Distinguished Lectures

India’s Soft Power Diplomacy

  • H.H.S.Viswanathan

    By: H.H.S.Viswanathan
    Venue: IIM, Tiruchirappalli
    Date: September 04, 2019

At the outset, I would like to thank the IIM, Tiruchirapally for giving me this privilege of inter-acting with the students and the Faculty of this prestigious institution. I am delighted to be here in this historic city after a long time. I must also express my sincere gratitude to the External Publicity Division of the Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India for giving me this honor under the Distinguished Lectures Series. Let me give you an idea about this Series. Governments keep projecting their Foreign Policy ideas in foreign countries through formal and informal channels. One of the informal channels is Public Diplomacy, which has become very popular in recent times. We will talk about Public Diplomacy in a while. However, Government of India realized that apart from communications with foreign audiences, it is vital to have them with our own people. In a vibrant democracy like India, people not only have a right to know about the details and the making of Foreign Policy but should also contribute to the making of it. This flows from the principle that "Foreign Policy is too serious a matter to be left only to Diplomats.” The Distinguished Lecture Series aims to generate conversations in Academic Institutions with Retired Diplomats. I am keenly looking forward to a stimulating conversation with all of you.

What is Soft Power?

Power in International Relations (IR) is defined in relational terms, as the ability of actor A to influence the behavior of actor B to get the outcome he wants. (Nicolas Blarel 2012). That is to say, there is no absolute power. Traditionally, military and economic powers were considered the major factors. However, some other intangible aspects have also been given importance by many strategic thinkers even in the past. The term Soft Power was first used by the eminent IR scholar Joseph Nye in his book "Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power.” In the book, he identified three dimensions of power; coercion by military force, influence by offering economic incentives and finally the ability to co-opt other states by the nation’s appeal based on its culture and values. The argument is that other states modify their preferences because of their favorable perception of you. They like your story and your narrative.

Personally, I have never been a great fan of this concept of Soft Power even though I consider Joseph Nye as a leading IR expert. The problem lies in the definition of the concept. It is very imprecise, to say the least. Is Soft Power a product or a process? I would say it is more the latter than the former. Let me give an example. Normally military power is considered hard and hence looked down upon in the context of Soft Power. However, when it is used for Peacekeeping or disaster relief, it is a humanitarian and welcome activity. Similarly, projection of one’s culture is considered good; however, aggressive projection of a big and historical nation’s culture in smaller countries, particularly in the neighborhood, can be interpreted as cultural imperialism. Hence, the important thing is how one uses the instruments. Soft Power ultimately becomes a process and not a product.

Three factors mainly determine the Foreign Policy of a country: its geography, history and capabilities. (David M Malone, Perspectives). Geography is a given. As they say, a country cannot choose its neighbors. Hence, neighborhood policy becomes vital for any nation. Normally, engagements and conflicts are more pronounced with neighbors. History determines the mind sets, outlooks and visions of countries. They also determine some of the linkages with others. Capabilities are what a nation acquires over a period of time. These could be in the military, economic or technological areas. With new capabilities, the Foreign Policy approaches of a country evolves. New interests outside of neighborhood develop. Terms like "extended neighborhood’ and "strategic interests” have become common usages in International Relations.

In the context of ‘Soft Power”, capabilities become relevant. How do you protect your interests? What are the instruments you use? Strategic thinkers over the ages have asked these questions. Our own Kautilya in his Arthashastra, talks of the Six Stratagems or Shadgunyas and the four Upayas or instruments to be used. These are Saam, Dhaan, Bhed and Dhand. Of these, the first two preferences are for peaceful means and incentives.

At the most fundamental level Soft Power is about winning the hearts and minds of people. Hence, there has to be a people centric approach. Governments cannot do beyond facilitating the process. Let me give you two examples. In the last century, there were only two instances of the idea of India becoming very popular among a large section of the global population. The first was during our freedom struggle with Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of non-violent non-cooperation. The second was during the 1960’s and the Hippie movement when many in the West got attracted to Yoga, Meditation, Indian Classical Music and Indian spirituality. In both these instances, the Government had very little to do with their propagation. In fact, in the first case, the Government of the time was British who did their best to discredit the concept. Even in the second case, the Government of India was not particularly encouraging.

