Sunday 26 August 2012

Soft Power: India’s Greatest Asset

The term Soft Power was first coined by Harvard University professor, Joseph Nye to describe a country’s ability to alter the behaviour of others through attraction rather than sticks or carrots.Everyone is familiar with hard power; the term soft power is quite a rage today. Its usefulness as a descriptive theory has been challenged often, but soft power is still being used as a term that distinguishes the subtle effects of culture, values, and ideas on others’ behavior from more direct coercive measures called hard power such as military action or economic incentives.

To understand the concept of Soft Power let us understand the underlying principle behind “Power”. The basic concept of power is the ability to influence others to get them to do what you want. There are three major ways to do that: one is to threaten them with sticks; the second is to pay them with carrots; the third is to attract them or co-opt them, so that they want what you want. If you can get others to be attracted to want what you want, it costs you much less in carrots and sticks.

Soft power, then, represents the third way of getting the outcomes you want. Soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others. Soft power is not merely the same as influence. It is more than just persuasion or the ability to move people by argument, though that is an important part of it. It is also the ability to attract, and attraction often leads to acquiescence. Simply put, in behavioral terms, soft power is attractive power. Soft power resources are the assets that produce such attraction.

The question that comes to one’s mind after understand the concept of Soft Power is how different is it from Hard Power? What is the interplay between Hard and Soft Power?

Hard and soft power is related because they are both aspects of the ability to achieve one’s purpose by affecting the behavior of others. The distinction between them is one of degree, both in the nature of the behavior and in the tangibility of the resources. Command power is the ability to change what others do can rest on coercion or inducement. Co-optive power is the ability to shape what others want can rest on the attractiveness of one’s culture and values or the ability to manipulate the agenda of political choices in a manner that makes others fail to express some preferences because they seem to be too unrealistic. Soft power resources tend to be associated with the co-optive end of the spectrum of behavior, whereas hard power resources are usually associated with command behavior. Hard and soft power sometimes reinforces and sometimes interferes with each other.

It cannot be denied that hard power is also necessary. However, there are a few limitations to it which is quite clear if one looks at countries like Afghanistan and Vietnam. Though they did not have enough guns and ammunitions or a large army force, they still managed to protect themselves from warfare with stronger countries. Also when France lost the war of 1870 to Prussia, one of its most important steps to rebuild the nation’s shattered morale and enhance its prestige was to create the Alliance Françoise to promote French language and literature throughout the world. French culture has remained a major selling-point for French diplomacy ever since. The UK has the British Council, the Swiss have Pro Helvetia, and Germany, Spain, Italy and Portugal have, respectively, institutes named for Goethe, Cervantes, Dante Alighieri and Gulbenkian. Today, China has started establishing ‘Confucius Institutes’ to promote Chinese culture internationally. It is a known fact that today China is leading with respect to Soft Power. Hence, the more attractive culture, and more numerous channels of communication, always does better than the one which only has guns.

The next question that one might pose is: What does this mean to India?

It means giving attention, encouragement and active support to the aspects and products of our society that the world would find attractive — not in order directly to persuade others to support India, but rather to enhance our country’s intangible standing in their eyes.

Firstly, Bollywood is already taking over and leading in our soft power tactics. Its glitz and glamour has taken over not only in the UK and the US but also on the screens of Syrians and Senegalese who may not understand the Hindi dialogues but enjoy the movie anyway with its drama and music. This in the end leads them to think highly of the Indians. It is quite an achievement to have wax figures of leading bollywood stars at Madame Tussauds like Amitabh Bacchan, Aishwarya Rai Bacchan and ShahRukh Khan; which leads me to my next example.

Visitors at Madame Tussauds will also notice the wax figures of Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi to name a few. They are sculpted intricately taking into detail each feature— from Gandhiji’s dhoti to Nehru cap and the rose on his pocket. What do we derive from this? India’s soft power derives to a large extent from the lingering mantle of moral authority the country gained through the non-violent revolution it staged against British imperialism under Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership, through Nehru’s refusal to toss India’s fate into either the American or the Soviet camp during the Cold War and bravely to chart a “third way” through the Nonaligned Movement.

Thirdly, Much of India’s soft power, like much of America’s, or France’s or Japan’s, for that matter, derives from its cultural exports. Indian-origin authors, from Salman Rushdie to Arundhati Roy, to Rohinton Mistry to Jhumpa Lahiri, who write in English, have become among the most celebrated in the Western literary world. India’s films out of “Bollywood” or Bombay’s Hollywood-type movie industry are international best-sellers. Recently, a string of films by Indian-origin directors has garnered international acclaim, from U.S.-based Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding to U.K.-based Gurinder Chadha’sBend It Like Beckham. Films and literature are helping transform India’s image in the West, including in the United States, from that of a remote, unknowably exotic, and revoltingly poor country into a country with which Americans can find similarities among the differences. When Indian filmmakers or sportspeople succeed internationally or when Indian writers win the Booker or Pulitzer Prizes, our country’s soft power is enhanced. (Ask yourself how many Chinese novelists the typical literate American reader can name. Indeed, how many non-Western countries can claim a presence in the Occidental mind comparable to India’s?)

