Monday, March 28, 2016

India's soft-power ambitions still a damp squib

Ravi Menon,

image (not from article) from

India’s globe-trotting Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his virtual anointment as a rock star among politicians leads one to believe that the country’s foreign policy is not only being reset, but the very means to achieve these new set of goals are also undergoing change. His primary objective seems to be to ramp up India’s soft-power projection. Internationalism and universal engagement are his mantra; his twitter account is second only to United States President Barack Obama’s and his obsession with selfies have come in for carping put-downs back home. Yet, it would appear there is an overarching framework to abet India’s rise.

Soft power, a concept developed by political scientist Joseph S. Nye to describe the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce hard power, using force or giving money as a means of persuasion, has now reached near-canonical status. It has become almost axiomatic for all major powers to employ this weapon as part of the overall arsenal to achieve their foreign-policy goals. Modi gifting the Gita to the Japanese emperor during his visit to Japan, to evoke ancient Hindu civilisational values, is perhaps as important as the ongoing Quadrilateral Dialogue — a multilateral initiative comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India.

But in this mad rush to rebrand and exploit fully India’s exceptional tenets and creeds is the Modi government missing the woods for the trees. The disquieting trends seen in India of late — the culture wars, the acrimonious debates on tolerance, the strident reaffirmations of nationalism and a futile and asinine enquiry into food habits of its citizenry — do not bode well for the country’s claims to a pluralistic civil society and any dilution of its credentials as a liberal democracy will seriously dent India’s reach for soft power.

If Nye coined the term soft power, in the Indian context it has been ex-minister and Congressman Shashi Tharoor who has vigorously championed this concept for India’s outreach — both in its immediate neighbourhood as well as beyond. But Tharoor is also quick to retort that ‘Make in India’ — Modi’s key policy slogan for foreign direct investment — and ‘hate in India’ cannot go together. However, this is not the only self-evident distortion, for there are grave doubts that India is overplaying its hand when it comes to soft power. Perhaps it is overestimating its non-coercive powers of ordering others to do what it wants.

Princeton’s Rohan Mukherjee has written extensively on ‘The False Promise on India’s Soft Power’ and it makes a sobering assessment of the country’s capabilities when it comes the ability to attract — Nye’s key mantra for other soft powers. It summarises India’s dilemmas and challenges as well as explains the symbiotic link between hard power and soft power. Soft power feeds on hard power, the latter is fool’s gold without a solid foundation of military and economic force-projection capabilities. A blue water navy, an economy that is a key part of the global economic system, a currency that can aspire to be a reserve currency, membership to vital multilateral — preferably becoming a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council — and a willingness to fight others’ battles even if it is counter-productive in the near term, are essential before any country can truly milk its soft-power potential.

An illustrative example will be India’s inconsistent stand on Myanmar, which is right in its backyard and with whom this country has had a long relationship. Yet, it has for years played safe on the grounds that if it took a principled stand it would lose out to China; realpolitik has overshadowed its strategic long-term interests. And the world has seen through India’s pusillanimous attitude: Listen in again to Obama’s speech in the Indian parliament, when he gently but firmly reminded his hosts of its responsibility to the world at large.

It would therefore be well worth quoting Mukherjee verbatim: “One is hardpressed to identify a significant role played by soft power in India’s diplomatic gains since the early 1990s... India’s inability to capitalise on its soft-power resources is the result of three factors. First, the overestimation of these resources by analysts. Second, the lack of sufficient hard power to undergird India’s soft-power ambitions. And finally, unresolved elements of India’s identity that tend to undermine its efforts at soft-power projection through public diplomacy.”

So there you have it, as succinctly as possible, the challenges ahead for Modi as he wings his way between the capitals of the world. The key is India’s evolving identity and these ongoing raging culture wars are doing no good to India’s quest for soft power.

The question is will Modi put his house in order? He needs to put the hot heads in his party out to pasture before he waxes eloquent on International Yoga Day.

Ravi Menon is a Dubai-based writer, working on a series of essays on India and on a public service initiative called India Talks

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