Author : Sushant Sareen

Originally Published 2018-10-11 11:39:46 Published on Oct 11, 2018
By overdoing soft power, India isn’t going to be able to fix the challenges of today, nor will it be able to exploit and benefit from the opportunities of today and tomorrow.
When soft power is not enough

That soft power is an extremely important component of foreign policy is a no-brainer. But it is, at best, one of the necessary conditions or components of foreign policy. Without hard power (both military and economic) and the ability to exercise “smart power” — a term first coined by the US diplomat Joseph Nye Jr. — soft power alone itself will never be sufficient enough to achieve foreign policy objectives.

In India, however, the focus is more on projecting and leveraging soft power i.e. music, films, sports, art, culture, ancient wisdom, civilisational values etc, so as to occupy a place on the global high table.

The latest example of this is the production of music videos of Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite bhajan — Vaishnao Janato. Indian missions across the world were instructed to rope in top stars from their respective countries and get them to sing the bhajan as a part of the commemoration of Gandhiji’s 150th birth anniversary.

While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with such a project, given the security, strategic and economic challenges that confront Indian foreign policy, should be getting this bhajan sung by foreign stars have been a priority for Indian diplomats? Was the expense this would have incurred — monetary as well as in terms of time and energy of diplomats — justified? What are the takeaways of this somewhat batty idea in terms of even projecting soft power? How many people around the world, and I don’t even mean influential persons, were influenced or swayed by the rendition of this bhajan by foreign singers? How many people other than Indians had even heard this bhajan? How does the bhajan advance any of India’s important or vital interests in other countries?

The current dispensation led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has managed to engage rest of the world and advance India's relations with almost all the important countries in the world. Where necessary, it has shown steely resolve in upholding Indian interests. To the Prime Minister’s credit, he hasn’t allowed personal slights or ego clashes to distract him or deflect him from pursuing India's interests. He has ignored Trump mimicking him or other Western countries unfairly denying him a visa before he became Prime Minister. He has certainly injected energy and confidence in how India interacts and engages other countries.

And yet, the obsession with soft power and reclaiming India's stature as a “vishwa guru” (what does that mean anyway?) has frittered away or at least expended energies that could be better utilised elsewhere.

The ruling party’s reverence for Deen Dayal Upadhyay is understandable. But let's face it, there is nothing pathbreaking or revolutionary in what he said. What did he say, other than the typical confused socialistic mumbo-jumbo of his times? Will holding international symposiums, seminars, conferences to propagate D.D. Upadhyay’s thoughts really make any difference? Isn’t it a colossal waste of resources?

Similarly, with Yoga, the world recognises and practises yoga not because the Modi government is promoting it or because there is an international Yoga Day, but because it is truly an exceptional form of exercise. Should the government then needlessly be going bonkers in celebrating Yoga Day all over the world?

While every government must be permitted or forgiven, its peculiarities and peccadilloes, the Congress party apparatchiks cannot open their mouth without first singing paeans of their first family, and pretentious socialists must take Ram Manohar Lohia or J.P. Narayan’s name to justify their whacky policies and politics. The problem is that overtly focusing on these “events” and the need for showing performance in organising these events has become an end in itself for civil servants. Thus, it is that the High Commissioner in Islamabad, unlike his counterparts from other countries, doesn’t feel that merely meeting a newly (s)elected Prime Minister of Pakistan is enough; he must create a splash by doing the most cliched thing possible — presenting a cricket bat with signatures of the current Indian team. This gesture was apparently supposed to soften the nominee of the Pakistan Army. Seriously? There exists a number of examples of this dumbing down of diplomacy where form has taken precedence and priority over substance.

While it is important that India and Indians take pride in their astounding accomplishments in ancient times, it is even more critical to recognise that India today cannot rest on its laurels from the past. India might have been a “vishwa guru” a millennia or more ago, but today, it has more to learn from both, its friends, as well as its enemies and adversaries. And it (India) has very little to teach them.

By overdoing soft power, India isn’t going to be able to fix the challenges of today, nor will it be able to exploit and benefit from the opportunities of today and tomorrow.

For more than four decades after independence, India exercised soft power but had very little heft in terms of hard power, or in some cases, lesser economic power. India was the defender of all lost causes, an irritant on the international stage that pontificated, moralised, even hectored others. Sure, India was the toast of all the countries that didn’t matter — a bit like Venezuela on steroids (okay, that’s a bit over the top, but you get the drift) which today is the toast of rootless, clueless and even brainless Left-Liberal types who saw Hugo Chavez, the man who ruined his country, as a revolutionary and anti-imperialist icon. India really started being noticed after the economic reforms of 1990-91, the architect of which wasn’t Manmohan Singh, but his boss, P.V. Narasimha Rao.

Suddenly the world rediscovered India’s potential. It was the Indian techies and scholars in Western universities and companies that made people in other parts of the world sit up and take notice of this awakening giant. While Pakistan was being noticed for its jihadist policies (a number of Hollywood films had a Pakistani character involved in terrorism or making sinister plans for a WMD attack), India was being feted for its geeks, the industriousness of its people, their commitment to family and education, and their adherence to laws of the lands in which they lived. All this wasn’t the outcome of some publicity campaign or some bureaucracy-driven scheme to promote India. It happened organically and was the result of hard work, perseverance and investment in things that matter, education being the most important one of them.

Packaging is important, even necessary, in making an impression in the world. But it is grossly insufficient if the product being sold isn’t good enough, or for that matter useful. Instead of frittering away the gains we have made over the years by behaving as though we have arrived or even acting as a ‘vishwa guru’ and world leader, India (and its leaders) need to realise that it has an enormous distance to travel, many mountains to climb, many seas to traverse, many storms and minefields to avoid and confront before it can claim to be a genuine ‘vishwa guru’. And when that stage comes, India will not need to announce its arrival, other will do it for India.

Until then, Indians need to get serious, hunker down and do the hard work needed to rebuild India — fixing our education system, fixing our legal and judicial system, making governance more effective, responsive, sensitive, giving impetus to productive agents in the economy (the entrepreneur, industrialist, farmer), fixing our infrastructure, fixing our crumbling, overstretched cities, its an endless list. Neither bhajans, nor yoga days will do this for India. If anything, shifting focus from the important and urgent things to the cosmetic and perceptual stuff will only make it more difficult for India to make its tryst with its destiny.

This commentary originally appeared on Newslaundry.

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Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. His published works include: Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (Monograph, 2017) Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s comprador   ...

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