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India’s culture & Soft power

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Categories: Culture: the Soul of India, Published: 27th Jan, 2022

How the term ‘soft power’ emerged?

“A country’s ability to influence the preferences and behaviours of various actors in the international arena (states, corporations, communities, publics etc.) through attraction or persuasion rather than coercion.” -- Joseph Nye

  • The term ‘soft power’ was first coined and popularized by an American neoliberal scholar, Joseph Nye (1990), in his book entitled Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power.
  • It was soon used by academia, media and policy-making establishments and included in foreign policy strategies not only in the US, but also in the European Union (EU), Japan, Australia and China.
  • In opposition to neo-realists, who emphasize military and economic might, proponents of soft power argue that this form of power has become equally important in the increasingly interdependent post-Cold War world transformed by the globalization process, popularization of communication technologies and the emergence of new non-state actors.

Extended Definition

As the ‘soft power’ concept has changed over time, it has become larger in scope. In an extended definition soft power means-

‘Anything outside of the military and security realm, including not only popular culture and public diplomacy, but also more coercive economic and diplomatic levers, like aid and investment and participation in multilateral organizations’.

Why soft power has become increasingly important (in global context)?

  • Significant impact on decision making: Soft power has a significant impact on the decisions people, businesses, and governments make.
  • Ability to shape the preferences- ‘Soft’ or ‘co-optive power’ rests on the ability to shape the preferences of the others to do what you want rather than coerce them (sticks) or influence them (carrots) to do what you want.
  • Tool for goodwill creation- In this sense, it could also include, for instance, development cooperation (foreign aid), which rests on the economic capabilities of the country but is often used as a tool for creation of goodwill and long-term relationships in friendly countries.

To sum up, when a country has considerable soft power, its foreign actions would be seen as more legitimate and others would be more willing to comply with its objectives.

Soft Power in Indian Discourse

Soft power is not a new phenomenon in India even though its understanding and application have changed over the decades. Upanishads delivered the notion of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ to the world and to India. Renowned ancient Indian philosopher, Chanakya’s maneuvering to gain over adjacent powers by settlement and non-aggression arrangement and grants also demonstrates the significance of soft power in the ancient Indian statecraft. 

  • If the term had been used during the Cold War period, India could have been considered among the greatest soft powers in the world.
  • Post Independence- The newly independent and under-developed country had simply no other option to realize its global ambitions except through its soft attributes— exposing the richness of its culture, instead of the misery of its economy, and pursing foreign policy backed by the power of moral arguments rather than arguments of power.
  • Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)-As a founder of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a sound critic of imperialism and colonialism, and a proponent of disarmament, India presented value-based policies that generated goodwill especially among developing countries.
  • Spirituality- With growing interest in Indian spirituality in the West, the non-violent heritage of Mahatma Gandhi and an attractive culture, India subsequently gained sympathy in the developed world.
  • However, the gradual departure from Nehruvian idealism towards realpolitik in India’s foreign policy decreased in many ways its soft power and changed its character.

How utilization of soft power helped India after Independence?

  • India since for eras has undergone numerous conflicts through the ancient Indian kingdoms and rulers including the colonial British rule. 
  • And yet, India was exultant and proud of the passive-resistance mode in which the nation had gained freedom. 
  • When the British came to India, Britain had 2% of the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and India had 20%.
  • But in 1947 during Independence, when the British departed India, the GDP was the opposite way round.
  • India was economically a very poor nation quickly after independence, completely swilled of its resources by a long-suffering colonial power of over three centuries.
  • India despite its intrinsic roadblocks of severe hardship and diversity of the numerous cultures was broadly praised for having gained independence from the colonial rule and also for enduring up for the global South.
  • The soft power of India has risen as the capability to connect, strengthen the connections and to fix the fractures shaped by history and politics.
  • In the 1990s, India supported peaceful advancement and a good friendly policy towards its neighbours and the soft power to cater to India’s foreign policy to support its legitimacy in South Asia.

