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Assessing India’s Soft Power Diplomacy: A “Real” Progress?

For decades, political scientists, foreign policy experts have argued on growing India’s “softer approach” in diplomacy on the international arena, giving it credit for India’s rising economy, its military might and evolution in demography. With New Delhi’s increasing reliance on the “soft power” particularly the nation’s vivid culture and values, have forced foreign policy experts of many nations to follow the same “model”, including those nations which followed “stick and stones”. Many prominent experts argue on the credibility of India’s rise to superpower, some give credit to trade and governance while some consider culture in the backdrop which has successfully linked with music, food, technology and Bollywood. Although, it is quite difficult to measure the extent of India’s “soft power”, or to understand as to which of these aforementioned factors are truly behind India’s success. With no clear factors available, is India ready to tackle challenges posed by its immediate neighbour China? Particularly, with New Delhi eyeing for a permanent seat in the Security Council, is India’s “softer diplomacy” enough to counter challenges posed by Pakistan and China?

Nye’s Soft Power” and Indian Diplomacy

In International Relations, one understands by power as “the ability of, let’s say X, to influence the decisions of, let’s say Y, and receive the outcomes of the former wants”. Traditionally, new realists have identified “military might and economic power” as two key pillars for diplomacy of a state. In his book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, prominent international relations scholar and father of the term “soft power” Joseph Nye separated power into three dimensions:

  1. Using military as a mean for coercion,
  2. By influencing other states through lucrative economic policies, and
  3. The ability to cooperate with other states, enabling the counterpart to effectively engage with the former, which he terms as a “soft power” approach (whereas the remaining two are hard power approaches). He further writes that “the ability of a nation to structure a situation so that other nations develop preferences or define their interests in ways consistent with one’s nation”. He argues that, the ability to cooperate with the other state comes from sources that are immaterial, such as “cultural and ideological attraction as well as the rules and institutions of international regimes”.

Soft Power enables a nation to change, modify the decisions/preferences towards the former because of the conceived notion of the latter towards the former.

Comparing Nye’s arguments with respect to India’s foreign policy, the definition for hard power and the soft power seems to coincide. So, is it necessary for a nation to develop both hard and soft power? If not then, with respect to India’s open economy, which resulted due to Economic Reforms of 1991, a benefactor behind rise of India’s economic growth in South East Asia, can be termed as a soft power?

India’s “Soft Power” in Asia

Today, Soft Power have become a foundation for India’s Foreign Policy, which foreign experts are finding it increasingly difficult to assess India’s foreign policy without it. It is very easy for experts to anticipate the response of hard power i.e. the military and economic might. It is quite easy to understand, assess and evaluate China and India’s dominance in South East Asia, particularly within the framework of Hard Power. However, within the context of India’s “softer diplomacy” the task becomes increasing difficult. It is difficult to anticipate the response of foreign government, as to which factor played a role in ascertaining the foreign government to agree. However, India has previously actively been using it’s vivid history, culture as tools in diplomacy.
Today, besides China, Mongolia, Thailand, Singapore, Maldives, India’s culture stands at par with the Western World, becoming a global destination for Western tourists. Thanks to Bollywood, India leads the race in entertainment even in the far corner locations of the world. It has become a global film industry, where youths from across the world are trying their luck. Setting up a record of remarkable 1000 movies a year, Bollywood have superseded American entertainment industry, Hollywood. With technology on our side, direct to home services and internet, Bollywood actors and actresses have become popular throughout the globe, showcasing the India’s vivid culture and history. India has become a leader in “Health and Wellness”, spreading the message of peace and harmony through yoga, which today, continues to be practiced around the world. Besides art, Indian spices and cuisines have seduced the global world with its exotic spices, mouth-watering dishes, tempting western households. With power play on the field, India’s notable cricket diplomacy have, on many occasions, helped in reducing tensions between India and Pakistan. The creation of IPL in 2008, an internationally popular game, inviting cricketers from all across the globe, has further refurbished India’s image in the world.

The Growing Diaspora

Many foreign experts credit the rapid growth of Indian diaspora as a tool of soft power. Today, Indians are living in many countries European and Caribbean nations including Fiji, Togo, Trinidad and South Africa. Although many of these residents are decedents of those migrated during the Colonial rule as labourers, many new generations, young, talented, well-educated Indians have found their way into Europe, US and Australia. Their active participation in local and regional politics have proved fruitful.

One such example is the Indian-American association in US which have played crucial role in Indo-US relations by lobbying with key political leadership in displaying the positive image of India. With a stable governance, especially with a history of ethnic tensions and violent conflict on the borders, India has become a true remnant of its founding fathers, who framed India’s constitution, making it alternative power to the western world. India’s secular, federal political infrastructure is a unique model of institution which ensures rights and responsibilities to all, irrespective of India’s different ethnic and lingual groups.

