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Shifting Perceptions of Power: Soft Power and India’s Foreign Policy


Soft power’s importance has increased in the context of globalisation and the growing disquiet over theuse of military power for achieving foreign policy objectives. This paper focuses specifically on softpower in India’s foreign policy and sources of India’s soft power like the Indian diaspora, Indianculture, etc. It also looks at what affects India’s soft power inimically and how to increase its soft power.

Traditional approaches to security studies in international relations have always laidemphasis on the concept of power. Power is the ability to achieve one’s purposes or goals andat the most general level, it is the capacity to influence the behaviour of others to get theoutcomes one wants. There are several ways of influencing the behaviour of others. To achievethe desired outcomes, one can coerce with threats, induce with payments, or attract and co-optto get people to want what one wants. The concept of power comprises everything from theability to keep oneself alive to the ability of a government to promote economic growth. Theability to obtain the outcomes one wants is often associated with the possession of certainresources like population, territory, natural resources, economic strength, military force andpolitical stability. This has been the traditional concept of power (‘hard power’) in internationalpolitics, especially for the Realist school.

Power and statecraft are essential elements of Realism. This tradition can be traced to ThomasHobbes and his assertion of the basic perpetual and restless human desire for ‘power afterpower’.  Classical realists suggest that States increase their power in order to ensure their ownsecurity and to survive as independent entities. The realist tradition portrays internationalpolitics as a ‘state of nature’, an essentially anarchic system in which each State is forced to helpitself and give priority to its own national interests.

According to the realists, security of the State is attained and preserved through themaximization of power and the elements of national power include: geographical boundaries,large territorial size, the capacity for self-sufficiency in natural and industrial resources and astrong technological base, all of which contribute to a strong military capability.  KennethWaltz’s structural realism employs the notion of international anarchy and sees States as basicunits of the international system. The central concern of an anarchical international system ispower. It is conceived as a self-help system with States primarily seeking survival and security. Wars and conflicts are the usual consequences of this state of affairs as states seek power,resources and territory, often at the cost of other States. The desire to dominate other Statesincreases as a State’s power capabilities grow. Power indeed is the key factor in States’balancing behaviour.

However, the level of threat that may arise from an external source is another importantvariable in determining the States’ behaviour in international politics. In this regard, StephenWalt suggests ‘threat’ to be more significant than ‘power’ and his ‘balance of threat theory’initiated an expansion of applications pertaining to traditional realist and neorealist theories. Several theoretical as well as historical case studies focusing on power and the balancingbehaviour of the States gave rise to more severe criticism of realist and neorealist theories. Someof them challenged the notion of power and the idea of balance of power because theyexplained only the grand strategy of the major States of the twentieth century. However, post-Cold War international politics is characterized by major shifts in approach from the traditionalrealist perspective on ‘power’. This paper focuses specifically on the shifting perceptions ofpower in India’s foreign policy. Apart from analysing the dynamics of hard and soft power inIndia’s foreign policy, the paper also attempts to identify the role of soft power and its impactand influence on the foreign policy decision-making of India.

Soft Power in International Politics

A new form of power—‘soft power’— has become increasingly discussed in the post-ColdWar era. The term ‘soft power’ was first coined by the Harvard University Professor, JosephNye (1990), in his book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. Nye (2004)developed the concept further in his book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.Soft power in international politics arises from factors such as the dominant values, internalpractices and policies, and the manner of conducting international relations of a State. Softpower is the ability to obtain what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises due to the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies,that is, through elements which are ‘real but intangible’

The success of soft power heavily depends on the State’s reputation within the internationalcommunity, as well as the flow of information between States. Thus, soft power is often linkedto the rise of globalization and neoliberal theory. Popular culture and media is often identifiedas a source of soft power, as is the spread of a national language, or a particular set ofnormative structures. A nation with a large amount of soft power and the goodwill so won caninspire other countries to acculturate, thus avoiding the need for expensive hard powerexpenditures.

