of cultural significance to India: a 13th-century shrine built by the followers of the Sufi saint, Baba Farid. Four, an office in Jerusalem may be seen as India’s symbolic compensation for its 2017 vote in the UN General Assembly against the United States’ recognition of the disputed city as Israel’s capital.

Anubhav Roy is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.