 No Official Doctrine

  • The ascendance of the soft power approach in Indian foreign policy is not apparent and clearly stated.
  • Unlike China, India does not have any official doctrine that explicitly recommends a greater role for soft power in the country’s external relations.
  • Several references to soft power can be found in the speeches of leading politicians, but they do not occupy a major place there.
  • Soft power does not attract much attention among the security and strategic communities in India, which is best illustrated by the limited number of publications on the subject.
  • It seems that the new, pragmatic and realist-driven foreign policy is dominated by security concerns and economic priorities.
  • However, the argument that soft power plays an increasing role in Indian foreign policy can be clearly deduced from several practical decisions made in the last decade, which have strengthened the state’s soft power capabilities.

According to Scholars:

  • Consequently, a growing number of Indian scholars and policy-makers have made reference to India’s soft power. For instance, Raja Mohan considers the Indian diaspora as the greatest asset to the country’s soft power.
  • Shashi Tharoor is one of the most prominent proponents of the use of soft power in Indian diplomacy. He makes an argument that soft power, and not economic or military or nuclear strength, ‘is one attribute of independent India to which increasing attention should now be paid around the globe’.

Assessing the role of Culture in Indian Soft Power

India is an enlightened nation with a vibrant soft power inheritance. The country is vividly conscious of the weight of its cultural engagement and requires putting in little more effort to present its culture fascinating to the corners of the world.

  • World’s oldest civilizations -Being one of the world’s oldest civilizations, India’s rich culture constitutes the single most important source of its soft power.
    • It has fascinated outsiders since at least the times of Alexander the Great, bringing to India invading armies, travellers, merchants, migrants and religious refugees fleeing persecution in other places.
  • Great Mythologies: Mythological epics such as Mahabharata and Ramayana are compared with the great Greek writings like Odyssey and Iliad.
  • Golden Bird: India was appreciated as the ‘Golden Bird’ between 1 and 1000 AD for its GDP, which was also ahead of China back then. This eventually brought migrants, traders and invaders like ‘Alexander the Great’ to India.
  • Birthplace of Buddhism- India is also the birthplace of Buddhism, which spread to Central, East and Southeast Asia, and Hinduism, which left its strong imprint on Southeast Asian cultures.
    • These old civilizational links and shared religious heritage were already used by Nehru, albeit with mixed results, in the promotion of a common Asian identity and still remains a valuable asset today.
  • Ancient universities: The ancient universities of India were the most prominent centers of cultural synergy and soft power, which drew a great number of scholars and learners from different parts of the world.
  • Intangible Art- India’s art, classical music and dance, yoga, traditional medicine (Ayurveda), principles of non-violence, philosophy, spirituality and even cuisine and fashion find more and more followers around the world.
  • As observed by one analyst, India, alongside China, ‘offers one of the most dynamic alternatives to Western cultural values’.
  • Non-threatening leadership: India has an optimistic vision of relatively pluralistic government, non-violent, and liberal with a non-threatening global leadership.
  • Soft power assets: Distinguished personages like Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, literature, music, dance, software industry, Ayurveda, etc., produce an extraordinary array of soft power assets that portray the attractiveness of India to the foreign populace.
  • Cinema- In addition to this, development of media technology has allowed India to disseminate its modern popular culture (music, movies, TV serials, etc.) to the furthest corners of the world.
  • Sports- India is also making inroads into areas like sports where it traditionally had little experience.
    • The formation of a professional cricket league, the Indian Premiere League, in 2008, holding the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010 and conducting the Indian Grand Prix in Formula 1 racing in Noida (near Delhi) in 2011 are a few cases in point.
    • India’s strength in cricket is especially important in countries where this game is popular, and ‘cricket diplomacy’ has played a special role in the political history of South Asia.