Power in the post Cold War Era

Hard and soft power can be regarded as two extremities on a continuum of power. Theyinvolve different ideas, interactions and institutions for foreign policy whether in the areas ofsecurity, politics or economics. Ideally, hard power strategies focus on military intervention,coercive diplomacy, and economic sanctions in order to enforce national interests resulting inconfrontational policies vis-à-vis neighbouring countries while soft power strategies stress oncommon political values, peaceful means for conflict management, and economic co-operationin order to achieve common solutions. Though soft power cannot produce results as fast ashard power, its effects are more long-lasting and it is less expensive than hard power. Theimportance of soft power is due to its ability to influence others unintrusively andunconsciously. It is thus an indirect way to get what you want and hence has been termed the‘second face of power’.

Power is becoming less fungible, less coercive and less concrete today. Co-optive behaviouralpower and soft power resources are not new. However, recent trends and changes in politicalissues have made them more significant. Today’s major powers are not as able to use theirtraditional power resources to achieve their purposes as in the past. Private actors and smallstates have become more powerful on many issues. At least five trends have contributed to thisdiffusion of power: economic interdependence, transnational actors, rise of nationalism in weakstates, the spread of technology and changing political issues.1

The developments in communications and transport in recent times have had a revolutionaryeffect on economic interdependence. The declining costs of transportation and communicationhave revolutionized global markets and accelerated the development of trans-nationalcorporations that transfer economic activity across borders. The process of modernization,urbanization and increased communication in developing nations has also diffused power fromgovernments to private actors. Social awakening has increased nationalism in poor or weakStates and this, in turn, has reduced the scope of applying traditional military power as this hasmade military intervention and external rule more costly. The spread of modern technology hasalso enhanced the capabilities of backward states. The ability of great powers to control theirenvironments despite impressive traditional power has also been weakened due to thechanging nature of issues in world politics. According to Nye, in the information age, threekinds of countries are in a good position to gain soft power: (1) ‘those whose dominant cultureand ideas are closer to prevailing global norms (which now emphasize liberalism, pluralism,and autonomy), (2) those with the most access to multiple channels of communication and thusmore influence over how issues are framed, and (3) those whose credibility is enhanced by theirdomestic and international performance’.

The importance of soft power in the contemporary world can be seen if we look at why Chinapulled out all stops to hold a successful Olympics. The success of the Beijing Olympics hashelped increase China’s soft power around the world with the associated benefits. The successhas showcased China’s strong capabilities, enhanced mutual understanding between theChinese and foreign citizens and will in all probability encourage its further opening up. This isevident in the words of Zheng Yongnian, Director of the East Asian Institute of the NationalUniversity of Singapore: “After the Olympics, more attention would be paid to changes inChina … because China has become a power in the eyes of the West. They would monitor orsupervise the development of this important country”. The need to increase its soft powerexplains why China is promoting the study of the Chinese language and culture by establishing Confucius Institutes on the lines of the Alliance Francaise and the British Council across theworld. Another example is the Unites States’ increased funding and emphasis to publicdiplomacy post 9/11 and the Iraq War because its unilateral use of hard power in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to the growth of anti-Americanism in many parts of the world anddecreased its soft power significantly.

Soft power grows out of the ‘cultural milieu of society’ and can only be created by the people;the State has little or no role to play in its creation.16 However, the State can accentuate its softpower through various means like public diplomacy. Public diplomacy is the process by which‘direct relations are pursued with a country’s people to promote the interest and values of those being represented’.17 The soft power of a country rests mainly on three resources: ‘its culture (inplaces where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home andabroad) and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moralauthority).’

Sources of India’s Soft Power

India has always been a country with tremendous ‘soft power’—as can be seen from the factthat unlike the rise of China, its ‘rise’ is not being viewed with trepidation and alarm in manycountries. India’s soft power is very high in the countries of South East Asia due to their sharedheritage and civilization and they are now called its ‘civilizational neighbours’. Unlike the otheremerging Asian powers like China and Japan, India has a unique advantage in these countriesas India does not have border disputes with any of them. Indian culture is appreciated in itsimmediate neighbourhood in South Asia. India has influenced countries both in its immediateneighbourhood and extended neighbourhood like Persia (now known as Iran) for centuries.India continues to have tremendous potential for soft power because of its culture andcivilizational links—its large diaspora, popular films, music, art and historical and culturallinks with several countries around the world all contribute to its soft power.


