The future of Indian power - Hard vs Soft

There has been considerable talk over the past few years about India as a “global soft power”. This is a reference to the spread of certain aspects of Indian culture (such as Indian cuisine, music, and dance) throughout the world and its rising popularity in the West. It is also a reference to Bollywood and its growing international fan base that now includes Afghanistan, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas. The spread of these elements of Indian culture and “Indian-ness” is often hailed as Indian “soft power”, as it was by Shashi Tharoor (watch his TED speech on the subject here). However, I take a slightly different stance. I view Indian soft power as virtually non-existent in its current state, and I also feel that it is unlikely for India to become a true global soft power anytime soon (though it does have the potential to become one). Instead, India’s rise to global power status – if and when it happens – will be due to its increasing hard power, and India for the foreseeable future will have to rely on hard power to project its influence abroad.

In order to analyze hard vs. soft power in the Indian context, it is first important to understand what “hard” and “soft” power exactly refer to, and how they differ. “Hard” power refers to the use of military and/or economic means to exert one’s influence upon another. In practice, the application of “hard” power tends to be fundamentally coercive in nature. The Indian covert support of the Mukti Bahini and later the overt military intervention into Bangladesh, the Soviet threat to use nuclear weapons against Britain and France during the Suez Crisis, and the imposition of economic sanctions on socialist Cuba by the United States are all examples of the utilization of “hard” power. “Soft” power, on the other hand, refers to the ability to attract and “seduce” (as opposed to coerce) other parties. The American political scientist Joseph Nye, who first coined the terms “hard” and “soft power, identified three categories of soft power: culture, political values, and policies. The utility of each of the three elements depends on their ability to attractExamples of “soft” power may include the extensive Wahhabi influence throughout the Islamic world due to Saudi state sponsorship, the emergence of Marxist-Leninist states in Africa, Asia, and Latin America based on the model of the Soviet Union, and the ability of the United States to historically attract large numbers of immigrants because of its sociopolitical values and free, democratic society.

While examples of both hard and soft power abound in history as well as in the present day, there is no simple way of measuring power or identifying the factors and conditions that lead to it. A country’s hard power is a rough aggregate of various factors, including its GDP, total population, defence budget, technological prowess, energy production and consumption, and others. Statistics that attempt to measure hard power include the National Power Index and the Composite Index of National Capability, both of which list India as the world’s third most powerful country based on their criteria.

It is considerably more difficult to identify the underlying factors of soft powers than that of hard vague, owing to its more vague and imprecise nature. Nevertheless, I will attempt to ascertain specific conditions that enable an entity to exercise soft power. One of the most important prerequisites for becoming a major soft power is to have “native ownership” of an ideology that can be used as a means of influence; that is, the ideology should be recognizable as a distinct and unique attribute of that particular country. During the Cold War, for example, the United States and Soviet Union represented the de facto embodiments of capitalist democracy and Marxist socialism, respectively. As mentioned earlier, Marxist-Leninist states emerged around the world during this period (including Cuba, Angola, and Vietnam, among others) and allied themselves with the USSR; likewise, newly-formed capitalist democracies like those of the three principal powers of the defeated Axis alliance (Germany, Japan, and Italy) came under the fold of American soft power in the post-WWII world and became close allies of the U.S. On the other hand, it would be virtually impossible for a country like Pakistan to exercise any meaningful soft power based on ideology, since Pakistan’s ideology is based on Islamic ‘nationalism’ where it views itself as part of a greater ‘Ummah’, but is certainly not recognized by the members of the ‘Ummah’ as its leader. In other words, Pakistan does not have native ownership over its own ideology, which inevitably leads to Pakistan associating itself with other, more influential members of the ‘Ummah’ like Saudi Arabia and Iran, at the obvious expense of its own subcontinental origins.

Another important condition in developing soft power is to have a universal ideology whose values can cut cross national, cultural, and ethnic borders and attract a diverse array of peoples. Countries that promote such universal values often tend to be pluralistic and inclusive in nature and held together by a shared ideology and political values, as both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. in our previous example were (the U.S. is only about 60% white, while only about half the population of the erstwhile U.S.S.R. was ethnic Russian). On the other hand, countries that promote ethnocentrism and militaristic ultranationalism, as Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan did, will find it difficult to exert soft power, since such attitudes are inherently counterintuitive when it comes to attracting and co-opting other peoples. Such countries would be forced to rely on hard power to project their influence, which would historically fail all three of the main Axis powers in the long run since their hard power could not compete with that of their enemies.

In addition to the ideological and political aspects of soft power, it is also important to look at the nature of cultural soft power. Many aspects of American “culture”, such as Hollywood, MTV, Coca-Cola, and brand-name jeans are often touted as being elements of American “soft power”. Fundamentally, however, such superficial, materialistic aspects of American “culture” cannot and do not promote pro-American attitudes among foreigners. It would not be totally uncommon to find that some of the most virulent anti-American protestors in Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere may also be avid fans of Hollywood flicks or regularly drink Coke. Although these aspects of American culture may be popular throughout the world, they cannot be considered to be aspects of “soft power”. Instead, meaningful cultural soft power would be able to significantly influence the paradigm of other cultures, as the major religions of Christianity and Islam have influenced numerous cultures around the globe.

