India’s Soft Power Diplomacy under the Modi Regime

| Kajal Kumari
  • Distinguished personalities of India as well as different fields like literature, music, dance, software industry, Ayurveda, etc., create an impressive list of soft power assets that reflects the attractiveness of India to the foreign population.
  • India has harmoniously assimilated different religions, keeping its unique culture in place. The Indian diaspora is also a significant asset of India’s soft power diplomacy.
  • Modi’s government have taken several soft power initiatives to improve India’s image in international politics. Make in India, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and Atmanirbhar Bharat are examples of initiatives that have improved India’s image the world over.

Background

Power in International Relations is defined in relational terms as the ability of actor A to influence the behaviour of actor B to get the outcome he wants (Nicolas Blarel 2012). Traditionally, military and economic powers were considered the major factors. However, many strategic thinkers have also given importance to other intangible aspects, even in the past. The term soft power was coined by the American political scientist joseph Nye in the late 1980s, the conditions of the end of the cold war. According to him, soft power is the ability to get what you want through attraction, rather than coercion or payments, being a subtle form of power. In earlier times everything was mostly done with coercion or payments but sometimes people influence others by ideas and attraction that sets the agenda for others or get them to want what they want. Somethings which were universal, like, open culture and vast popular cultural resources ranging from Hollywood to foundations and universities, the US seemed uniquely placed to affect how others viewed the world and it. Nye thought of soft power as an analytic concept to fill a deficiency in how analysts thought about power, but it gradually took on a political resonance. Even though this term was new, similar ideas like soft power can be traced back in history. Nye developed this term in the American context but was wider than American politics or international politics. His ability to combine hard and soft power into successful strategies that reinforce each other could be considered “smart power” (a term later used by Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State).

Rise of India as a superpower

Superpower, in international politics, can be referred to as a state with preeminent global influence. It is defined as the extensive ability of a nation to exert influence on an international scale. A superpower is a country that can project dominating power and influence anywhere in the world. This term is used as an attainable goal by some countries like India and brazil. The world population review 2021 shows the United States as the most powerful country in the world followed by China, Russia, Germany, and the UK. Currently, only the United States fulfils the criteria to be considered a superpower. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for India to become a leading power represents a change in how the country’s top political leadership perceives its role in international politics. According to Modi, a leading power is essentially a great power. However, India will only acquire this status when its economic foundations, state institutions, and military capabilities are robust. India’s people have dreamt of their country becoming a superpower soon. This expectation may have arisen from the various social, economic, scientific and military changes the country has witnessed in recent years.

Some political experts have also considered India as one of the possible emerging superpowers of the world, along with China, Brazil, Russia and the European Union. For a country to be called a superpower, it must have mastered the seven dimensions of state power: geography, population, economy, resources, military, diplomacy and national identity. India has a long journey ahead of itself before joining the biggest of leagues. To know where India stands globally, it is essential to go through its ranking in different indices. India ranks 177/180 in the environmental index, 139/149 in the happiness index amongst the underdeveloped countries, 131 in the Human development index (2020) and 111th in the human freedom index[I].

For a country to be called a superpower, it must have mastered the seven dimensions of state power: geography, population, economy, resources, military, diplomacy and national identity.

For any country to be called a superpower, it must be economically strong. India is on its way to attaining economic superpower status. India has overtaken the US as the world’s 5th  biggest economy. According to some economists, the home of 1.4 billion people is all set to move to third place after the US and China by 2030. The world is very well aware of the business titans like Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, from our neighbouring country, china. However, the Indian businessmen who have accumulated a lot of wealth and have contributed to the rise of the Indian economy are still to be known by the world. Adani and Ambani in particular have come to represent India’s growing economic strength in the world. India, for many years, has been seen as poor when compared to China, held back by an unresponsive, sprawling state sector and irregular bureaucracy. We still have many problems like poverty and poor infrastructure to deal with. But it is just the start of emerging as a rival to our giant neighbour with the same kind of economic growth figures that were once the pride of Beijing. It is all contributing to the formation of India as a superpower[ii].  

India as a soft power state

Indian foreign policy constantly tries to create a perception of its increasing or rising soft power. If this rise in soft power is effective enough, it will make the global partners more welcoming towards Indian views and interests in international politics. The main assets of India’s soft power are its rich culture and heritage and, of course, the prevalent Bollywood film industry. The fact that India is the world’s largest democracy and a very diverse nation can also be used as one of the assets. The government’s increasing foreign assistance and public diplomacy programs are also soft power instruments. India has a positive vision of a relatively pluralistic government which is not violent, and liberal with no threat to global leadership. Distinguished personalities of India like Mahatama Gandhi, as well as different fields like literature, music, dance, software industry, Ayurveda, etc., create an impressive list of soft power assets that reflects the attractiveness of India to the foreign population.