As a nation’s economy contribute to its hard power, it’s economic growth can be understood as a soft power due to its attractive and lucrative nature. The progress made by technological giants such as Infosys Technologies and Wipro, Tata Group and the Reliance Group; followed by the reputed Indian Institute of Management and Indian Institute of Technology have restructured India’s image as a global power horse. The Western misplaced image of an underdeveloped India has now been refurbished with the image of modern, advancing India attracting new foreign institutions to invest employers from across the globe.

It is important to understand that, Soft Power is essentially a difficult resource and India’s political leadership have nurtured the frames of soft power, making it a viable asset in diplomacy. None the less, experts continue to argue on India’s extent to harness its soft power, even today.

Soft power in India’s diplomacy

Practically, India’s soft power continues to suffer for two reasons. India’s continued neglect of “culture” as a variable tool for soft power and only understood the importance by the current regime. It is not possible for soft power to exists without certain achievements by hard power. A nation will only be able to ensure the success of soft power, if it is built on the foundation of hard power. Since, nations across the globe has essentially whitewashed the earlier rhetoric image of India, New Delhi can play an important role in reaching out to hearts and minds of communities through “public channels” in diplomacy or by engaging the role of masses in India’s diplomacy.

India has been able to harness its soft power, better, only in the previous few years. Only recently New Delhi has been able to harness “culture” as a tool for diplomacy. Today, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations has set up 22 centres over 19 countries whose programmes include film fests, book fairs to art and craft, in an effort to show India’s glowing image of multicultural society. New Delhi’s promotion of regional dialects, particularly it’s national language Hindi through World Hindi Conferences while offering language training courses at centres.

Today, Soft Power is reinforcing India’s Hard Power, creating a balance in diplomacy. New Delhi has understood the important role of both powers in diplomacy and has learnt to use it in spreading positive image in the world, particularly the image of global power. India’s image of global power would not be possible without its formidable political institutions and sustainable economic growth. India has successfully enhanced its military and economic might, a viable tool to reinforce its softer power which gave India credibility and respect in the world.

As world’s largest economy, vibrant economy, India. On many accounts, surpass other probable contenders such as China. Armed with years of successful democracy and credible political institutions, it has received massive support from fellow Asian nations and many times, it has been seen as a yardstick of progress by global world.

Particularly with China, India has been in constant battle to counter its dominance even using “softer tactics” in Asia and around the world. One such example is visible in Africa. With China’s growing financial assistance in Africa, India has been assisting Africa in information technology along with affordable education programs and inter-university interaction for African students. It too became a beacon of hope and progress for Africa, with both the nation’s history of colonial oppression and India’s long support to Africa even during the apartheid. Reinforcing its diplomacy with public interest and political intellectuality, India clearly shows its level of cooperation, a sustainable growing economic power, against China’s growing aggressive economic tactics.


New Delhi’s effort to refurbished India’s image has worked. With companies across the globe willing to invest in Prime Minister’s Modi’s Make in India’s initiative is a direct result of New Delhi’s publicity abroad. India has become one of the leading manufacturing hubs and continue to receive long term incentives through vibrant initiatives. More importantly, Indian culture, music, cuisines have revolutionised “fashion” across the globe. Although, absence of public and societal governance/diplomacy program restricts India’s image in the world. India has always restrained herself from using indirect soft diplomacy. With Pakistan’s “Hear outcry” and China’s “Charm effects” India needs to strengthen its efforts in public diplomacy. It is imperative for India to use principles for softer diplomacy, more efficiently and effectively. This is a very time taking process, as it requires debates on balancing India’s national interest and political expectations. The outcome of this debate will determine the future of India’s power of diplomacy, particularly when it chooses to hang between the balance of soft power or the hard power, or opt for a new policy, as termed by Former President Obama “Smart Power”.

In order to maintain its attractiveness in the global order, India must create a developmental model, flexible, efficient and superior than any other, while focussing on sustaining an economic growth.

In order to remain a beacon of soft power, India must look into its internal socio-economic challenges. The impressive growth achieved by India since the economic reforms of 1991, should remain sustainable and bear fruits of stability and growth. India is on the verge of becoming a lucrative economy, which conceptualised the fundamentals of “Open Market Economy”. But in an effort to remain portray a positive image, India needs to focus on equal distribution of resources, internal conflicts, women and children rights, women empowerment, and become an economy which from borrower became a lender to the IMF.

India struggles to maintain a proper physical infrastructure, growing bureaucratic interventions, poor governance plus corruption, which has created deterrence among the big tycoons to invest. However, India’s reformed efforts in implementing micro and macroeconomic policies will prove to be a great step towards inclusive growth and rapid economic growth, through which India will be a “great soft superpower”.

  Anant Mishra is a former Youth Representative to the United Nations. He has served extensively in United Nations General Assembly, the Security Council along with the Economic and Social Council. He is also a visiting faculty for numerous universities and delivers lectures on political economics and foreign policies.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of The Indian Iris and The Indian Iris does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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