Event ReportsPublished on Mar 07, 2013
India needs to embrace the idea of soft power, and abandon the misconception that 'soft' power somehow equates to a soft country, says Ms Mira Kamdar, a noted author. She believes there is hope, since the Indian people are not taking injustices lying down.
India's soft power problem

Author anIs India in danger of losing its soft power advantage? This was the question posed by Mira Kamdar, a noted author, while speaking on "India’s soft power problem" at Observer Research Foundation on March 7, 2013. Adding to Joseph Nye’s definition of ’soft’ power as a power of persuasion rather than coercion, Ms Kamdar, author of Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World (2008 Scribner), highlighted the importance of economic and cultural assets. She noted that soft power is largely based on perception and reputations, meaning a variety of factors determine the soft power advantage of a country.

The ability to conduct actions - political, military or otherwise - is one facet of a nation’s power; soft power is significant in terms of those actions being seen as legitimate. Thus the ’power’ component of soft power comes from the influence of democratic institutions. This is the reason that India’s interests are still relevant to the United States -- while India cannot keep up with China economically, it maintains the core elements of soft power: democracy, rule of law and open society. In fact, Ms Kamdar said, these elements are integral to the ’Indian story’ - selling the world’s largest democracy, a vibrant economy, cultural diversity and so on. India’s soft power position is at risk because these institutions are now being questioned, accused of not functioning optimally.

India has experienced a series of highly publicised corruption scandals, from the Commonwealth Games organisation fiasco to the Anna Hazare protest movement, lending to the idea that India is a corrupt country. Ms Kamdar mentioned the possibility that India was always seen as somewhat corrupt, but other positive stories had emerged which pushed the spectre of corruption into the background. As those positives faded, the corruption issue became more significant.

As with much of the world, the economic news from India was also negative. The idea of double digit growth - once touted by the Prime Minister as the minimum requirement for a trickle down to alleviate poverty - now seems a fantasy. Ms Kamdar pointed out that the wealth gap is increasing and foreign direct investment is down. Foreign institutional investment did grow, but this was not encouraging as it involved speculative, ’hot’ money. To compound the problem, other developing economies are emerging as rivals to India for foreign investments.

Ms Kamdar emphasised the importance of the rule of law in the soft power equation. The deficiencies of the Indian legal system were exposed by the Delhi gang-rape which received widespread publicity in the international media. Ms Kamdar said it was the tipping point in terms of attitudes towards violence against women. The victim seemed to be representative of all ’aspirational’ India - a woman, pursuing higher studies, modern enough to be going to see a movie with a male friend who was just a friend. Her story was contrasted with those of her rapists, who were reported to be slum-dwellers, in dire economic straits, lacking education, unable to deal with modernity and urban culture.

The idea that ’fast-track’ courts had to be set up to deal with the case meant the legal system was not sufficient. Ms Kamdar said the principle of equality before the law was threatened because ’sensational’ cases received coverage and the possibility of resolution but all others were left to the mercy of the unreliable and long-drawn out system.

Ms Kamdar also noted that the law was often used as a ’blunt instrument’, to wield control rather than enforce justice. She pointed specifically to the use of Article 66A of the Information Technology Act (2000) to silence political criticism, and referred to the injustice of jailing Shaheen Dhada for innocuous comments made on Facebook.

International reportage of the governance crises has led to questioning of the rule of law and open society in India, which seriously impacts its soft power standing. There has been a pressure to liberalise markets (eased recently with reforms), to provide for the poor (everything from nutrition to earning power), and once again to fight corruption. When democracy and the rule of law fail, open society suffers and a climate of self-censorship emerges. A country’s image is necessarily affected by such criticism. Ms Kamdar suggested that in the run up to an election, only superficial changes would be seen, rather than any drastic reforms; she stressed, however, that ’touching up’ a situation can only work for so long - eventually people see through the façade and demand real change.

These faults may be due to a weakness inherent in democracy - it tends to build moral expectations to a level where they can’t be met. People want immediate action and are not satisfied, so they take their anger out on the system. India is at the moment managing ’a million mutinies’ rather than one revolution. Ms Kamdar acknowledged that traditional soft power assets may be making room for new criteria of judgement - soft power for the BRICS age - so India’s supposed ’failings’ may be strengths in other regions.

Soft power is made up of all kinds of aspects - from the spread of Bollywood and Indian culture abroad, to business dealings, and even the success of the Indian diaspora abroad. However, for real political success, the soft talking of soft power needs to be backed up by the big stick of hard power. Sometimes the two can be hard to distinguish - donations of economic aid qualify as soft power, but economic sanctions are an exercise of hard, coercive power. Soft power is about inspiring imitation - the idea of the city on the hill, to make others want what you have. It’s also largely about storytelling (spin and perception), although the story must have a connection with reality.

Ms Kamdar said India needs to embrace the idea of soft power, and abandon the misconception that ’soft’ power somehow equates to a soft country. She believes there is hope, since the Indian people are not taking injustices lying down -- they are taking to the streets and voicing their concerns, defiant and hopeful that the system will improve. Not everything will be reported -- the small victories go unnoticed as the media are attracted to sensational stories, but there is progress being made and India’s international reputation will reflect this.

(This report is prepared by Anahita Mathai, Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

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