Articles and Commentaries |
March 6, 2019

Soft Power: An Important Aspect of Foreign Policy

Soft power has been defined as the ability of nations to shape the preferences and
influence the behaviour of other nations through appeal and attraction as opposed to coercion. It consists of three major categories – a nation’s culture, its political values and its foreign policy. These categories affect the image and perception of the country with respect to the wider international community.

Soft Power is a term that entered foreign policy lexicon in the 1990s when Joseph Nye, an American scholar, referred to it as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment”. It includes the ability to affect others though persuasion, agenda framing and positive attraction using culture, values, inherent knowledge, spirituality, wisdom and foreign policy. In other words, soft power has the ability to affect the behaviour of others by influencing their preferences through persuasion.

It represents one of the newest frameworks through which India can understand and leverage its role in the international order. In this backdrop, it is timely and appropriate to focus on India’s rise as a soft power nation and also engage in discussions on the need for an India-centric discourse on soft power; how to maximise and deploy soft power assets, particularly to furthering national, regional and global interests.

India has, from time immemorial, been one of the foremost cultural forces in the world. It was known as ‘Vishwaguru’ as India provided cultural, spiritual and intellectual leadership. Let me quote what some of the eminent personalities from the West had said about India. “India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great-grandmother of tradition. Our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only,” said well-known American writer Mark Twain. Scientist Albert Einstein had said, “We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made.” Similarly, Max Mueller, German scholar remarked, “If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions, I should point to India.”

India has spread its knowledge and culture to all corners of the world. In fact, knowledge-seekers from other countries used to come to well-known Indian Universities like Takshashila and Nalanda. History tells us that India’s educational strength was its soft power in those days. In 1893, Swami Vivekananda attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions, where he was able to persuade and attract, numerous people from all over the world through his charisma and his spiritual and cultural teachings based on timeless and universal Indian values.

Today, one need only to look at the spread of Hinduism – a way of life which evolved over thousands of years of our civilization – and Buddhism across the world, or the popularity of Indian cuisine and cinema. It is therefore clear that India has had an undeniable impact in shaping the minds of people across the world through appeal rather than force. And now, as India continues its rise in the international order, it is important that we recognize the cultural impact that the nation has had on the world, and leverage it in a way that is best for the nation.

From Yoga to spirituality to Bollywood; Bharatnatyam to Buddhism; cuisine to tourism, India has immense potential to use its Soft Power for expanding its global outreach. As has been stated earlier, Soft Power is non-coercive. It has the power to create an attraction and influence opinions in a rather unobtrusive manner. India’s Soft Power should be used to combat the biggest menace humanity is facing in the present times – terrorism. While the governments normally have their own limitations, the biggest advantage of Soft Power is its ability to cut across all barriers and reach out to every segment.

Ours is one of the oldest civilizations with a rich culture and heritage. With the world becoming a global village and the social media further shrinking the barriers, the all-pervading presence of the internet should be used to project India’s Soft Power. As a matter of fact, India must use its moral and cultural strength to influence public opinion to establish a truly peaceful, just and more equitable world order. Public opinion world over should be built to isolate nations which shelter terrorists as terrorism is the enemy of mankind.

One of the major reasons for India’s respect all over the world is the non-violent manner in which we fought the colonial rule and attained independence. A country may obtain its desired outcomes in world politics in multiple ways, including through war or arm-twisting. But India never had ambitions of hegemony at any time and always believed in a peaceful co-existence with other nations in an equitable world order. India always believed in using soft power for the welfare and betterment of the entire humanity. That’s what is expounded in this Shanti mantra: “SarveBhavantuSukhinah, SarveSantuNiramaya, SarveBhadraniPaschyantu, Maa-kaschithdukhabaaghbhavet”, which means, let everybody be happy, let everybody be disease-free, let everyone see only the good things, may no one be subjected to miseries.

Although, it is important for countries to set agenda in world politics by attracting others through soft power, we should always remember what the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi had said, “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”

I am told that today, soft power forms an important aspect of foreign policy with many countries, including China, Japan and the US, including it as a part of their national policies. In India, the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), an arm of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), delineates India’s soft power resources and its articulations abroad.

Soft power is not restricted to culture alone. It can include any element of a country that is (or seems) attractive to other people, communities or countries. Below are some prominent examples of soft power:

  1. Cuisine – the popularity of dosa and butter chicken masala is an example of India’s soft power, while McDonald’s is America’s soft power.
  2. Democracy – The parliamentary democratic system of India definitely appeals to many people across the globe. The smooth manner in which power gets transferred from one party to another either at the national level or in various States is India’s USP.
  3. Films – I have already mentioned about Bollywood. Many of our actors like the legendary Amitabh Bachchan, Rajnikanth and Priyanka Chopra are popular in several countries. One of the best examples is the extreme popularity of ‘AwaraHoon’ song in Russia. The most recent example is that of ‘Baahubali’.
  4. Sports – India’s Sachin Tendulkar, M S Dhoni, Virat Kohli and Viswanathan Anand and many other sports stars are well known in many countries.
  5. People – Prominent Indian CEOs like Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai.
  6. Music and dance – Different genres of Indian music and various dance forms, including Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi, have legions of followers across the globe.
  7. Diaspora – The presence of Indian diaspora can be effectively leveraged through soft power to project India’s viewpoint and increase the outreach.

The Minister of State in the Ministry of External Affairs, General V K Singh, while outlining India’s soft power strategy to a question in the Lok Sabha in 2017, included India’s cultural traditions, activities such as Festivals of India conducted abroad, educational scholarships to foreigners, “technical assistance and capacity building inputs to partner countries” and extending of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to countries and communities in need.

(This article is a summary of the address delivered by Shri Venkaiah Naidu,
Hon’ble Vice President of India on 17
th December 2018 at the Conference on
Soft Power at New Delhi organised by India Foundation.)

(This article is carried in the print edition of March-April 2019 issue of India Foundation Journal.)




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