Culture is the most important source of soft power. India is at a very advantageous positionas far as culture is concerned and has historically enjoyed much soft power. According to T.V.Paul and Baldev Nayar, Indian culture offers one of the most dynamic alternatives to Westerncultural values.19India has had a long history of civilizational and cultural links with countriesas far-flung as Iran, Rome and South East Asia. Its riches and splendour have attracted tradersand travellers for thousands of years. Countries in Southeast Asia still have remnants of Indiantraditions: the Angor Vat temple in Cambodia, temples and pagodas in Thailand, Myanmar aswell as the presence of several Sanskrit words in languages like Bahasha Indonesia prove theinfluence of Indian culture on these countries. India, as the land where the Buddha preached,has positive connotations for Buddhists all over the world. Buddhism spread from India toChina and other countries through Buddhist monks and scholars came to India to study at itsuniversities leading to a healthy exchange of ideas right from ancient times the influence ofwhich is apparent throughout Asia even today.20 India’s continued soft power in the Asia–Pacific can be seen in the proposal by India to revive the once world famous NalandaUniversity in partnership with China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore. This initiative is anexample of the convergence of the soft power agendas of five different countries. Islamicpreachers from India are believed to have spread the religious and cultural values of Islam inSingapore and Malaysia. Also, as one of the few places in the world where Jews werewelcomed and not persecuted, India enjoys much soft power in Israel.

India’s diaspora is a huge soft power asset. There are millions of Indian diaspora spreadacross countries as far as Fiji, Guyana, Malaysia, Mauritius, Surinam, South Africa, Sri Lankaand Trinidad. While Indians were taken over as indentured labours to far-flung parts of theBritish Empire in the nineteenth-century, a professional elite from this expatriate communityhas found its way to the United States (US), Canada, Australia, and other nations of the West inthe twentieth century. They have contributed immensely to the countries they have settled inand command influence and respect in these countries. In fact, the Indo-American communityin the US has been found to be the most educated immigrant community in the US. The recentupturn in Indo-US relations has a lot to do with the lobbying, influence and reputation of theIndo-American community. Countries like Fiji and Mauritius have large Indian communitieswith people of Indian Origin holding important political positions.

One of India’s most successful and enduring imports—yoga—is practised all over the worldboth as a form of exercise and as a stress-buster by millions of people. Yoga is already a globalphenomenon and is rapidly becoming part of mainstream culture, particularly in the West.Indian cuisine with its subtle use of spices and herbs grown across the Indian subcontinent isalso becoming popular in the West, particularly in the United Kingdom (UK) which is home toa large Indian diaspora. In fact, Shashi Tharoor claims that in the UK today, Indian curryhouses employ more people than the iron and steel, coal and shipbuilding industriescombined.21 Indian food has also gained popularity in other Western countries and there aremany Indian restaurants in the larger cities of the US and Canada.

Elements of popular Indian culture like music and movies have a wide following in manycountries. The power of music can bridge borders and bring people closer. Indian music andmovies have a large international market and have become increasingly popular abroad,particularly in Asia, Europe, Africa and West Asia. Even in countries like Russia, Syria andSenegal, Indian films, particularly Hindi (Bollywood, which is the most important movieindustry after Hollywood) movies, have a following. Indian movies are popular and watchednot only in South Asian countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lankadue to their close proximity with India and due to certain similar cultural outlooks present inthe movies but also in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. South Asia is already dominated byIndian music and movies to the extent that at times it has even bred some resentment againstIndia. In fact, Pakistan had earlier banned Indian television channels and films though recentlythere have been some collaborations between Bollywood and the Pakistani film industry. Waxstatues of several actors from the Indian film industry at Madame Tussaud’s in London beartestimony to the influence of Indian cinema and India’s soft power. The overwhelming Oscarsuccess of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, where three Indian artists/technicians won individual Oscars,shows the potential for Indian films and artists to contribute to India’s soft power. When Indianwriters win international awards like the Man-Booker prize, when India becomes the guest ofhonour at international book fairs like the Frankfurt Book Fair, when Indian movies arescreened at International Film Festivals like Cannes and when Indians win awards like theNobel and Magsasay awards, India’s soft power is built.

