Indian Soft Power?
While the subject of Chinese ‘soft power’ in Asia has become an alluring topic of late in international affairs, one would be hard pressed to find anyone — much less Indians– seriously talking about using Indian soft power in the region.
So I was surprised when, during a talk which I attended at the East-West Center in Washington, D.C. about India’s ‘Look East Policy’ — an informal term for the initiatives India has taken toward East Asia since the end of the Cold War — the Indian scholar Baladas Ghoshal suggested that India deploy its soft power more strategically and systematically in its relationship with East Asia.
Soft power is a loose and hotly debated term, but it roughly means using culture, values, and institutions instead of military or economic measures to gain influence. In India’s case, Mr. Ghoshal felt that New Delhi’s record of maintaining a multicultural and democratic society without imposing uniformity or curtailing freedoms could offer some lessons for other Asian governments. That message, in his mind, could be transmitted via greater educational scholarships, cultural exchanges, and people to people visits.
The resilience of India’s democratic tradition is indeed impressive. The world’s largest democracy has managed to preserve its sociocultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity in spite of separatism, terrorism, societal inequalities and other challenges since independence in 1947, and India is now among the fastest growing economies. Former U.S. President George W. Bush once summed up his marvel for India as follows: “A billion people, in a functioning democracy. Ain’t that something?”
Yet I am skeptical about deploying ‘Indian soft power’ for two main reasons. The first is that while Indians are proud of the state of their democracy, it seems to me that they are too attentive to its flaws to have any appetite for exporting their model to other countries.
For instance, whenever I express my qualified adoration for Indian democracy to Indian scholars and students, a surprisingly large number give me a long (and true) shopping list of problems with Indian democracy (a disturbing number of Indian politicians have criminal backgrounds, half of Indian women are illiterate, and around 37 percent of Indians fall below the international poverty line). They also mention China’s successes under its authoritarian model with some envy (for a good feel of this interesting perception, see NPR‘s recent piece on “India’s China Envy”). The impression I have gotten, which I have confirmed with several others knowledgeable about India, is that while Indians are proud of their country and what it has achieved, they also believe India has to fix its own internal flaws before trying to export its model to others beyond its borders.
Even if this is dismissed as ‘unscientific’ or a ‘biased sample’, my next argument alone is sufficient to challenge Ghoshal’s suggestion. Simply put, if, as Mr. Ghoshal and other scholars present at the talk seemed to admit, Indian foreign policy lacks strategic vision, then it is unlikely that it will be able to undertake such a project anytime soon. Mr. Ghoshal, who characterized his country’s foreign policy in general as “reactive and fire-brigade like”, and India’s policies toward East Asia as “focused too much on imitating China”, “at a groping stage”, and with “no long term objective”, seemed at times to doubt his own recommendations as much as some members of the audience.
While it is admirable that he was trying to challenge his country’s foreign policy elite to think outside the box, the prospects for New Delhi to embark on some kind of soft power offensive are bleak when there has yet to be a single official foreign policy statement on its almost two-decade old Look East Policy, and its own former foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee called that policy “more of an approach” just a few years ago.
There were several good ideas in Mr. Ghoshal’s remarks — more scholarships for East Asian students to study in India, more emphasis by India on its common cultural heritage with Southeast Asia, and more exchanges beyond the inter-governmental level, such as among civil society groups. But translating these ideas into action, I think, will be the real challenge for India.