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‘Changing contours of India’s Soft Power Diplomacy’

  • Category
    India & world
  • Published
    14th Jan, 2020

In recent times, India has unleashed its true potential and maintained a strong focus for its use as an instrument of public diplomacy. The article aims to analyse the increasing importance of soft power and how it has shaped India’s foreign policy and behaviour.



In recent times, India has unleashed its true potential and maintained a strong focus for its use as an instrument of public diplomacy. The article aims to analyse the increasing importance of soft power and how it has shaped India’s foreign policy and behaviour.


  • India’s soft power is strong, and it has been so, long before such a concept was made famous by American political scientist Joseph Nye (an American political scientist) in
  • For centuries, India’s soft power was already being recognised in many parts of the world, where people learned about and accessed the arts and culture of one of the world’s oldest civilisations.
  • But the most important time, is the past decade when India has increased its use of soft power in a more systematic way.
  • Several initiatives have been launched to push India to the forefront of the international community, including:
    • the creation of a public diplomacy division within the Ministry of External Affairs in 2006
    • the worldwide expansion of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR)
    • the Ministry of Tourism’s ’Incredible India’ campaign
    • the work of the Ministry for Overseas Indians
    • the promotion of business and trade
    • the current government’s diplomatic efforts
  • These collaborative efforts have not only helped emphasise the social and cultural assets of India abroad, but they also support the country’s major foreign-policy initiatives.
  • In the last few years, the government is focusing on four specific soft power assets of India for achieving diplomatic successes and furthering the country’s national interests:
    • Buddhism
    • Diaspora
    • Yoga
    • economic leverage


Soft power: An instrument of public diplomacy

  • ‘Soft power’ refers to the ability to persuade others to do something using neither force nor coercion (Joseph Nye).
  • While conventional, hard power relies on the State’s military and economic resources, soft power works on persuasion, aiming at furthering a country’s ‘attractiveness’.
  • It is based on three main categories of a country’s resources:
    • Culture
    • political values
    • foreign policies
  • Soft power is mostly based on intangibles such as the power of example. E.g. Yoga, Buddhism, movies, music, spirituality etc.
  • Today, most countries use a combination of soft power and hard power, together called ‘smart power’.

Why is it so significant?

  • Soft power enables a change of behaviour in others, without competition or conflict, by using persuasion and attraction. Soft power can, no doubt, play a vital role in producing benevolence.
  • It has the capacity to influence broader international audiences at large, in shaping the perceptions about the legitimacy and influencing environment of the permissive boundaries in which economic and military power is used.
  • Even in the ancient time's scholars like Kautilya and Kamandak had advocated the use of soft power for achieving progress in state affairs.
  • A country’s soft power influence rests on how effectively it uses resources of culture, values, and economic policies.
  • Soft power is power and at times, it is more powerful than hard power.

The true picture of soft power in India:

  • As the world’s largest democracy that is also home to the world’s largest number of impoverished people, India is variously described as a model of soft power or a country that makes remarkably poor use of it.
  • For some, its rich culture and democracy stand in contrast to other authoritarian and revisionist great powers, and indeed many Indian leaders speak positively about the country’s soft power potential.
  • By contrast, as implied by its absence from The Soft Power 30 Index, India evidently does not yet benefit as much from international awareness, positive associations or investments in cultural diplomacy as many other countries.
  • In reality, the picture is mixed. Indeed, there are many ways in which India fares poorly in terms of elements of national attraction.
  • It has a widespread (and often justified) reputation for corruption, endemic poverty and hostility to business.
  • Reports in the international media of pollution in urban areas, child labour and violence against women have also detracted expatriates, tourists, business people and other visitors.
  • At the same time, India’s associations have started to change over the past quarter-century from a land of poverty and Mother Theresa to a source of software programmers and techies.


  • Poor digital penetration & technologies: Though India may be home to more top 30 unicorns (billion-dollar start-ups) than any country (other than the United States and China), its digital penetration remains low, with millions of its population still without access to electricity, and basic digital technologies.
  • Poor cultural diffusion: Second, India rates badly on any measure of state-driven cultural diffusion rather than the more organic and natural private sector and citizen-led efforts.
    • Though most Indian cultural diffusion to overseas audiences—from yoga to Bollywood—has occurred.
    • The Indian government has is also promoting the study of Hindi abroad in large part because of its linguistic diversity at home.
  • Poor tourism story: India has a high number of UNESCO World Heritage sites, but still fares poorly on tourism and education on a per capita basis.
  • Lack of infrastructure for cultural development: India was plagued by impoverishment, missing out on positive associations, coupled with lack of investment in cultural diplomacy, a reputation of deep-rooted corruption, hostile business environment, red-tapism, lack of infrastructure and severe pollution in urban areas.
  • Brain drain: There are Indian contributions that are not necessarily associated with the country. E.g.- the export of India’s largest car manufacturer Tata Motors is Jaguar Land Rover, manufactured primarily in Britain and Buddhism.

Looking at the positive side:

In recent years, dynamism and policy changes have reshaped India’s perceptions in the outside world. The Government has made concerted efforts to connect with the influential Indian Diaspora in all countries. The recent developments in this way can be learnt from the following:

  • A separate ministry for Indian Diaspora: A separate revitalized ministry was established to address the concerns of the outside Diaspora and re-establish their Indian connect so as to make them active participants in the extension of the country’s goodwill and influence. 
  • Maintaining Indian legacy: The government was also successful in projecting yoga and Ayurveda as quintessentially Indian legacy. Recognition by UN of June 21, as International Yoga Day on the insistence of Indian government has been a step in the right direction. 
  • Alliances with neighbours: Extension of the line of credit to its neighbours including Russia has helped cement new mutually beneficial alliances in tune with India’s policy of having collaborative, soft diplomacy.
  • Resolving contentious issues: India has further deepened its strategic relationship with the US, improved relations with SAARC countries except for Pakistan, and improved its relations with UAE and Saudi Arabia. Even with China, efforts have been to find common grounds of mutual convergence and find solutions to resolve contentious issues.
  • Alliances with strong platforms: New alliances in the formation of Quad, active role in BRICS, ASEAN, IBSA, G-4 are all indicators of a newly assertive and confident India.
  • Emerging as a crusader of environment protection: India has also projected itself as a crusader of environment protection and taken a strong stance against climate change.

With India focussing on domestic economic goals, strategic ties with the US, strengthening relations with all major powers including China and moving away from a Pak centric approach are all policy changes in line with it seeking a much larger, relevant position at the world stage.

The Road Ahead:

India, a large democracy with a rich culture and a modicum of principle in its international engagement, the country has often benefited in tangible ways from its soft power. Today, India is building upon a range of ongoing political and diplomatic efforts, from unveiling its ‘Incredible India’ tourism campaign, getting International Yoga D recognized by the United Nations, Make in India initiative, improving its ease of doing business ranking, it can be expected that India soft power are going to gradually grow in the coming times.


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