Mr Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament, Lok Sabha and Chairman, Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs speaks on India’s SoftPower at AIMA’s 3rd National Leadership Conclave 2017.
Good morning to all of you here. I can take a little bit of credit for having brought this issue (Soft Power) into the Indian context. In fact I was in the States and a fairly good friend of Joseph Nye, so I asked him do you mind if I try and apply your theories to India and he didn’t mind at all and so about 15 years ago I wrote a piece about India’s soft power and sent it to him and said what do you think and he was totally supportive and ever since I have sort of gone on a bit of a crusade in this country both before returning to it full time and then subsequently after my return to India delivering multiple lectures and it finally had the effect that the phrase ‘soft power’ entered into our lexicon and the ultimate gratification came when the Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh started using this in his speeches.
So I feel, I have sort of contributed to at least self-awareness of the issue and the reason for it was that in the preceding decade or a bit before I came up with this there was an excessive, in my view, focus on our booming economic growth, our military strength and so on and people were rather rationally talking of India as a world leader or even a new superpower. In fact the American publishers, my 2007 book “The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone” added a gratuitous subtitle suggesting that my volume “was about the emerging 21st-century power” and these are not the categories that I find appealing. First of all the entire notion of world leadership is curiously archaic one, reminding you of Kipling ballads and James Bondian adventures. What makes a country a world leader? If its population, we’re on course to top the charts. We are going to overtake China as the world’s most populous country by 2026; Military strength have the world’s fourth largest army; nuclear capacity, well that was made clear of course with the Indo-US nuclear deal; economic development well from 1991 to about 2007 we grew at the astonishingly rapid pace and became by the end of that first decade of this century the third largest economy in the world in PPP terms having displaced Japan and even in nominal terms, for example, we have overtaken the UK. So we are obviously a significant country but in none of these are we the world leader except population but perhaps there is one area in which we can have something to congratulate ourselves for and that is our place in the world being defined by combination of all of these allied to something a little more difficult to define and explain and that is our soft power.
One of my many controversies in my first few years back was when I said that how can we be a superpower when we are still super poor and that didn’t do me a lot of good with our chest thumpers in this country but the fact is that in fact, our poverty does undermine any such claims are under a relative lack of development in many areas both with regard to the hardware of development -infrastructure ports, roads, railways and the software of development – housing, sanitation, education. There are lots of areas where we still have to make a lot of progress before we can speak in terms of superpowers but we can certainly speak in terms of soft power in Joseph Nye sense and as Sunil explained soft power is the part to alter the behavior of others. Any power is the power to alter the behavior of others to get what you want. If you can make somebody do something that you want that is your power. Hard, soft, smart whatever other adjectives you want to apply to it. Now classically power was exercised through carrots and sticks, right? I mean sticks being the danda. You all know the ‘sam, dam, dand, bhed’ philosophy. So you tell people you do this or else and they do it and that’s hard power. Nye also includes in hard power the carrots. Give them bribes, money, development, aid whatever and they do it to make you happy so they can keep on getting your money that is also a form of hard power, not soft. Soft power is the power of attraction. Then you can economize on the sticks and the carrots. And the argument of course that Nye made is based on recent global history because the old idea (that the side of the larger army was likely to win) was never strictly speaking true because we know from our own history how smaller British-led armies with smarter maneuvering and better ammunition and technology were able to defeat our lumbering armies with their big elephant and so on and so forth but that apart if you look at the late 20th century the Soviets got defeated in Afghanistan. The US got defeated in Vietnam and these were the two big military powers of the time. And even in the 21st century, if you look at what happened to the Americans after the fall of the Iraq. They won the big war, captured the capital and then they suffered casualties pretty much every day. Why, because as the great French statesman Tally Rand said the one thing you cannot do with a bayonet is to sit on it.