The success of Indian companies like Infosys Technologies and Wipro Technologies in theInformation Technology (IT) sector; success of other multinational companies like the TataGroup and Reliance Group; and the worldwide recognition of the academic excellence of theIndian Institute of Management (IIMs) and Indian Institute of Technology (IITs)—the centres ofexcellence for higher training, research and development in science, engineering andtechnology in India—have contributed to the new image of India as a country with Englisheducated, enterprising people. In the US, for example, the stereotypical Indian is no longer astarving peasant, but a highly professional IT specialist who tells helpless Americans how towork with their computers. Indians constitute the epicentre of the Silicon Valley revolution andIndia have moved from being a job-seeking economy to one that is being driven by demand indeveloped nations for services and migrant workers from developing countries.

India’s spirituality is much needed in these days of conflict and strife. India’s tolerance fordifferent religions and cultures is legendary. This is the land which has preached ‘VasudhaivaKudumbakam’ (the world is my family) and Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavanthu (let there bepeace in the whole world) after all. India’s message of secularism which actually meansdifferent religions co-existing in harmony with each other, rather than the Western concept ofseparation of religion and the State is a valuable lesson in these days when there is so muchstrife in the name of religion.

India’s diplomats have also played a role, though how big it is cannot really be measured thatbeing the nature of soft power itself, in increasing India’s soft power. India’s diplomats haveplayed important roles in international for a in the 1960s and 1970s and continue to playsignificant roles in international negotiations like climate change. India’s diplomats are trainedin India’s culture and values, communication skills as well as the work in the media and IndianParliament.22 This helps them connect with governments as well as people of other countries.With increasing globalisation in culture as well as the media, India’s influence through itsculture is likely to increase in the future.

Foreign Policy

A country’s foreign policy is defined as the basis and framework of its relations with othercountries.24 The behaviour of one State can either have a favourable or adverse effect onanother. This prompts every State to minimize the problems of adverse action and maximizethe favourable actions of foreign States. Joseph Nye says that a country’s foreign policy canincrease its soft power if its foreign policy is perceived by other countries and people to be‘legitimate and having moral authority’.25 India’s foreign policy has been based on moral valuesfrom the time of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who remains a tremendous influence onIndian foreign policy even today. India’s soft power, in any case, got a major boost with theway it achieved independence. The legacy of the Indian freedom movement and that of itsleader, Gandhi, certainly built India’s soft power from the very beginning as a country whichhad achieved independence with non-violent methods. This soft power was consolidated bythe foreign policy agenda set by Nehru.

Moreover, even before independence, leaders of the Indian National Congress supported thefreedom struggles of people under colonial rule in Asia and Africa. This support, both politicaland material, continued even after independence.26  Many thousands of Indian soldiers also losttheir lives in the fight against Nazism and Fascism in World War II. India also strongly decriedApartheid and racial discrimination at international fora. Its refusal to join either bloc duringthe Cold War and sending a medical contingent rather than armed combatants to the UnitedNations (UN) force in Korea in 1950 also enhanced its standing in the world community,particularly the countries of the Third World. This is proved by India’s getting thechairmanship of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC) set up in 1953 after theKorean War and India’s mediatory role in bringing about the Indo-China Peace Agreementafter the French were defeated by the Vietnamese.27 As J.N. Dixit argues, ‘India’s acceptabilityas a reconciliatory and mediator was both remarkable and illogical because this credibility anddiplomatic success of India had nothing to do with its economic resources or military power’.28In fact, it was an expression of India’s soft power and the respect Nehru commanded in thenewly-independent countries of the world as leader of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM).Nehru was determined to “forge a world order that eschewed, or at least hobbled, the use offorce in international politics”.29 India even supported China’s claim for a permanent seat onthe United Nations (UN) Security Council. Thus, till the 1962 Sino–Indian war at least, India’ssoft power especially among Third World countries was tremendous and India was the rallyingpoint for many of these countries.