Over many years, India has granted shelter as well as religious and cultural freedom to Jews, Christians, Muslims and several other faiths. This shows how India has harmoniously assimilated different religions, keeping its unique culture in place. The Indian diaspora is also a significant asset of India’s soft power diplomacy. It plays a vital role in enhancing Indo-US relations by lobbying American politicians in the US. It also showcases a positive image of India to the Americans. Information Technology has also contributed to India’s soft power. Americans in Silicon Valley talk about the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) with the same reverence they use for MIT; the scientific and mathematical excellence of Indian engineers has also gained respect for the nation. Modi has visited many countries during his tenure to revitalise international relations. ‘Howdy Modi’ was a great initiative to show his popularity among Americans of Indian origin and gather support from them. Yoga – ‘India’s gift to the world’ – is a primary soft power tool in India’s soft power diplomacy. Buddhism originated in ancient India and spread further to China, Southeast Asia and beyond. Modi uses Buddhist diplomacy to achieve his strategic and economic foreign policy goals. Chief among these goals are offsetting Chinese soft power and boosting religious tourism in India.

Even after the country’s constant efforts to emerge as a soft power nation, it still stands below other countries in soft power diplomacy. According to Portland’s ‘soft power 30’, India doesn’t even make the top 30 countries. In the context of India’s social and economic realities, the country is probably guilty of exaggerating its soft power capability. Even after being the largest democracy in the world, India comprises more impoverished people than any other country on earth. Corruption is high, pollution is widespread, rape often goes unpunished, there is ethnic and religious strife, and widening economic disparity. China, in particular, has been successful in showing its superiority not only in its economic, military and political areas but also in terms of soft power, and it scores higher than India on the Global Soft Power Index.[iii]

Modi’s soft power diplomacy

Soft power has been expanded in various forms by the recent governments of India. The current government of the Prime Minister have successfully created innovative trends in the realm of Indian diplomacy by blending present elements of soft power. Shashi Tharoor, in his 2012 book Pax Indica said that India is an enthusiastic proponent. India has used specific soft power assets of India such as Diaspora, Yoga, Buddhism and economic support for accomplishing diplomatic triumphs and advancing the nation’s national interests. The Modi government is working hard to revive the country’s pride in its ancient values and also making an effort to enhance India’s hard power by using its soft-power advantages. Even during his international travels, the Prime Minister makes sure to promote the soft power of India through mention of its rich culture and heritage, art and architecture, various languages and cuisine, music, yoga, democratic values of the nation, and also the famous Bollywood film industry, which were also mentioned before. The root of India’s soft power runs deep.

The current government of the Prime Minister have successfully created innovative trends in the realm of Indian diplomacy by blending present elements of soft power.

Over the years, civil society has offered religious freedom to Jews, Muslims, Parsees and Christians. A central notion is the importance of family: the influential Sanskrit phrase Vasudeva kutumbkam, used by Modi himself, means the world is one family. Modi’s government have taken several soft power initiatives to improve India’s image in international politics. Make in India is a good example of an initiative encouraging home-manufactured and developed goods. The ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan‘ is another measure that focuses on putting an end to defecation and enhancing sanitation. Another such initiative is ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat‘ which means ‘self-reliant India’. It is an umbrella term for the Modi government’s plans for India to become more efficient, competitive and resilient in the world economy. Howdy Modi was a great initiative to show his popularity among Americans of Indian origin and gather support from them. Modi government has made considerable investments in resources and projects to enhance India’s capabilities, since 2014, in the realm of the country’s soft power diplomacy. ‘Howdy Modi’ was a great initiative to show his popularity among Americans of Indian origin and gather support from them. These include increasing the number of embassies abroad, reviving ties with regional groups like ASEAN, SAARC and BIMSTEC, and strengthening strategic, cultural as well as diplomatic and economic relations with Eastern and South Asian countries with the Look East Policy, Act East Policy and Neighbourhood First Policy. The result of these efforts may take some time to materialise.

However, they are all focused on creating stronger international ties, which would translate into commercial and strategic benefits for India. Mahatma Gandhi also used it in the form of non-violence and satyagraha to win India’s Independence. In 2014, Modi successfully got 21 June recognised by the UN as World Yoga Day. A suitable medium for promoting the Indian way of life as yoga helps project a good image of India as a peaceful nation that refrains from aggression. In a foreign context, harnessing the holistic power of yoga helps cultivate other countries’ goodwill.[iv]

(The author is a Research Scholar in the Department of Political Science, St. Joseph’s University, Bengaluru, Karnataka.)


Notes:

[i] Ambassador Yogendra Kumar, Embassy of India, accessed on 11 Sep 2022, https://www.bridgeindia.org.uk/the-rise-of-india-as-a-global-soft-power/.

[ii] Preethi Amaresh, 6 Aug 2021, Bridge India, accessed on 11 Sep 2022, https://www.bridgeindia.org.uk/the-rise-of-india-as-a-global-soft-power/

[iii] Arjit Mazumdar, 16 jul 2018, Asian affiars, asccessed on 9 sep 2022, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03068374.2018.1487696

[iv] Shreeya Patil, N.D., ECPR’s political science blog, accessed on 10 Sep 2022, https://theloop.ecpr.eu/indias-soft-power-diplomacy-in-the-modi-era/

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