So the fact is power has its limitations and Nye spoke about soft power as resting on principally three attributes – our country’s culture which is attractive to others, its political values when it lives up to them at home and abroad and its foreign policies if they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority. Now I go a little beyond Nye arguing that a country’s soft power emerges principally from the world’s perceptions about that country is all about. In other words, the associations conjured up in the global imagination by the mere mention of your name is often a more accurate gauge of your soft power impact than some analysis of your foreign policy. In my approach, hard power is exercised, soft power is evoked. Now I won’t go into much more detail about Nye and his application of soft power to America, the land of Boeing and Intel and Google and the iPad, Microsoft and MTV, Disneyworld and Hollywood and coke, jeans I mean you name it McDonald’s, Starbucks, pretty much all the products modern world uses and enjoys every day out of American origin and that’s why the admiration for America had nothing to do with the dislikes of its foreign policies or its military adventures. The attitude basically was, even for critics of America demonstrating outside US embassies, it was Yankee go home but take me with you. So the fact is, this is the American thing. If you look at the other countries trying to emulate it, China – the ‘Beijing Olympics’ for example except China doesn’t have the American narrative to offer. They wowed people without spectacular opening ceremony but half the journalists in Beijing were writing about the lack of freedom of expression, the arrest of dissidents and so on which didn’t do much for China’s soft power.
Now, as far as India is concerned we have to understand that soft power is not something that we can necessarily shape by conscious efforts. I have often argued that ultimately the propaganda will always be seen by people for what it is. When we talk about soft power it’s how people perceive us whether or not we are trying to sell a particular image of ourselves to the rest of the world. So in America all of these products that I mentioned were still hugely popular but when people started defining America’s image in terms of the Iraq invasion, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, torture, rendition, Blackwater and its killings of Iraqi civilians, all of that then obviously America’s soft power suffered greatly even while it’s hardpower was at its peak and so it’s important to understand that fans of American culture don’t have to agree with detaining people in Guantanamo. Using Microsoft Windows doesn’t predispose you to extraordinary rendition and so on and therefore soft power can be undermined by hard power now.
Nye actually spells out the kinds of things that people need, the countries need, in today’s world to actually enjoy soft power and he says that soft power is enjoyed by countries whose dominance, cultures and ideas are closer to prevailing global norms which now emphasize, (so these may not have been the norm say 100 years ago at the peak of colonialism but today these norms are) liberalism, pluralism, autonomy. Plus he said those with the most access to multiple channels of communication and thus most influence over how issues are framed and those whose credibility is enhanced by their domestic and international performance. Now I won’t go into too many global details, America is obviously the preeminent example but not the only one. It’s interesting to know for example that the French created the Alliance Française after major military defeat in 1870 when the Prussians conquered France and marched into Paris and when they pulled out, the humiliated friend said clearly militarism is not going to make us strong, let us in fact sell our culture around the world and the Alliance Française was created specifically to take this message across and of course it had plenty of imitators from the British Council, to the Gaiety Institute in Germany, every western country now has these institutes and the Chinese have the Confucius Institute and because China has a lot of money where a country like India may have one Nehru Center in London and is still struggling to get a center functioning to promote our culture in Washington, China has over hundred Confucius Institutes in the US alone.
Now I come back to how we can leverage or whether we are leveraging our soft power but coming back to this I just want to stress that that’s all fine but soft power is only partly created by the governments. It is partly created by governments but it partly happens despite governments so you can actually have a soft power that is deliberately evoked and exercised by you but you can also have soft power or loose soft power entirely by accident.
So my argument has been and I continue to make it that India’s claim to a significant role in the world in the 21st century is not going to be coming from this all the superpower talk but from the aspects and products of our society and culture that the world finds attractive and so our intangible standing goes up and that in turn predisposes other countries towards being receptive to what we want. And I have a certain civilizational view you like about soft power because I believe the roots of our soft power run deep.