Fourthly, Indian cuisine has taken over the world. One may hear an American making kebabs for his bar-b-que party on a Sunday afternoon or Europeans opting for Chicken buttermasala or Biryani for a fancy dinner with friends and family. The number of Indian restaurants in any part of the world today is hard to count on one’s finger tips.

Fifthly, when Americans speak of the IITs with the same reverence they used to accord to MIT or Caltech, and the Indianness of engineers and software developers is taken as synonymous with mathematical and scientific excellence, it is India that gains in respect. The stereotyped image of the Indian is no longer the ‘half-naked fakir’ but the computer geek.

Add to that, the fact that sooner or later almost anyone in the United States will probably find herself treated by an Indian doctor, perhaps advised by an Indian financial adviser or even employed by an Indian hi-tech entrepreneur (or fired when her job goes to an Indian worker in Bangalore), and India begins to exert a “soft-power” presence far beyond the reach of its intermediate-range nuclear-tipped missiles. In the information age, as a society with a free press and a thriving mass media, with a people whose creative energies are daily encouraged to express themselves in a variety of appealing ways, India has an extraordinary ability to tell stories that are more persuasive and attractive than those of its rivals.

Political leaders have long understood the power that comes from attraction. The ability to establish preferences tends to be associated with intangible assets such as an attractive personality, culture, political values and institutions, and policies that are seen as legitimate or having moral authority. If a leader represents values that others want to follow, it will cost less to lead. Our very own Prime Minister maybe quoted saying “The soft power of India in some ways can be a very important instrument of foreign policy. Cultural relations, India’s film industry, Bollywood…I find wherever I go in the Middle East, in Africa, people talk about Indian films,” Singh told IFS probationers at his residence.

Now that we know what soft power is and how it has affected us Indians, we need to know the limitations of soft power. Firstly, one may think of power only in its narrow terms of commands or active control. With this view, imitation or attraction does not come up to power. But imitation or attraction does not produce much power over policy outcomes, and neither does imitation always produce desirable outcomes. Moreover, soft power is a relatively new concept and it is not fully accepted by people yet. Conservative people would still prefer hard power to soft power their argument being it takes lesser time to control and influence another country and is more effective than soft power.

In conclusion, Soft power has always been a key element of leadership. The power to attract—to get others to want what you want, to frame the issues, to set the agenda—has its roots in thousands of years of human experience. Skillful leaders have always understood that attractiveness stems from credibility and legitimacy. Power has never flowed solely from the barrel of a gun; even the most brutal dictators have relied on attraction as well as fear. If Yasser Arafat had chosen the soft power model of Gandhi than the hard power of terrorism, he could have attracted moderate Israelis and would have a Palestinian state by now. With respect to India, India’s soft power can be best used for networking, both within and outside India. Outside India, we are most fortunate to have one of the widest Diaspora, who has to be channelised properly to promote Indian Values and culture in the country of their adopted countries. The Indians abroad can be motivated to swing political opinion and perception, in India’s favour. Right from small issues like aid for India’s underprivileged, to something major, like a permanent UNSC seat, can be achieved with a channelised activity like the above. Within India, there exists a bigger opportunity. By interacting with the youth of India I have noticed that there is an inherent desire in many to contribute in some way to the society. But there seems to be a lack of organized effort that makes it difficult to contribute making the efforts reticent. If only someone would come forward to assist and direct the movement forward.

We live in a highly networked world, and with effective use of technology, we can bridge the gap between the two Indias, the India of the advanced rocket science and IT, and the India of the villages.



  1. “Making the Most Of India’s Soft Power” by Shashi Tharoor.( Weekly Column “Shashi on Sunday” in Times Of India dated January 28,2007

  2. India and the New American Hegemony by Mira Kamdar Connecticut Journal of International Law, Vol. 19:3, Spring 2004, Special Issue: The New American Hegemony

  3. “Soft Power and Leadership,” Compass: A Journal of Leadership, Spring 2004. Compass is published by the Center for Public Leadership, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. “P.M. vouches for Bollywood “Soft Power” role. Posted online: Wednesday, June 11, 2008 at 02:42:45
Updated: Wednesday, June 11, 2008 at 02:42:45

Print Page

No comments:

Post a Comment