India’s Soft Power Diplomacy: Challenges and Opportunities

by Hema Narang - 1 February, 2023, 12:00 4049 Views 0 Comment

With India’s gradual rise in the international system, the issue of influence, perception and cultural diplomacy have gained significant attention amongst policymakers. Beginning with the liberalisation of the economy, opening to foreign investments and the growth of modern media and communication technologies, soft power moved from being an academic concept to a political buzzword. Moreover, active use of public diplomacy by other rising powers such as China’s “charm offensive” also drove India to up its ante further.

Recently, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs submitted its report on ‘India’s Soft Power and Cultural Diplomacy: Prospects and Limitations’ during the winter session of 2022. Amidst the rising challenges of increasing Chinese influence in neighbourhood and beyond, the Committee noted four limitations that inhibit India’s soft power and cultural diplomacy, namely, inadequate financing, lack of coordination among various institutions, shortage of skilled manpower and lack of clarity on the mandate of Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). The Committee further made a slew of recommendations on how India can better project soft power such as restructuring the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), establishing a coordinating mechanism between MEA and other line ministries, constituting a yoga certification board, establishing a mechanism to interact with the Indian diaspora and promoting tourism.

India has always been seen as an attractive partner for its pluralistic culture, democratic institutions and historical principles like non-violence. The global appeal of India’s culture is displayed through its television, cinema, cuisine, and language which creates a favourable, positive international image. Moreover, India’s political values of liberty and democracy are its greatest soft power assets. India as the largest functioning democracy in the world with a free and independent media and judiciary have earned India credibility in the international scenario. In the last few years, with the new energy and focus in India’s external engagements, soft power tools are also being actively utilised to further India’s strategic interests. For instance, during his visits, Prime Minister Modi gifted Bhagwat Gita to President Obama and the Japanese Emperor and a stole to the South Korean President inscribed with Nobel Laureate Tagore’s poem. Educational cooperation mechanisms are also playing a pivotal role in enhancing soft power and in creating strategic goodwill in the international community. India provides scholarships to foreign students and development assistance initiatives like the ITEC and Pan Africa e-Network Project have also fostered goodwill among the partner nations.

India’s own movie industry, Bollywood has been a major source of attraction in the international realm. Most Indian movies are now released all across the world and the actors are world-renowned celebrities. Indian television and Hindi soap operas have also fetched great popularity and appeal amongst many countries in the world. Apart from Indian cinema, Indian food is also extremely popular and is gaining familiarity all over the world with the increasing number of Indian restaurants outside India. The visibility of Indian art and literature coupled with Indian spirituality- Yoga, Ayurveda and alternative lifestyles has also witnessed a surge in recent years. Yoga has become one of the most prominent Indian cultural export and is being practised widely all over the world. In 2014, the United Nations adopted the resolution proclaiming 21 June as International Yoga Day, a few months after Prime Minister mooted the proposal in his UNGA address. Yoga Day has now become a global event and is being hailed as a major diplomatic and cultural success for India. In addition to this, indigenous Indian sports such as Kabaddi are also central to Indian soft power identity. Cricket has also proven to be a strong element in Indian diplomacy, especially with South Asian countries.

Along with these factors, India has a vibrant and largest diasporic community which could be a successful vehicle for driving India’s soft power diplomacy globally. People of Indian origin are spread across different continents but the Indian government has not strategically utilised the soft power potential of the Indian diaspora. Diasporic Indian communities have successfully integrated into the host countries and have excelled in various spheres. They hold eminent positions and have significantly contributed to the cultural, economic and intellectual capabilities of the host countries. In recent times, the BJP government has actively pursued a diaspora policy and also set up an ‘Overseas Friends of BJP’ to reach out to overseas Indians. The current government is actively engaging with the diaspora which can be witnessed through Prime Minister Modi’s regular visits abroad. Prior to Modi, the Vajpayee government institutionalised the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas and the awards, i.e., Pravasi Bharatiya Samman for distinguished overseas Indians.

Indian foreign policy establishment has taken various steps to enhance cultural diplomacy in recent times. Though the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) was set up in 1950 under the leadership of Maulana Azad, it is only in the past few years that it took a proactive role across the world. Another initiative taken by the government has been the setting up of the Public Diplomacy Division within the Ministry of External Affairs in 2006, the main objective of which is to utilise the soft power assets to reach the global audience. The division has also linked itself with a number of international policy and academic networks and undertakes projects like making documentaries on Indian culture, nature and heritage or on Indian themes which are then further circulated amongst different Indian missions around the world.

India, therefore, has a natural soft power appeal manifested through its cultural assets but lacks the required governmental efforts in transcending these resources into effective outcomes. A shift in the approach is required from a passive to a proactive one, where India deliberately and vigorously uses its soft power capital through special tools and mechanisms to achieve its foreign policy interests. The government has, in recent years, developed or strengthened existing institutions whose major task is to project a positive image of India and increase the country’s attractiveness to others. However, compared to other countries where financing for soft power activities is quite high, India is still in the early stages of developing its soft power toolbox. Different financial models such as public private partnerships need to be explored by agencies to supplement the grants received from MEA. The release of the committee report is a positive step in this direction, however, a clear strategy needs to be articulated keeping in mind the importance of soft power capabilities in augmenting positive perceptions about a country. What needs equal emphasis is that while soft power is increasingly important, it has to be backed by sufficient hard power capabilities and India needs to achieve higher economic growth levels to wield greater influence in the region.

Hema Narang
Author has recently completed her doctoral studies from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has formerly been a visiting fellow with the Centre for Africa Studies, Harvard University and Harvard-Yenching Institute (CAS-HYI), 2019-20.

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