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Time to put real thrust behind India’s soft power


India’s cultural diplomacy is entrenched in ‘babudom’. It must urgently get some real teeth and direction to reflect the aspirations of a new India, writes India Inc. CEO Manoj Ladwa.

Most Indians still don’t know much about Brazil beyond the facts that it is a fellow BRICS nation and the land of footballer Pele. It would be fairly accurate to say that most Brazilians, too, know only as much about India as Indians know about them, though it is doubtful if they have heard of Sachin Tendulkar, India’s answer to the greatest footballer ever.

So, it came as a pleasant surprise to learn that the carnival at Sao Paulo, a festival leading up to the Christian fasting period of Lent, has received a new cultural input. Yes, Bhangra, that earthy and energetic Punjabi folk dance, has been gaining ground in the land of the Samba and the fusion of the two styles already has a new name – Sambra.

Organised for the first time last year by Sao Paulo’s 3,000-strong Indian community, Sambra has gained traction with five times as many locals joining in this year, according to reports in the media.

But why am I surprised? In 2009, a love story set in India about an upper class girl falling in love with a poor boy and the subsequent machinations of the girl’s evil family to keep them apart, had captivated Brazilian TV viewers and became that country’s leading soap opera. And here’s the icing on the cake: it wasn’t even an Indian production. The teleseries, ‘Caminho Das Indias’,  was an all-Brazilian work, written, directed, produced and acted in by Brazilians.

Now that’s what I call soft power, which Wikipedia describes as “a concept developed by Joseph Nye of Harvard University to describe the ability to attract and co-opt rather than by coercion (hard power), using force or giving money as a means of persuasion. Soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction. A defining feature of soft power is that it is non-coercive; the currency of soft power is culture, political values, and foreign policies”.

india Time to put real thrust behind India’s soft power buckingham palace 1 47

Photo Credit: James Gifford-Mead

At a time when the two great democracies on either side of the Atlantic Ocean seem to be pulling up the drawbridge on foreign (and especially Indian) talent, and xenophobia is being fanned in France, the Netherlands and other liberal democracies of Western Europe by the likes of Marine Le Penn, Geert Wilder and others of their ilk, India’s soft power, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inclusive message of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas (Discrimination Against None, Development For All) can serve as a template for cooperation among different peoples.

I’m not saying this only out of a sense of goodwill for my fellow human beings. Soft power, and the sense of shared values it propagates, is a very sound foundation on which to build large economic and trade-related edifices.

Just look at history. In nine cases of out 10, you will see that each country’s largest trading partners are also the ones with which it has the greatest cultural connections. In the era when Britannia ruled the waves, the British stiff upper lip was the symbol of high culture around the globe; over the last half a century, fizzy drinks, faded jeans and funky music from the US have taken the world by storm; now, there’s a rush across the globe of children learning Mandarin.

Is it a co-incidence that in each of these eras, the UK and the US have been the world’s leading mercantile nations – a standing that is now being challenged by China?

The spread of Indian culture and the rapid penetration of its soft power around the globe makes me confident that India is standing at the cusp a leadership role in global affairs.

India and Great Britain have just kicked off the UK-India Year of Culture, at the launch of which Queen Elizabeth II welcomed Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and a delegation of Indian celebrities such as Kapil Dev, Kamal Hassan and Anoushka Shankar, among others, at Buckingham Palace, the epicenter of the British establishment, with Indian food and an India-themed evening. The Queen’s royal band also performed to the tune of A.R. Rahman’s ‘Jai Ho’, from the film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.IGB Strip india Time to put real thrust behind India’s soft power IGB StripSteamed rice and curry is Britain’s most popular soul food. Bollywood has already edged out Hollywood as the most popular form of entertainment in Africa and the Middle East. Tamil superstar Rajnikanth is reportedly the biggest movie icon in Japan. And Yoga has emerged one of as India’s greatest soft-power exports.

Despite this massive groundswell of support from diaspora communities across the world, India has fallen woefully short in leveraging its soft power. Before Modi rose to the office of Prime Minister, no Indian government ever considered integrating the influence of the Indian diaspora with the country’s foreign policy goal.

Then, unlike the British Council, which is at the forefront of spreading British soft power all over the world, the Indian Centre for Cultural Relations (ICCR) has been used by successive governments as a cushy sinecure for a few favoured bureaucrats and individuals. For instance, many Indians complain that the Nehru Centre in the UK has become, under successive Congress regimes, a stodgy parking lot for authors, artistes and retired bureaucrats as a reward for favours done. This must change, and change fast, to be in sync with the new India and its aspirations.

India has recently overtaken the UK as the world’s sixth largest economy, India and Japan are stepping up their economic and strategic partnerships, the Gulf monarchies are increasingly pursuing closer ties with New Delhi, and India is emerging as Africa’s favourite global partner.

There’s so much the ICCR can do to push India’s interests – in the UK, the US, in Western Europe and the rest of the world. In fact, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, there is a huge opportunity to learn from and partner with organisations like the British Council that have well-heeled systems, and to properly align with India’s own geo-strategic and development goals.

That would give India’s cultural diplomacy some real teeth. In a fast changing globe, where countries are jockeying intensely to secure for themselves leadership roles in the emerging new world order, India’s soft power could be the enticing thin end of the wedge for New Delhi.