Our civilization over millennia offered religious and cultural freedom as well as a refuge to all sorts of groups. Very few Indians even know today that we had the oldest Jewish Diaspora in the world. When they fled the destruction of their first temple by the Babylonians and certainly the first one is an oral legend, the second one is certainly documented when they fled that the destruction of their second temple by the Romans. They took a little boat and came across the Arabian Sea into Kerala where they were completely welcomed, allowed to lead their lives, practice their faith. They never knew a single instance of antisemitism from any Indian in their entire stay and it’s the only Jewish Diaspora that didn’t know this. Then came the Christian Saint Thomas, ‘Doubting Thomas’ the Apostle in the Bible lands also on the same place, in fact, the legend is that he was welcomed on shore by a flute playing Jewish girl. Once again converted people remain died in India as we all know with the result that there are many many Indians in Kerala and South India whose ancestors were Christians before any European has ever discovered Christianity. Islam, I know in the North there were some challenges that it came by the sword that was not our experience in the south. Travelers and traders have been coming back and forth for literally a thousand years from the Roman Empire and the Arab lands before the invention of the creation of or the discovery whatever the term is of Islam and when they brought the message of this new faith they were welcomed, people listened to them patiently. A Kerala king was even so impressed by this message that he got on a ship and sailed off to meet the prophet and though he died there and never made it back to Kerala, the coconuts that he had taken with him from Kerala have been planted and that’s why to this day, you can see lining the coastline of Oman near Muscat, Kerala coconut trees growing in the Arabian Peninsula to which they are not native because this particular Kerala king went to meet the prophet in the early 7th century AD and indeed he sent followers back to Kerala and they wanted a place of worship to practice their faith and the local Raja said all right well there is a disused temple here that no one has been using, why don’t you have that as your mosque. And so the oldest mosque in the Muslim world outside the Arab peninsula is in Kerala, it’s still there. There has gone far too many renovations since but it was an old temple and it’s distinguished as you walk in by a gigantic Kerala brass lamp right in the middle of the oldest mosque that Islam has an in here so I mentioned all of those I knew a thousand more example. The Parsees coming to Gujarat and so I don’t want to deny us the time for a meaningful discussion of interaction later, so I’ll stop with the examples but I do want to mention one thing about India that certainly made a very profound impression on me.
I grew up all over the country, school in Bombay, High School in Calcutta, College in Delhi. In the Calcutta neighborhood where I went to my high school, literally every morning you would wake up hearing the wail of the muezzin calling the Muslim faithful to prayer. The sound would soon start blending with a tinkle of the bells at the Mandir on the corner of the street. If you went down the street just outside the Gurudwara, they were reciting verses from the Guru Granth Saheb and around the corner was Saint Paul’s Cathedral. And this was always for me India, this complete coexistence and pluralism of faiths and backgrounds and I am very proud today as MP for Thiruvananthapuram to represent a city where in one famous corner we have one of the great mosques, the Palayam Mosque, we have diagonally across it St. Joseph’s Cathedral and right next to it the Ganapati temple, all in one corner in parliament manner. That kind of lived experience goes back centuries and is normal and natural to us and it seems to me that that is our very big strength.
We are of course in many ways a land of great diversity. I have observed in the past that we are all minorities in India and that the whole strength of India is that there is no one way of being or doing things at least not until now we can talk about that separately if you want. The great magic of India is you can be a good Indian, a good Muslim, and a good Keralite all at once. We all have these multiple identities each of which are secure under the overall protective carapace of the collective Indian identity. And so the idea of India that I have often talked about is of one land embracing many, a land where you can overcome divisions of cast, creed, color, culture, custom, costume, conviction, consonant, cuisine. You name it but we still have to rally around the consensus and that consensus is on the principle that in a diverse democracy like ours, you don’t really need to agree all the time. So long as you will agree on the ground rules of how you will disagree. That has been the big strength of our society and our culture and that lies at the core of the appeal of our soft power in the world.
Now the fact is that when globalization was first being talked about, read some of the articles in the first half of the 1990s in this country as I did sitting abroad at the time and the fear was palpable that somehow the whole business of foreign influences would come in unchecked that Baywatch and burgers would supplant Bharatnatyam and bhelpuri and of course it didn’t happen why because our own culture is so strong and resilient that we can drink coco-cola without being coco-colanized. Mahatma Gandhi put it the best seventy-five ago, he said ‘I want my country to be a house with all its doors and windows open so the winds of the world can blow through the house provided I am strong enough to stand on my feet and not be blown off my feet by these winds’. That’s what India’s experience of globalization has been and we have in many ways absorbed foreign influences and transformed them into Indian ones.