Now that we have a better understanding of the difference between hard and soft power, and the underlying features of both, we can return to the specific case of power projection in the Indian context. The development of Indian soft power will rely ultimately on the promotion of meaningful cultural and/or political values that will attract people of other nations towards India. Just as the spread of superficial American “culture” cannot count as soft power, the promotion of meaningless, superficial aspects of Indian culture like food, cuisine, dance, etc. will not increase India’s power on a global scale. Nor does Bollywood, the supposed “holy grail” of Indian soft power, provide the necessary “muscle” for such power projection, since Bollywood only depicts the abovementioned superficial aspects of Indian culture. The immense popularity of Bollywood in Pakistan and Afghanistan, for example, has not turned Pakistan into a pro-Indian country, nor does it prevent Afghans (including the educated elite) from spitting on the floor whenever a Hindu idol is shown on TV. The fact is that the Indian entertainment industry has virtually no ability to influence the paradigm of its viewers, and can only bombard them with superficial trash. Perhaps if Bollywood placed less emphasis on petty song-and-dance numbers and focused more on producing movies that depict India’s history, culture, and values in a more profound fashion, such paradigm shifts can take place among international audiences. But Bollywood in its current state is far from being a true vehicle for exercising Indian soft power.

India may currently have close to zero soft power, but that does not mean it cannot become a major soft power sometime in the future. On the contrary, India has perhaps the greatest potential for exercising genuine soft power out of all developing countries. One major factor in India’s favor, which would in many other cases be an impediment, is its diverse and pluralistic society. As mentioned above, such societies are naturally able to attract other peoples and nations since they tend to be less discriminatory and more inclusive than homogeneous, ethnocentric societies. The definition of an “Indian” is fundamentally open-ended, universal, and expansive, just as the definitions of “American” or “Soviet” are/were. The elastic nature of these terms allows a person to become “Indianized”, “Americanized”, or “Sovietized” while still retaining aspects his/her indigenous culture, which is why we can see labels such as “Chinese-American” or “Soviet Armenian”. By looking into Indian history, we can also find examples of the spread of ‘Indian-ness’ to other countries. The time when Indian civilization enjoyed the greatest influence and soft power was the time when Buddhism was actively patronized by various Indian kings and spread throughout Asia. Since Buddhism is a universal ideology and is unrestricted by any borders whether they are of caste, ethnicity, language, or other, it was able to attract adherents from many different cultures. Indian universities, in the form of Buddhist mahaviharas such as those at Nalanda, Vikramashila, and Odantapuri, were the Harvard, Oxford, and Yale of the Classical period, attracting students from numerous distant countries. Indeed, there was a time when Indian soft power in the form of Buddhism was felt from the Caspian Sea to Japan and from Siberia to Indonesia, with India being regarded as the spiritual and cultural center of the world. Buddhism in India has since disappeared into the pages of history, but the fundamental Buddhist ideals of multiculturalism and all-inclusiveness still define Indian society today, and can form the basis of future Indian soft power.

In contrast to heterogeneous and inclusive societies, cultural expansion by homogeneous and more exclusive and ethnocentric societies tends to be much more ‘zero-sum’ and ‘total’; rather than co-opting other foreign cultures and peoples, they tend to be subjugated and assimilated into a greater whole. The expansion of Chinese civilization is one of the best examples of such assimilation, with the process of Sinicization continuing to this day in frontier regions like Tibet and Xinjiang. Given the inherently coercive and one-sided nature of such expansion and assimilation, it is not too surprising that China has historically not enjoyed the same level of soft power of more pluralistic, inclusive societies like those of India, the former Soviet Union, or the United States. Indeed, it has been greatly influenced by ideological and cultural aspects from each of the three mentioned powers (Buddhism, Marxism-Leninism, and capitalism respectively), but has not reciprocated the exchange by exporting ideologies of its own to any of the three powers.

Having examined the status of India’s soft power in the past and present, we can now begin to draw conclusions about the future of Indian power. India’s entertainment industry will continue to define India for foreigners, but as described previously, this will not be an effective means of power projection. Instead, India’s diverse and pluralistic society, and the fact that such a society has remained in one piece in spite all odds, can serve as a much more potent platform for exercising soft power. India might have some things to teach to the rest of the world when it comes to multiculturalism, especially in a world that is rapidly globalizing and one in which individual societies are dealing with alien ones on an unprecedented scale. On the other hand, however, India itself still faces numerous internal problems, and India is still far from serving as an effective model of a pluralistic society. It seems to me that India, at least for the near future, will have to continue to rely on its ever-expanding hard power as a means of influence.


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