The 1962 Sino–India war marked a turning point in Indian foreign policy to one shorn ofmost of the idealist rhetoric and moral grandstanding of the Nehruvian era. This shift was alsoin part due to the realization among Indian policy makers that all the trust (soft power) thatIndia enjoyed in the Third World was of little use as few of these countries came out in supportof India. The Sino-India war, the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971 and the integration of Goa,Daman and Diu in 1961 into the Indian State were instances where India used hard power toachieve its objectives, though these two wars were admittedly forced on India. Indira Gandhi’sstrong personality was reflected in her foreign policy making. Unlike her father, she was apractitioner of realpolitik. She believed that India’s foreign policy should be tied to thecountry’s economic, political and security interests and that these interests primarily dependedon India becoming strong and self-reliant though she continued to support the NAM.30Subsequently, she established a strategic partnership with the Soviet Union, upgraded India’sdefence capabilities, won a war against Pakistan in 1971 (dividing that country so as to secureIndia’s strategic environment among other reasons) and even tested a nuclear device in 1974.However, the 1971 Bangladesh war was also framed as ‘humanitarian intervention’ to maintainIndia’s standing in world politics and to ensure that there was minimal effect on its soft power.

Both of Indira Gandhi’s tenures as Prime Minister saw a return to traditional concepts ofInternational Relations like realism and balance of power and the dominance of strategiesidentified with hard power. All this certainly did nothing to add to India’s soft power. TheMorarji Desai government took several initiatives to improve relations with China, the US andPakistan, thus improving the country’s image in the world. Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in1988 again showed India as a State committed to improving relations with its neighbours. Butthe deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka was largely seen acrossthe world as ‘interference in another country’s internal affairs’, something which is almost asacrilege in international relations. Thus, India was seen as a hegemon through much of the1970s and 1980s, particularly by its neighbours.

In the post-Cold War era, particularly after liberalization, privatization and globalization,there has been a shift towards more conciliatory relations with the world at large throughshedding of some of the Cold War ideological baggage so that the West was no longer seen asan adversary/imperial colonial power to be resisted at every point. India has moved closer tothe US than ever before in history while maintaining robust relations with Russia and China.After the 1990s, India has tried to play down its ‘big brother’ image in South Asia by takinginitiatives to resolve disputes with its neighbours and scrupulously avoiding interference in theinternal affairs of its neighbours. Wagner argues that India’s regional policy after the 1990s hasbeen characterized by greater emphasis on soft power strategies.31 One example of this is the‘Gujral doctrine’ which introduced the principle of non-reciprocity, emphasising that India notonly had a bigger responsibility, but should give more to the smaller neighbours than shewould receive.32 This doctrine echoed domestic changes in India, especially the economicliberalisation post–1991. This shift towards soft power was not caused due to altruistic reasons,but due the fact that India’s hard power approach of the 1970s and 1980s was not very effectivein achieving its goals.33 Despite having more sources of hard power, India was not able totransform the military victory of 1971 over Pakistan into a long-lasting solution of the Kashmirissue.

The limitations of the hard power strategy also became evident in the 1990s when the conflictover Kashmir continued and sparked off bilateral crises. Moreover, with globalization andliberalization of the economy, as countries became more interdependent, India could not affordto antagonise other countries by stressing on its hard power capabilities. It is in this context thatIndia has strengthened its soft power strategies like moving towards closer economiccooperation through initiatives like the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation(SSARC) and proposals for confidence building measures (CBMs) with other countries. Thisnew emphasis on ‘soft power’ continued even when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)government led by the hawkish Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power and despite the1998 Pokhran tests. In fact, even after the tests, India adopted the policy of unilateral selfrestraint and imposed a unilateral moratorium on further tests to assuage worldwidecondemnation of the tests and salvage some soft power. The NDA’s initiatives to increasepeople-to-people interaction between India and Pakistan and other CBMs that it initiated withPakistan were also attempts to improve India’s image in Pakistan and increase its soft power.India has also shown interest and taken the initiative in solving long-standing border disputeswith its neighbours like China and Bangladesh in recent times.