Cultural Diplomacy

  • India’s global representation is rooted in the idea of ‘unity in diversity’, contemplative of the wide collection of cultures and civilizations that remains to attract many across the world. The soft power rootlets move very deep.
  • In recent years, India has been trying to use its cultural assets in its foreign policy through more active cultural diplomacy and promotional activities.
  • Although culture is inherently linked with people and the prime agents responsible for dissemination of cultural heritage and values are Indians, both living in India and abroad (diaspora), there are more activities undertaken by the government.
  • These include programmes conducted by Indian embassies worldwide, the special Public Diplomacy Department created at the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), the ICCR, and other agencies, and public–private partnerships.
  • Complementary to official initiatives are those events organized by the private sector such as the entertainment industry, media houses, business organizations and NGOs

Other attributes of India’s soft power

Political Values

  • Secular outlook- With its open, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society and a secular, federal and democratic state, India has abundant resources for soft power.
  • Tolerant Country- As a tolerant country built on the idea of ‘unity in diversity’, India can possibly serve as a model for many other internally divided countries.
  • Democratic System- The endurance of a democratic system in a relatively poor, illiterate and immensely diverse society provides a strong argument for promotion of democracy as the best political system.
    • Although India has been a democracy since its independence in 1947, it was only the end of the Cold War and the subsequent replacement of the ideological confrontation between communism and capitalism by competition between authoritarianism and democracy that gave more significance to India’s democratic credentials.
  • Vibrant relations with foreign nations: India recognizes the value and political utility of its democracy in foreign relations, especially while dealing with democratic partners (the US, the EU and Japan), but it is quite reluctant to export its model to other countries.
  • Supporting democracy: It prefers to support democracy in other states by the power of its own example rather than by active outside pressure.

Foreign Policy

  • India’s non-violent struggle for independence and its support for decolonization, disarmament and peaceful co-existence of nations helped the country garner much appreciation in many parts of the world.
  • NAM- Its active role in the NAM contributed to its positive image and helped position itself as a spokesperson for the developing world.
    • Although much of this attractiveness had decreased towards the end of the Cold War, as India pursued a more pragmatic foreign policy, new strengths arose.
  • Look East Policy - A ‘Look East Policy’ promulgated in 1991 repeated the calls for stronger economic interdependence and offered more concessions to its smaller neighbours in South Asia.
  • Shift from traditional Image- A shift in negotiating strategy at multilateral forums was also a clear indication that India wanted to get rid of its traditional image as a country ‘that can’t say yes’.
  • Simultaneously, a stronger engagement with the West in the last decade eased the way for the acceptance of its rise on the global stage, leading to the American endorsement of India as an ‘emerged power’.
  • Multilateral forums- The country’s accession to prestigious groups such as G20, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS), and India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) also boosted India’s international image.
  • Balanced Country- Although India sometimes appears to be an indecisive and passive player that cannot take sides on important issues, it is actually one of the few countries that managed to maintain friendly relations with almost every country.
  • In other words, despite its closeness to the West in recent years, it has maintained close relations with internationally isolated regimes such as Iran and Myanmar; it has remained a strong supporter of Palestine’s independence even while building strong security and intelligence links with Israel, and it has expanded its interests in Africa without alarming the international community as China did.
  • Reliable Mediator- It gives India a potential position that has not been effectively used so far—that of a reliable mediator in major conflicts and crises.

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

  • Strength

India’s long history, culture and civilization

  • While making this assessment, one should not lose sight of the product and process aspects. 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 home-grown:
    • Hinduism
    • Buddhism
    • Jainism
    • Sikhism
  • Four came from outside:
    • Zoroastrianism
    • Judaism
    • Christianity
    • 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

  • 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.
  • 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.

Cultural Diplomacy

  • 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.
  • 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

  • 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. T
  • 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
  • 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.


A delicate balancing act

  • 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?

Way Forward

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. Real communication can be there only if you see them in their perspective.

"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.”  -- Jacques Barzun (French born American historian)

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