Nonetheless, governments all over are nowadays facilitating the spread of positive ideas from their countries. This would also include arts, culture, music, philosophy, sports and cuisine. India is no exception to this rule. In fact, Government of India realizes that it has an abundance of these resources. So, why not use them to further our interests in a subtle manner.

The operative term here is "subtle”. Using Soft Power to achieve specific goals is a contradiction in terms and can be counter-productive. Ideally, Soft Power dissemination should be neutral without any reference to our interests.

Can Soft Power by itself achieve Foreign Policy Goals?

It is obvious that Soft Power may be a necessary condition for achieving goals, but is not a sufficient condition. This is because Foreign Policy outcomes are not unilateral decisions. Their success depends on other nations. Their interests play a crucial role on how successful we are. If our goals are opposed to their national interests, they would not tow our line even if they like our culture and civilization. That is where use of some aspects of "hard power” would come into play. That does not automatically imply use of force. There are other instruments of persuasion. Nonetheless, the fact cannot be denied that Soft power "lubricates” other instruments in Diplomacy. If a country is appreciative of our values and culture, it may be pre-disposed towards avoiding an adversarial position. Hence, during decision-making occasions, it could tend towards a favorable one provided it is not against its national interests.

What are India’s strengths and weaknesses in Soft Power?

While making this assessment, one should not lose sight of the product and process aspects we talked about earlier. Both are critical.

The most important element is India’s long history, culture and civilization. These have attracted both intellectuals and common folk from across the globe to India. If they were not attractive, so many brilliant minds would not be working as Indologists. In the 1980s, the famous theatre personality Peter Brook produced the Mahabharata with a universal cast. The impact was spectacular. The great Indian epic became popular in the far corners of the world over night.

India is fortunate to have all the major religions of the world. Four are homegrown: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Four came from outside: Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This adds to the incentives for the religiously minded foreigners to visit India. The international media coverage of the Khumbmela is testimony to the admiration of other countries for India and how it has kept up its beliefs and traditions over millennia.

Religious tourism into India is a major factor in our external relations. Apart from Hindu religious sites like Varanasi, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Vaishnao Devi, Amarnath, Tirupathy, Sabarimala, Tanjavoor, Madurai etc., a large number also come for places of interest to other religions. India is the most favored destination for Buddhist pilgrims. This is not surprising because most of the places associated with Lord Buddha’s life are in India. Throughout the year, there is a steady stream of visitors from the ASEAN countries, Japan, Sir Lanka and Myanmar to Bodh Gaya and Nalanda. Christianity and Judaism in India are also very old and there are historic Churches and Synagogues in South India. Speaking of Islam, the Dargas of Sufi saints like Moinuddin Chishti and NIzzamuddin Aulia attract thousands of devotees.

Connected to religious aspects of India are Yoga and Meditation, which have become household terms in most countries. The health aspects of these are being researched and propagated by well know physicians and doctors. Government of India did well by making the United Nations declare June 21 as the Global Yoga Day a few years ago.

Equally important are the music, dance, art and architecture of India. Even though the Taj Mahal is the most famous monument of India, foreign tourists are discovering thousands of other historical and archeological sites all over India. These visits will certainly have a positive effect on their attitude towards our country. Propagation of our culture is nothing new. In earlier times, we called it "Cultural Diplomacy”. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) under the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) does pioneering work in not only disseminating our culture abroad but also encouraging exposure of other cultures in India to encourage a cultural dialogue.

Bollywood has been projected as a great Soft Power tool for India. Sometimes there is exaggeration of this aspect. It is true that Bollywood movies are popular among the people of many countries. However, it is equally true that Bollywood does not figure high among its peer competitors. For decades now, Indian cinema has not figured prominently in any of the famous Film Festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Venice or Karlovy Vary. Let us look at the size of it. Hollywood’s worldwide box office receipts and international diffusion are far greater than those of Bollywood. The latter’s success is in a limited "echo chamber” of Non-resident Indians (NRIs), People of Indian Origin (PIOs) and some India lovers. One has also to mention here the adverse effects of Bollywood on the Indian regional cinema, which tends to be marginalized. Having said all that, the attractiveness of Bollywood, particularly its music and dance deserves a lot of credit.