The Kargil war between India and Pakistan of 1999 was important in terms of soft power dueto two factors: it won over world support for India as most countries accepted India’scontention that Pakistan was at fault for initiating the intrusion and India won global respectfor its restraint in not crossing the border; second, it proved the limitations of hard power asbeing nuclear powers, neither of the two countries could attack each other for fear of a full-fledged nuclear war. India’s support for the Palestinians at the UN has also ensured that its softpower is intact in the Arab countries even while its relations with Israel are growing.In an ironic situation, even the Indian Army has shown that it is not averse to using softpower. India’s participation in UN peacekeeping operations can be interpreted as an attempt toincrease its soft power in countries around the world. The Indian Army has also attempted touse soft power in militancy-affected states like Jammu & Kashmir to win the ‘hearts and minds’of people in places where there is insurgency. ‘Operation Sadhbhavana’ in Jammu and Kashmirand other operations in which the Indian army has built infrastructure, refugee camps andgiven medical aid to people in militancy-infested regions are good examples for this.

The best example of India’s successful use of soft power can be seen in its relations withAfghanistan helping it steal a march over its traditional rival, Pakistan in the hearts of thecommon Afghans. Since the fall of the Taliban, India has focussed on the reconstruction ofAfghanistan through aid for building infrastructure like dams and roads and providingscholarships for Afghan students. Indian television operas and Hindi movies have become theprimary source of entertainment for Afghans, particularly those in cities and towns.35Another recent instance was India’s restrained response to the 26/11 terror attacks inMumbai. Despite much jingoism among the general public as well as the media, India chose notto go in for military mobilisation or air strikes, but instead chose to focus on terror cells inPakistan. The sole surviving terrorist who was captured has also been given legal rights and alawyer to argue his case. Compare this with what happened in Guantanamo Bay with prisonerswho have not even been proved guilty in a court of law in the world’s oldest democracy, theUS!

India’s high economic growth after the Cold War has also contributed to a positive imageabout India globally. India has been one of the best performers in the world economy in recenttimes with an average growth arte of around 7 per cent annually. India is seen as a best foreigndirect investment (FDI) and joint ventures destination and its achievements in some sectors ofthe economy have propelled it to the status of an economic power to be reckoned with. Quite afew Indian companies are today listed on the National Association of Securities DealersAutomated Quotations (NASDAQ) index and the global recession has not affected India in abig way, pointing towards the strong fundamentals of the Indian economy.At the institutional level, India quite a bit of institutional power due to its leadership of the G-77, G-22 and NAM.36 However, a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, which continuesto remain on India’s wish-list, will add significantly to its soft power.

Political Values

India is the world’s largest democracy. India’s biggest asset in terms of soft power is itssuccessfully-functioning democracy which has survived despite many challenges. Unlike mostother developing countries, India has established democratic traditions. In any case, ademocracy would have more soft power than a military dictatorship and an authoritarianregime. The fact that India has never had a military dictatorship and yet has managed to solve,to some extent, many of the problems it faced at the time of its independence has beenappreciated all over the world. India has proved that democracy can work even in a poor,illiterate country and is not the exclusive preserve of the rich Western countries. India has hadfree and fair elections since independence. India’s democracy has allowed traditionallymarginalized sections of society like Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and women toparticipate in governance. In fact, Bhutan’s and Nepal’s recent shift towards democracy wasencouraged by its neighbour India’s example of a thriving democracy. India’s commitment todemocracy builds India’s moral power as well as soft power. India’s support for democracyand freedom are other values which enhance its soft power.

The presence of a free press in which all shades of opinion are allowed to be expressed alsocontributes to India’s soft power. India has a thriving civil society which has never shied awayfrom trying to solve social ills. It works in areas ranging from poverty alleviation toenvironmental issues often challenging government decisions by taking recourse to the courts.India, unlike most Asian countries, also has a fiercely independent judiciary which has oftenplayed an activist role in taking up many issues important to the public, but neglected by thegovernment. Though court cases may take years to reach a judgement, the public continues tohave faith in this organ of governance.

What Erodes India’s Soft Power?