Today we ourselves are a player in globalization. The export of Bollywood to Bhangra dances on American campuses has made us a player in globalization of culture not merely a subject of it and our traditional practices you know Yoga, one of those things that some people in my party weren’t happy with me for praising the government for getting the UN to adopt the International Day of Yoga. I thought that was an excellent idea. Why not showcase some of your great practices that actually have universal appeal. There isn’t a small town in America today that doesn’t offer yoga classes somewhere and that is something which actually puts out a message for India. Ayurveda, when I was in Colombia as a minister being received by the President, one of his request to me was how can you get more Ayurveda practitioners to come to my country we are very interested in alternative forms of wellness. But again it’s not just these traditional practices. It is also very much modern Indians so the appeal of Indians as software geeks and computer gurus. Information technology has been a huge strength of ours. The IITs are now spoken off in the US in a certain circle anyway with the same reverence as MITs used to be spoken about and the Indian civil engineer or software developer is taken as synonymous with excellence and this is a huge transformation from the days when I went to graduate school in the States in 1975 and the image was one of the poor people with begging balls or naked fakirs lying on beds of nails or snake charmers doing the rope trick or at best comparison – the elephant and Maharajas sitting top, none of which corresponded to the reality of India in which we all live today, but now it’s become the opposite extreme so that a history graduate like myself can be accosted at a European airport by an anxiously perspiring white guy saying you’re Indian, you’re Indian, can you help me fix my laptop’. Now every Indian is assumed to be a tech wizard or a computer geek. And so this skill we have whether it’s as an engineer, or IT experts, or doctors.
I remember the whole episode of the American television show ER, probably most of you now have forgotten it but in the turn of the millennium, about 15 years ago, the number one hit show in America was a show called Emergency Room or ER and when the pilot episode came out first it actually got negative reviews by critics saying how unrealistic, who’s ever seen an emergency room in America without an Indian doctor. So they actually had to write a key part for an Indian doctor and then when the episode featuring Parminder Nagra (Bend It Like Beckham fame) started coming out, the show became a huge hit and was number one for four or five years in America. So that is now immersed in the American consciousness that an Indian doctor is everywhere. But it’s not just that look at India’s business innovation. Look at the fact that Indian companies are now acquiring foreign companies in the developed world so that, a meme went around the internet a couple of years ago when the then newly reelected but now former British prime minister David Cameron went off to reclaim his mandate from Buckingham Palace and all these Indians on Facebook and so on started sending out pictures saying “ look at the British prime minister going to see his queen in an Indian car, Jaguar owned by the Tatas escorted by police in another Indian car a Land Rover”. I mean if that isn’t enough to give you a post- colonial feel.
I love telling the story in the wake of my new book ‘An Era of Darkness’ of how Jamshet Ji Tata when he tried to set up a modern steel plant in India faced British opposition and indeed outright hostility from the British government. It took him twenty years to get all the permissions. At that point a British official and Imperial in fact the chairman of the railway board at that time sneered that he would personally eat every ounce of steel that an Indian was capable of producing. I always say I wish he had lived long enough to see the day when the descendants of the same Jamshed Ji Tata bought up the remnants of British steel when he acquired Corus, might have given him a bad case of indigestion. Now all for that matter have been value praising good old Jamshed Ji Tata. You know he got thrown out of Pike’s hotel or Watson’s hotel or whichever hotel, it was Watson’s hotel perhaps in Bombay, because there was a sign outside saying Indians and dogs not allowed. So what did he do he went off and built a bigger, more opulent, more luxurious hotel which Indians were allowed to come into. I don’t know about the dogs but the Indians were admitted. It was called the Taj Mahal Hotel. Today it’s one of the great hotels of the world whereas Watson’s hotel from which he was thrown out has long since closed. So that kind of confidence if you like puts India forward in the kinds of things that it has been able to do in the 21st century as well.
As Joseph Nye has pointed out, in the information age it’s not enough to be the bigger army or the larger economy, it’s the land of the better story that prevails. We have to be the land of the better story. We must retain our ability to tell stories about ourselves and I don’t just mean talking about anecdotes I mean that the lived experience of India must involve stories that are so positive and exciting that they’re more persuasive and attractive to foreigners, to the rest of the world than those of our rivals.
