Thursday, November 19, 2009

India's Soft Power: Does It Translate into Favorable Outcomes for India?

There was a renaissance of the concept of soft power after 9/11 terror attacks in the US, when the US believed that its soft power was not strong or powerful enough among the vast Muslim population in the Middle East and that’s why they targeted the US, so on and so forth. The reality is something very different. The people of the Middle East or the Muslim population elsewhere in Europe do enjoy eating McDonald food or the KFC chicken, but they were fundamentally against the US policies. No amount of soft power can do anything about that. Therefore, I would argue that soft power is good, but it can be an effective tool in foreign policy only if it matched by hard power, effective diplomacy, including military diplomacy. Soft power cannot be turned into effective influence in a nation or a region unless followed by its hard power. That is how they is a term coined, smart power, a mix of both hard and soft power. A country needs to pursue both hard and soft power to get the right influence and affect policies in a country.



The whole concept of soft power became very popular in the early 1990s. There are those who argue that it was US’ soft power and liberal values that led to the collapse of Soviet Union. It was not the US soft power that led to the Soviet collapse, but its own collapsing economic since the 1980s which led to the Soviet collapse. So, the concept got reinvigorated with the end of the Cold War. Once again, there was a renaissance of the concept after 9/11 terror attacks in the US, who believe that US’ soft power was not strong or powerful enough among the vast Muslim population in the Middle East and that’s why they targeted the US, so on and so forth. The reality is something very different. The people of the Middle East or the Muslim population elsewhere in Europe do enjoy eating McDonald food or the KFC chicken, but they were fundamentally against the US policies. No amount of soft power can do anything about that.

India has a lot of soft power, cultural influence in various parts of Asia. India’s vibrant culture, diverse culture reflected in its music, bollywood movies, arts are tremendous.

Here, am going to bring in what others have had to say. Mr. Shashi Tharoor, Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, has been writing a lot on the issue. However, I am going to disagree with most of the arguments when they say that India’s influence in cultural spheres actually gets translated into political decisions or impact policy changes.

As many have shown, one of the best examples is Afghanistan. Afghanistan remains important for more than one reason. What is going on there raises serious concerns not just in India, but for several other important global players. India is believed to have great assets in Afghanistan. Certainly not from its military; India does not have a military presence there. But its greatest advantage there lies in its soft power. Some of India’s TV serials are so popular -- the famous "Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi," dubbed into Dari, is telecast on Tolo TV, is so popular and no one likes to miss it. "Saas" is another one. It is believed to have a 90 percent audience penetration.

Again, after the fall of Taliban, Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh was one of the first dignitaries to reach Kabul. Jaswant Singh who wanted to ensure a better Indian presence, replacing Pakistan, was not carrying food or medicines, but tapes of Hindi movies and music that have been so popular there. This is surely soft power.

Similarly, Indian art, classical music and dance have the same effect. One of the popular Bollywood movies, Inside Man, started with a popular Hindi song, Chaiyya chaiyya and was a real surprise. Similarly, Part 3 of the Matrix series ended to the chant of Asatoma Sadgamaya.

In the field of music too, Indian pop stars such as Nitin Sawhney are inspiring western bands to mix Asian melodies and instruments. Some of the popular dance numbers of choreographer Farah Khan and music composer A.R. Rahman, have created waves, and are making way into Broadway and Hollywood. While Hollywood has inspired many Asian movies, directors such as Martin Scorsese are now remaking films like Rajkumar Hirani's Munnabhai MBBS.

Similarly, when Indian women make it to Miss World or Miss Universe contests, or when Indian bhangra beat is mixed into a Western pop record or when Lagaan is nominated for Oscar; or when Indian writers like Arundathi Roy wins the Booker Prizes, India's soft power is enhanced.

But the most significant ripple effect of Asia's soft power is how it's altering the 'country of origin' problem. For instance, when Titan Watches first entered the international market, it was branded as 'the world watch', partly to disguise its origins. The company knew that many customers just wouldn't accept a high-end watch made in India. Today, that is changing and the made in China or India mark is not something to be hidden.

Therefore, what one sees today is a cross-pollination of several different forces -- forces propelling globalization of Indian popular culture and the forces of market liberalization -- that have seen the benefits of the economic potential of the nation as well as its market of 1 billion people, with a significant middle class population.

Significantly for both India and China, the political advantages of taking their culture global are alluring as well as economic. It is also argued by some that this is encouraging for both China and India, who want US support in their standoffs with Taiwan and Pakistan, respectively, to pursue their own public diplomacy. The two are spending millions of dollars on overseas public relations. The two countries are working hard at promoting cultural exports, and on image campaigns.

While introduction of Asia or India in particular to the west would have been a more recent phenomenon, India’s soft power had penetrated several countries in South and Southeast Asia for decades or even centuries.

In fact, in Southeast Asia, there is an increasing competition or rivalry between China and India for influence, which has resulted in India going that extra mile to draw attention to its solid Buddhist credentials. Buddhism originated in India around the 5th century BC, although it declined after having flourished for many centuries. However, it spread across Asia, winning adherents in countries such as Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Japan, Korea, Tibet, Mongolia and China. Buddhist monks traveled far to spread the religion. Scholars came to India to study at its universities. There was a healthy exchange of ideas, of philosophic, religious and cultural traditions right from ancient times. The impact of this interaction and exchange can be seen and felt to date across Asia. It is this shared Buddhist heritage that Delhi is now emphasizing in its engagement with East and Southeast Asia.

Although the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, or the Buddha as he came to be called, was born in Nepal and not India, all the important milestones in his life, whether it was his enlightenment, his first sermon or his attainment of nirvana, happened in India. Most of the important sites of significance to Buddhists the world over are in India.