Indian Cuisine is a major attraction for foreigners. There is universal appeal for its variety and sophistication. There may not be a single big city in the world without at least two or three Indian Restaurants. They all do great business. It is joked that the national dish of UK today is CTM or Chicken Tikka Masala.

Indian Diaspora namely NRIs and PIOs play a vital role in projecting its Soft Power. Both put together add up to twenty million. They are spread across all continents and have become prosperous, famous and influential over the last two decades. They not only help in disseminating our culture but also have, on occasions, contributed to promoting our Foreign Policy goals. The best example of this was during the negotiations of the Indo-US Nuclear Deal in the early years of the first decade of this century. Many influential Indians in USA did remarkable work in lobbying Congressmen and Senators and bringing them to our point of view. The Indian Diaspora is becoming a real asset as more and more of them achieve success in their respective fields in different countries.

One important aspect of Soft Power that is not often discussed is the power to lead by example. Mahatma Gandhi could do it. Others will respect and admire us only if we do what we preach. They would judge us by our commitments to our promises. This is particularly relevant in the case of Development Partnership Projects in Developing Countries. In International Relations, nothing is more important than credibility of one’s statements.

India, at present, faces the challenges of an important emerging power. Hence, it has to play multiple roles. Our interests are both with the developing world and with major powers. Sometimes, others could feel that we are running with the hares and hunting with the hounds. It is a delicate balancing act that India has to perform constantly. It is easy to convince the Foreign Governments, since they are in the same business and can understand the compulsions of other Governments. The problem is to convince the common citizens of those countries. That is where the articulation of our narrative becomes important. Is our story credible? Is it interesting? Does it evoke respect?

Public Diplomacy is the new tool to deal with these issues. The idea is to communicate directly to the citizenry in simple terms. These have to be devoid of jargons and overt propaganda. Earlier, these used to done through the conventional media and lectures/seminars. The advent of Social Media has changed the face of Public Diplomacy drastically. Today, even national leaders are resorting to Tweeting to make their ideas known. Here, PM Narendra Modi is leading by example and encouraging all officers in the Government to leverage Social Media for communication with the public.

Soft Power is not "image polishing”. It is much more than that. Mere image polishing without corresponding improvement in reality can be counterproductive.

Others judge us also by our ability to understand and appreciate them. Openness, humility and empathy go a long way in Diplomacy. Let me quote the French born American historian Jacques Barzun who said " To see ourselves as others see us is a very rare and remarkable quality; however, in International Relations it is even rarer and more useful if you can see others as they see themselves.” Real communication can be there only if you see them in their perspective.

One way of winning hearts and minds is not to be obsessed with projecting our successes and achievements all the time, but also try to celebrate those of others. Famous Film Festivals where movies from all over the world compete on an equal footing like Cannes, Berlin or Venice generate a great deal of goodwill for the hosts. Why do countries fight for hosting international sporting events like Olympics? It is a way of showing appreciation of universal talents. India has increased its activities in this respect. ICCR’s objective is to not only promote Indian culture abroad but also make Indians aware of other cultures. Care has to be taken that this is done without even a hint of condescension or patronizing.

To conclude, I would say that even if the concept of Soft Power is not precise, Joseph Nye did well to flag this important aspect in Foreign Policies of countries. There is no country in the world today, which does not attach importance to this factor. India is in a good position in this respect due to its enormous resources that come in handy in increasing the country’s attractiveness to others. Academics and intellectuals can play a critical role in this endeavor.


Joseph Nye: Bound to Lead; The changing Nature of American Power

Joseph Nye: Soft Power: The means to Success in World Politics

Blarel Nicolas: India: the next Super Power? India’s Soft Power: from potential to reality?

Rohan Mukherjee: The false promise of India’s Soft Power

Dhruva Jaishankar: India Rising: Soft Power and the World’s largest democracy

Disclaimer :-The opinions/views expressed in the Lectures are author's own and do not represent the views of the Ministy of External Affairs.