Some years ago before she entered politics I love to tell the great Smriti Irani story. When the Afghanistan crisis was at its peak and American soldiers were basically there after 9/11 and then the conquest of the defeat of Taliban and so on you know what was our biggest asset in Afghanistan was? We didn’t have any soldiers in the international presence, what we had was “kyunki saas bhi kabhi bahu thi”. It was the single most popular television show on Afghan television. By about 2005 it was commanding a 92% audience share. It was such compulsive viewing in this Islamic society where family problems are literally hidden behind the veil, suddenly a TV show gave Afghans an opportunity to discuss love and sex and marriage and relationships and mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law and all these things and they were anecdotes. I did a big story about the profound impact of the show on Afghan society where weddings would be interrupted so that people could actually go and watch the show for half an hour at 8:30 in the evening and then return to the ceremony. Mullah started complaining that religious observances were being affected. In one episode in Mazar-e-Sharif at 8:30 precisely. all the robbers knew that the chaukidars will be busy watching TV. One enterprising robber stole every single detachable part from a luxury car – the windshield wiper, the side view mirrors, the hubcaps and the spokes and then he scrawled with chalk on windshield “Tulsi Zindabad”. The Indian taxpayer is not paying for this. This was India’s great strength until the Mullahs finally succeeded in banning the show and of course Smriti Irani made the unwise decision of leaving the career she was so good at for another one.
So my point is it’s all about what we are and how we come across, not necessarily what we legally project. Even if ICCR (the Indian Council for Cultural Relations) likes to show India as a cultural superpower and so on, it’s all of these things. It’s Mahatma Gandhi’s amazing image in the world when IBM or Apple can use his image in their ads, you suddenly realize what your soft power lies in and Nehru Ji before the term had even been invented by Joseph Nye, he was a skilled exponent of soft power because we were a relatively weak and poor society when the British left us on our knees in 1947 but he developed for India a role in the world based entirely on our soft power. Our civilization history, our moral standing, the values of our culture and so on and made India the voice of the oppressed and marginalized against the big power hegemons of the day. But the great flaw in the Nehru’s approach was that the soft power was unrelated to any acquisition of hard power. And so the humiliation of the military defeat by China in 1962 showed the crippling limitations of a purely soft power approach in international affairs. A century earlier 60 years before the China war, Theodore Roosevelt said ’speak softly and carry a big stick’. We spoke loudly and we had no stick at all. So the fact is the rhetoric of peace can only take you so far. Soft power becomes credible when you have hard power behind it. That made the US so successful.
Our soft power appeals because we are a growing, booming, thriving economy, so both have to go together. Now if you look at our use of hard power, our history is very mixed with very few good examples. Obviously the 1971 war at Pakistan, the huge triumph in Kargil, the swift paratroop intervention in the Maldives to reverse a coup, those are things that India has done that exercise hard power but against these are such a long lists of failure of the 62 war, the disaster of the IPKF in Sri Lanka in 87, the humiliation of the hijack of the Indian Airlines aircraft to Kandahar in 1999 with the ineptitude of our handling of the initial hijack, our failure to blow out the tyres in Amritsar. Then our own foreign minister going cap in hand with four released terrorists to hand them over to the Pakistani killers who then of course as we know continued to use these people to wreak havoc on us and others. One of the people released was a fellow who killed the American journalist Daniel Pearl later. So we don’t have a strategic doctrine based on hard power sorry to say and our record isn’t brilliant but that does also undermine the credibility of our soft power. It explains on one hand why we like relying on soft power because that’s what we were good at; we’re not so good on hard power. But I am not sure it’s enough. You see if you look at China, Russia it’s the opposite story right. They have tremendous hard power and rather weak soft power but definitely the Bolshoi Ballet or Kung Fu movies are doing more for the image of Russia and China in the world than the people’s liberation army or Siberian oil reserves. But we go the other way that is it’s not that we have great hard power and our soft power is as the soft edge of it. We have great soft power and our hard power doesn’t come across as credible enough so we then find a situation where an Islamist terrorist will enjoy a Bollywood movie one evening and put off a bomb in the same movie theatre the next day. We’ve seen this happen and again you know this is not surprising the perpetrators of 9/11 in the US ate their last dinner at a McDonald’s. So hard power without soft power stirs up resentments and enmities but soft power without hard power is a confession of weakness. So we really have to understand that we need to consistently have a better story to tell but buttress it with some credibility at home.
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