While some initiatives like ‘Operation Sadhbhavana’ are being mentioned here as increasingthe soft power of the Indian State among its own people, several other initiatives like SalwaJudum initiative in the state of Chhattisgarh have, in fact, alienated the people from the State bystressing on hard power to fight radical Leftists (Maoists) who are carrying out an armedstruggle against the State in several parts of India. In this case, the state itself armed one sectionof the people—mostly the village youth and tribals—against the radical Left (thus falling backon hard power) and lost credibility with the people not only by ‘outsourcing’ its functions tothe local people, but also by resorting to hard power (arms and police) to quell resistanceleading to numerous incidents of human rights violations. Moreover, the Salwa Judum itselfhas been accused of rape, torture and extortion.

Human rights violations by instruments of the State like the Police and the Army reflectbadly on a country which has a very liberal Constitution, thus eroding its soft power. The useof torture to extract confessions and continued use of the capital punishment (though used veryrarely) when most countries have abolished these practices also affect the country’s soft powernegatively. India needs to ratify the 1987 UN Convention against Torture to prove itscommitment to civil rights. India’s poverty, the increasing gap between the rich and the poor,communal tensions and riots are other factors which build a negative image of India abroad.Unhygienic conditions, dirty roads, bureaucratic red tapism, delays at airports and railwaystations, etc. are some other factors which affect India’s soft power.

India is ranked a dismal 134 out of 182 countries in the Human Development Index of the UNHuman Development Report FOR 2009; this is something which seriously affects India’s softpower bringing back the earlier images of the 1950s of an overpopulated, poor country withunderfed people. Economic reforms have led to high growth rates, but this growth is restrictedonly to a few sectors like Information Technology, Communi-cations, etc. The liberalisation ofthe Indian economy has arguably not brought in ‘trickle-down’ benefits to many poor, ruralparts of India and has instead widened the gap between the rich and the poor. This, in turn, hasled to the evolution and growth of Maoist groups operating in as many as 170 districts in thecountry. In fact, so deep and widespread is the poverty that unless India can realize a sustainedeconomic growth at approximately 7 per cent per annum for the next decade, it will not be ableto significantly reduce endemic poverty.37 Corruption is also widespread in the country andadds to the misery of the poor. Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perception Indexput India at the 84th position out of 180 countries. A large number of Indians are also illiterate.While on the one hand, India boasts of world class institutes like the IITs and IIMs, India hasfailed to provide even primary education to large sections of its population. Child labour is alsowidespread in the country. India has millions of malnourished, hungry people. It ranked 65 inthe Global Hunger Index developed by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI),showing a level of hunger that has been described by IFPRI as ‘alarming’.

Unresolved disputes with its immediate neighbours also affect India’s soft power potential.India needs to resolve these disputes reasonably if it wants to be seen as a global powerdeserving a seat on the UN Security Council. Relations with authoritarian States likeMyanmar’s military junta, however strategic they are, can erode India’s claims of promotingdemocracy and thereby its soft power. Again, while India can justifiably claim that it helpedpush Nepal and the Maoists there towards democracy, peace and stability in 2008, its allegedinterference in Nepal’s internal affairs in May 2009 has lowered its standing in Nepal and otherneighbours. Instead of upholding the principle of supremacy of the civilian power over themilitary, India allegedly chose to support a general, whose loyalty to the deposed King is wellknown. Moreover, even earlier, India’s attempt to save the monarchy by sending Karan Singh,a royal himself, as an envoy to Nepal in 2006 in the midst of the democracy movement, raisedeyebrows in Nepal. It seemed that India believes in civilian supremacy and democracy only inits own country and is willing to sacrifice these principles at the altar of its larger strategicinterest of undermining the Nepalese Maoists to prevent Nepal from becoming closer to China.India’s nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998 also affect India’s soft power. India is one of the fewcountries which has refused to sign the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). While on the one hand,India purports to be in support of nuclear disarmament, it possesses nuclear weapons and is ade facto nuclear weapons state. This is seen as double standards by many developing countries,countries which have been India’s friends since its independence. India needs to negotiate thistricky situation to restore its credibility in these nations. India’s shift to a ‘realist’ foreign policyafter the Cold War has alienated many traditional friends. For instance, there is disquiet in theArab states about India’s increasingly warm ties with Israel, which is based on arms sales andintelligence cooperation. The improvement in Indo–US strategic relations at a time when USsoft power is at its lowest in most countries also erodes India’s soft power in countries that arenot part of the Western bloc.

