Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Sep 12, 2017
The past in the present: Civilisational heritage and Indian soft power

During the last three years, Indian foreign policy has assumed a proactive avatar under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, accompanied by increasing rhetoric of India's potential rise to the position of a great power in the international system. A heightened emphasis on national security, increased defence expenditures, and much-publicised foreign visits are manifestations of Modi’s foreign policy. Soft power, or a country’s non-coercive and persuasive capacity to pursue its aims on the global stage, has been a crucial tool in the quiver of the Modi government. ‘Soft Power’ as a concept undergirded the United State's public diplomacy following the World War-II. Soft power has been utilised thereafter by a number of states, most notably by China, in its attempt to alter its global image as a repressive, authoritarian state.

The Indian government has adopted a multi-faceted approach to the promotion of soft power, which involves strengthening links with diaspora populations, actively promoting the 'Make in India' programme, providing development assistance, and so on. One of the more novel methods in which Indian soft power has been promoted has been through the leveraging of the heritage of what Daya Thussu and many others term the 'Indic Civilisation'. The idea of a civilisational heritage is one that has entered the Indian foreign policy discourse in several ways. On the domestic front, scholars such as Koenraad Elst hold the view that political entity that is India is ill suited to the conventional framework of the modern nation-state, better identified instead as a civilisational-state. In the domain of foreign policy, one sees these ideas manifested as sanskriti evam sabhyata (cultural and civilisational links), two of the pillars of the Panchamrit principles outlined by the government in April 2015. These principles, established as a model to guide the country's foreign policy, replaced the Nehruvian 'Panchsheel' framework hitherto in operation.

Diplomacy under the Modi government is based on appeals to shared histories and cultures in order to better pursue foreign policy objectives.


The Government's aim to strengthen relations with Israel were given a boost with Prime Minister Modi's visit to the country in July earlier this year. Rhetoric regarding the strengthening alliance often referenced and emphasised India's historical role as a safe haven for Jews at a time when they were being persecuted in their native lands. In a community address during the visit, Modi himself took these connections a step further by highlighting similarities between the cultures, and festivals of the two countries.

Examples of such diplomacy are found in foreign relations closer to home as well, and come within the larger purview of the government's 'neighbourhood first' policy. The present political boundaries in the subcontinent are relatively recent that do not correspond to cultural contiguities in the region; invocations of a common heritage can aid in the establishment of connections with neighbouring states at a social level. In a speech made to the Nepalese parliament, for example, in August 2014, a clear appeal was to the shared histories of the two countries, with Prime Minister Modi referring to Nepal as the "land of Sita and Janak", and the country of Buddha's birth, thereby bringing millennia old religious connections into the present day. There have been efforts to further strengthen and bring about tangible benefits through the leveraging of these associations by way of the Buddhist tourist circuit that was mooted by the Ministry of Tourism in India, which would also involve Bhutan and Sri Lanka, providing further impetus to the 'neighbourhood first' policy. With respect to Sri Lanka, another tourist circuit designed around the epic Ramayana, is also integral to the current Indian foreign policy discourse. Promotion of Hinduism and Buddhism can also feed into the 'Act East Policy' of the government.

Even in the case of China, a state with which relations are always fraught with tension, similar diplomatic strategies are adopted. In a speech made to the India-China Business Forum in Shanghai in September 2015, Modi once again drew upon the legacies of Buddhism as a key to uniting Asia, emphasising it as a bond between ancient India and China. Recognising India and China as ancient civilisations, Modi acknowledged the role that the sharing of knowledge played in their evolution, with mentions made of Chinese scholars that translated the Bhagavad Gita, and applications of Indian astronomy to ancient Chinese knowledge systems. Having established the historical importance of the two countries for each other, Modi steered the conversation towards the present by stating, "We have helped each other grow spiritually, now we can help each other grow economically".

Beyond bilateral diplomacy, one sees this approach being implemented in the realm of strategic initiatives with the launch of Project Mausam.


The project, described as a transnational initiative to promote maritime trade in the Indian Ocean, draws on a legacy of thriving economic and cultural interaction documented by Sanjeev Sanyal in his book The Ocean of Churn. When announced, Project Mausam was considered one of the foremost strategic initiatives pursued by the government, as it was to act as a counter to China's increasing influence in the region and its successes in its Maritime Silk Route Project.

The past, as shown in the foregoing, is being drawn into the present in a very real way. The successes of these efforts are somewhat difficult to measure given the intangibility of soft power. However, in regions like Israel and South Asia, where populations subscribe to strong cultural and historical identities, such approaches might bear fruit. Furthermore, ‘soft power’ rhetoric can become the foundation for concrete action in the form of Project Mausam. What is of crucial importance now is ensuring that talk translates into reality, enabling India to improve its standing at the bilateral and regional levels, regardless of its consequences for its great power ambitions.

(The author is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation)

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.