The notion of soft power is relatively new in international discourse. The term was coined by Harvard’s Joseph Nye to describe the extraordinary strengths of the United States that went well beyond American military dominance. In the information age, Joseph Nye has argued, it is often the side which has the better story that wins. India must remain the “land of the better story”. As a society with a free press and a thriving mass media, with a people whose creative energies are daily encouraged to express themselves in a variety of appealing ways, India has an extraordinary ability to tell stories that are more persuasive and attractive than those of its rivals. This is not about propaganda; indeed, it will not work if it is directed from above, least of all by government. But its impact, though intangible, can be huge.
To take one example: Afghanistan is clearly a crucial country for India’s national security, as it is for the United States’. President Obama has spoken of reinforcing American and NATO military capacity there. But the most interesting asset for India in Afghanistan doesn’t come out of a military mission: it doesn’t have one. It comes, instead, from one simple fact: till a couple of years ago, you simply couldn’t try to telephone an Afghan at 8.30 in the evening. Why? Because that was when the Indian TV soap opera Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, dubbed into Dari, was telecast on Tolo TV, and no one wished to miss it. It was reportedly the most popular television show in Afghan history (at least until the onset of Afghan Idol in 2009), considered directly responsible for a spike in the sale of generator sets and even for absences from religious functions which clash with its broadcast times. (This had provoked visceral opposition to the show from the mullahs, who clamoured for it to be shut down.) But until the series ended in 2010, Saas so thoroughly captured the public imagination in Afghanistan that, in this deeply conservative Islamic country where family problems are usually hidden behind the veil, it was an Indian TV show that had come to dominate society’s discussion of family issues. I have read reports of wedding banquets being interrupted so that the guests could huddle around the television for half an hour, and even of an increase in crime at 8.30 pm because watchmen are sneaking a look at the TV rather than minding the store. One Reuters dispatch in 2008 recounted how robbers in Mazar-e-Sharief stripped a vehicle of its wheels and mirrors during the telecast time and wrote on the car, in an allusion to the show’s heroine, ‘Tulsi Zindabad’ (long live Tulsi). That’s soft power, and India does not have to thank the government or charge the taxpayer for its exercise. Instead, Indians, too, can simply say, ‘Tulsi Zindabad’.
Till 2010, you couldn’t call an Afghan at 8.30 pm. Why? Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi was being aired.
This helps explain India’s growing consciousness of its soft power. I do not argue that hard power will become irrelevant, merely that its limitations are apparent, whereas soft power lasts longer and has a wider, more self-reinforcing reach. For China and Russia, kung-fu movies or the Bolshoi Ballet will win more admirers internationally than the People’s Liberation Army or Siberian oil reserves, even if in each case the latter is what the state relies on. But of course, New Delhi knows that its soft power cannot solve its security challenges. After all, an Islamist terrorist who enjoys a Bollywood movie will still have no compunction about setting off a bomb in a Delhi market, and the United States has already learned that the perpetrators of 9/11 ate their last dinner at a McDonald’s. To counter the terrorist threat there is no substitute for hard power. Hard power without soft power stirs up resentments and enmities; soft power without hard power is a confession of weakness. Yet hard power tends to work better domestically than internationally: an autocratic state is surely not concerned about having a ‘better story’ to tell its own people, but without one, it has little with which to purchase the goodwill of the rest of the world. Whether it is the Americans in Guantanamo, the Chinese in Tibet or the Russians in Georgia, it can in each case be said that a major military power won the hard power battle, and lost the soft power war. Where soft power works in security terms is in attracting enough goodwill from ordinary people to reduce the sources of support and succour that the terrorists enjoy, and without which they cannot function.
But every time there are reports of sectarian violence or a pogrom like the savagery in Gujarat in 2002, or a nativist attack like those by a fringe group in February on women drinking at a pub in Mangalore, India suffers a huge setback to its soft power. Soft power will not come from a narrow or restricted version of Indianness, confined to the sectarian prejudices of some of the self-appointed guardians of Indian culture (‘Bharatiya sanskriti’). It must instead proudly reflect the multi-religious identities of our people, our linguistic diversity, the myriad manifestations of our creative energies. India must maintain its true heritage in the eyes of the world.
And that will mean acknowledging that the central battle in contemporary Indian culture is that between those who, to borrow Walt Whitman’s phrase, acknowledge that we are vast, we contain multitudes, and those who have presumptuously taken it upon themselves to define (in increasingly narrower terms) what is “truly” Indian. Pluralist India must, by definition, tolerate plural expressions of its many identities. To allow any self-appointed arbiters of Indian culture to impose their hypocrisy and double standards on the rest of us is to permit them to define Indianness down until it ceases to be Indian. To wield soft power, India must defend, assert and promote its culture of openness against the forces of intolerance and bigotry inside and outside the country.
It helps that India is anything but the unchanging land of timeless cliche. There is an extraordinary degree of change and ferment in our democracy. Dramatic transformations are taking place that amount to little short of an ongoing revolution—in politics, economics, society and culture. Both politics and caste relations have witnessed convulsive changes: who could have imagined, for 3,000 years, that a woman from the “untouchable” community of outcastes (now called ‘Dalits’) would rule India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, as Kumari Mayawati did for five years with a secure majority? It’s still true that in many parts of India, when you cast your vote, you vote your caste. But that too has brought about profound alterations in the country, as the lower castes have taken advantage of the ballot to seize electoral power.
These changes are little short of revolutionary. But the Indian revolution is a democratic one, sustained by a larger idea of India—an India that safeguards the common space available to each identity, an India that celebrates diversity. If America is a melting-pot, then to me India is a thali, a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast. India’s civilisational ethos has been an immeasurable asset for our country. It is essential that India does not allow the spectre of religious intolerance and political opportunism to undermine the soft power which is its greatest asset in the world of the twenty-first century. Maintain that, and true leadership in our globalising world—the kind that has to do with principles, values and standards—will follow.
This will require the more systematic development of a soft power strategy than India currently has. So far, such strategic advantages as have accrued from India’s soft power—goodwill for the country among African, Arab and Afghan publics, for instance—have been a largely unplanned byproduct of the normal emanations of Indian culture. Such goodwill has not been systematically harnessed as a strategic asset by New Delhi. It is ironic that in and around the 2008 Olympics, authoritarian China showed a greater determination to use its hard power strengths to cultivate a soft power strategy for itself on the world stage. India will not need to try as hard, but it will need to do more than it currently does to leverage its natural soft power into a valuable instrument of its global strategy.