From Historic Culture To Modern Democracy – Revisiting India’s Soft Power Potential

Long before Joseph Nye coined the term, Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi had partially succeeded in liberating his country from the yoke of foreign domination, using “soft power.” Endowed with centuries of history, the land of Ashoka, Akbar and Mahatma Gandhi seemed to have earned the authority to speak from an elevated moral and secular pedestal. Yet, India is also a land of seminal paradoxes. It is the world’s largest democracy, and hosts the largest number of poverty-stricken masses. Evident from various surveys, the high legitimacy of India’s democracy, contrasted with the political system’s low capacity delivers fundamental public goods. Added to this, Indians themselves hardly regard their own country as a social or cultural model for others.

With a strength of over 1.4 million active personnel, the Indian Armed Forces is the world’s second-largest military force. It also has the world’s largest volunteer army and third-largest defense budget. But Indians have often been the least to believe in military strength as an indicator to being a world power. Their image of being a world power is shaped mainly by the indicators of economic prosperity and potential for growth, political stability, and a strong educational system, all of which the Indian state has often been sluggish in delivering. The climax of India’s paradoxes perhaps lies in the poor utilization of her rich resources.

India’s exceptional soft power potential, from religion and culture to her democratic traditions and economic collaborations, tops the list of her unharnessed resources. Nearly three thousand years ago, the spread of Buddhism beyond India’s borders had tied India to countries outside the subcontinent. Fast forward to the present times, the Department of Tourism endeavors to promote “Buddhist circuits,” with a desire to attract foreign tourists. But being a country where complaints about discrimination against North-Eastern states embarrassingly persists, the promotion of Buddhist destinations have also been skewed towards the central Indian states. India had attempted to harness the religious link of Buddhism to promote cooperation with its Eastern neighbors. But such policies have overt military motives.

From “Look East” to “Act East,” India’s implicit motive of cultivating economic and strategic relations with Southeast Asian nations has been to bolster its position as a regional power and counterweigh the strategic influence of the People’s Republic of China. In 1962, China slapped a confident Indian military to encroach straight into Indian soil, breaching the existing borders. Largely at loggerheads, the two view themselves as deserving claimants to an emerging superpower status, leaving at bay, any attempts to cultivate the long-standing shared cultural ties. Increasingly wary of a Sino-Pakistan alliance, the sandwiched India continues to view its arch-rivals with suspicion. In a revised version of classical balance of power, the world’s established superpower since the disappearance of former U.S.S.R., the U.S. leaves no stone unturned to weigh Asia’s volatile situation. It lends support to balance one country against the other.

Much of the U.S. endeavors to balance China in the Far East have faced major irritants, as Chinese products have continued to flood domestic markets of Asian countries.Many years before India and the U.S. decided to sign any treaty of military and economic cooperation, a mythical story of a little boy born in a small town in north India, began attracting thousands of followers in the folds of a religious organization. Founded in the U.S., The International Society for Krishna Consciousness [ISKON] today is one of the greatest cultural links between India and the West. Cultural diplomacy, though on India’s agenda, has largely been overshadowed by the prioritization of hard military power.

Hard power diplomacy has been used to counterbalance any displeasing growth of the less friendly countries. On the other hand, using soft power can potentially prevent any violent military showdown. The years of decolonization coincided with the emergence of the Non-Aligned Movement, which actively aimed at purging the world of violent military-backed antagonisms. One of India’s earliest stances of the use of soft power in foreign policy, the movement however soon was shown its graves.

As a democratic country, India aided her neighbors both in democratic transition (often without much success) and in fighting against autocratic regimes. However, India’s democratic achievements despite being praised are not seen as a model for other states. The countries of South Asia sought India’s help to sort out border disputes, yet they did not replicate India’s democratic model in their own countries. India’s secularism and democracy has often been sacrificed at the altar of sectarian interests. Further, as evident from the massive growth in military expenditure, it is quite clear that soft power is often not conceived seriously as an alternative method of diplomacy.

Whether heralding the arrival of democracy in other countries and ushering in multilateral economic cooperation in her neighborhood or strengthening international ties through cultural links, India’s potential qualifies her as one of the future soft powers of the twenty-first century. India follows a defensive soft power approach. India’s soft power resources are more used to attract international investors, much less an instrument to exert influence. In contrast to the U.S., the European Union and China, India does not perceive her political model as an attraction for others. What is both essential and problematic, for India in the use of soft power, is to be able to strike a balance between her domestic politics and national interests, in a largely militarized neighborhood and her own political values and traditions.

Sucharita Sen