While India has emphasized its cultural and civilizational links with East and Southeast Asia for decades, this diplomacy has received a boost with the pan-Asian initiative to revive Nalanda University. An ancient seat of learning, Nalanda University was primarily a center of Buddhist studies, but it also imparted training in fine arts, astronomy, politics and languages. The university died a slow death around the 12th century AD. However, there is a giant, multinational effort now to set up an international university at Nalanda that will capture the grandeur, spirit and essence of this renowned seat of learning. Several countries, including India, Japan, Singapore and China, are part of this effort. And while India is at the center of the Nalanda initiative (the university being located here), China is ensuring that its links with the university are not forgotten. Besides being part of a mentor group (headed by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen) that will provide vision and direction to the Nalanda initiative, China has contributed funds for the Xuan Zang Memorial Hall in the university. It is making sure that its links with Buddhism are taken note of.

Meanwhile, China has been making systematic efforts to be seen as the main Buddhist centre. However, China's effort to project its Buddhist credentials has been tarnished by its record in Tibet. Indian officials say that so long as the Dalai Lama lives in India and millions of Tibetan Buddhist refugees remain in India, China's claims over Buddhism will be weak. While China's Buddhist credentials are questionable thanks to its record vis-a-vis Tibetan Buddhists, that of India's is impeccable. China cannot match India's formidable record as a protector of Buddhism. India has provided refuge to millions of Tibetan Buddhists fleeing Chinese oppression.

Indian officials now admit that in the past India neglected highlighting adequately its central role in the Buddhist world and its Buddhist legacy. In the process, "it surrendered the mantle of being the custodian of Buddhist heritage and its leadership role in the Buddhist world, which was quickly appropriated by countries like China and even Japan, which is being corrected now.

In the past five years, India has fought back, to reclaim what the government believes is India's by right - that it is India which is at the heart of the Asian civilization, that in many ways, India has been the cultural trend setter. Last year, India built a Buddhist temple in Luoyang in China. It underscores the fact that Buddhism in China is an Indian export. The temple is in the Baima temple complex where a Chinese emperor welcomed Buddhist monks from India 2,000 years ago. "The temple in Luoyang has been built in the Indian style. It marks the fact that Buddhism traveled to China from India.

India has made Buddhism the core of its soft-power push in Asia. This is aimed not only at reminding countries of their long-standing links with India but also that the roots of their cultural heritage lie in India.

Similarly, the spread of Hinduism to Southeast Asia. The civilization of India influenced the languages, scripts, calendars, and artistic aspects of these peoples and nations. Prominent Hindus (e.g., Swami Sadananda Maharaja) from India have visited South East Asia for the purpose of exploring the Hinduism of these places.

Spread of Hinduism in Southeast Asia in particular, introduced by the Indianized kingdoms of the 5th to 15th centuries, but may also extend to the earlier spread of Buddhism from India to Central Asia and China by way of the Silk Road during the early centuries CE. The concept of the Indianized kingdoms is based on the Hindu and Buddhist cultural and economic influences in Southeast Asia. These Indianized kingdoms developed a close affinity and internalised Indian religious, cultural and economic practices without significant direct input from Indian rulers themselves.

While the issue remains controversial, it is thought that Indianization was the work of Indian traders and merchants, although later the travels of Buddhist monks such as Atisha became important. Most Indianized kingdoms combined both Hindu and Buddhist beliefs and practices in a syncretic manner. Kertanagara, the last king of Singhasari, described himself as Sivabuddha, a simultaneous incarnation of the Hindu god and the Buddha.

Similarly, Southeast Asian rulers enthusiastically adopted elements of rajadharma, (Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, codes and court practices) to legitimate their own rule and constructed cities, such as Angkor, to affirm royal power by reproducing a map of sacred space derived from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

In terms of cultural commonalities, a defining characteristic of the cultural link between South East Asia and Indian subcontinent is the spread of ancient Indian Vedic/Hindu and Buddhist culture and philosophy into Myanmar, Thailand, Malaya, Laos and Cambodia. Indian scripts are also found in South East Asian islands ranging from Sumatra, Java, Bali, south Sulawesi and most of the the Philippines. The impact of Indian culture is visible in the following notable examples:

• Hinduism is practiced by majority of Bali's population.
• Hindu mythological figure Garuda features in the coat of arms of Indonesia, Thailand and Ulan Bator.
• Hindu temple architecture-style features prominently on several ancient temples in South East Asia including Angkor Wat, which was dedicated to Hindu God Vishnu and features on the flag of Cambodia.
• Batu Caves in Malaysia is the most popular Hindu shrine outside India.
• Erawan Shrine, dedicated to Brahma, in Thailand is one of the most popular religious shrines in the country

Having said all these, I want to see what has been the impact of soft power in international politics. I would argue that soft power is good, but it can be an effective tool in foreign policy only if it matched by hard power, effective diplomacy, including military diplomacy. Soft power cannot be turned into effective influence in a nation or a region unless followed by its hard power. That is how they is a term coined, smart power, a mix of both hard and soft power. A country needs to pursue both hard and soft power to get the right influence and affect policies in a country. Indian movies have been popular in Afghanistan even in the 1990s, but that soft power did not help India in any way. Pakistan, with the help of Taliban, swayed their influence in that country, belittle what India has had.

Let us look at something closer home. Chinese food, Chinese movies have been popular all over the world. Indians love Chinese food. My husband loves Chinese food, the kung-fu movies, but that does not affect his perception on China. He has very hardline views on China. Similarly, Indian curry has been very popular, but that has not necessarily reflected in favourable outcomes for India. Nonetheless, it is a useful tool in enhancing one’s image. But it has to be matched by and followed up with hard power, effective diplomacy. Otherwise, India’s music and culture, will remain as simple attraction for the outside world but not anything of influence in international politics.

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