The lack of success in sports and a non-existent sporting culture are also impediments in thegrowth of India’s soft power. No other aspect of culture has the capacity to bring togetherpowerful tool for international engagement as sports does. For instance, China, having held anextremely successful Olympics and having topped the medals tally, has gained new-foundrespect from countries across the world.Unresolved disputes within India, like the ones in Kashmir and the North-East also affectIndia’s soft power. The very fact that these disputes continue despite years of democracy areproof that the benefits of democracy and development have not reached people in theseregions.


Soft power can be increased by augmenting funding for cultural activities in embassies,promoting India aggressively and starting India study centres all over the world on the lines ofBritish Council, American Information Resource Centers, Alliance Francoise and the ConfuciusInstitutes started by China. These institutes increase their respective countries’ soft power byprojecting a favourable image of their countries to the outside world through public relationsexercises. The Indian Foreign Service (IFS) should give more emphasis to public diplomacy andmore initiatives like friendship years with different countries should be started. More fundingshould be given for public diplomacy. India should also hold more cultural festivals abroadshowcasing different aspects of its culture. The doors of Indian universities should be openedto foreign students through scholarships and student exchange programmes so that theyunderstand Indian culture, interests and values by the time they go home and propagate afavourable image about India. For this, more funds should be allotted to the Indian Council forCultural Relations (ICCR). Tourists must be welcomed to India so that more people see thebeauty and varied culture of India. Indian tourists abroad also convey the image of a new, richand confident India. They must also be advised to be polite and to respect the traditions of thecountries they visit. There should be more focus on sports infrastructure development inschools so that the world gets to know India as a sporting nation. The Pravasi Bharatiya Divasinitiative by the Indian government is a laudable attempt to tap into the economic and politicalresources of the Indian diaspora all over the world. But India needs to do more so that thediaspora feels welcome and wanted by India.

Foreign aid is another factor which can enhances a country’s soft power. With India projectedto be one of the largest economies of the world by 2025, it will certainly have enough economicpower to help other poorer countries. So, India must put in place a well-coordinated foreign aidpolicy and needs to increase its aid to poor countries, particularly African countries. This aidmust be well targeted and must be purely humanitarian in character so as to increase India’ssoft power. Towards this end, an agency on the lines on US Agency for International Development (USAID) must be established.India needs to ensure that the benefits of democracy and economic reforms reach the needy.This would help bring those fighting the Indian State into the mainstream. It has certainly takensome steps towards this by encouraging those fighting against it in Kashmir and the North Eastto engage in the political process. This effort seems to be working and must be encouraged.

India has a huge population, vast territory, has high military expenditure, has the thirdlargest number of armed personnel in the world and has well-quipped army, navy and air forceand is a de facto nuclear power as well as a space power thus establishing its hard power. Indiais also rapidly emerging as an economic powerhouse in terms of growth rates and gross domestic product (GDP) and is projected to be the third largest economy by 2025 after Chinaand the US by the World Bank. India’ huge middle class and their purchasing power, its hugepool of skilled workers and the fact that it has one of the largest pools of scientists in the worldadd significantly to its economic potential and hard power capabilities. Thus, India has both theelements needed for hard power—military strength and economic power. As seen above, India also has a substantial amount of soft power and has the potential to augment it. India needs togive more emphasis to soft power and rein it to achieve foreign policy objectives as soft powerresources like state capacity, diplomatic or strategic strength and quality of the nationalleadership are very important to a country’s “latent capabilities into actualized power”.

India, at various points in its history, has used both hard power and soft power. However, areliance on one or the other exclusively would not help in achieving foreign policy objectives.Soft power cannot be used in all situations just as hard power cannot be used in allcircumstances. But if used effectively in conjugation with hard power, it can yield better resultsthan if only hard power is used. This use of a judicious combination of soft and hard power hasbeen termed as ‘smart power’ by some scholars like Suzanne Nossel. India has a lot of potentialfor this ‘smart power’, blessed as it is with abundant soft power as well as hard powerelements. The Indian State needs to wake up to this potential and tap into it to achieve its globalambitions and foreign policy objectives.


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