India’s Soft Power: Buddha to Bollywood

By: Dr. Kishore Dere (PhD)
(Independent analyst of International Relations and International Law)
Professor Daya Kishan Thussu, an erudite Kashmiri Pandit, currently serving at Westminster University in London, on 18th August 2016, delivered a highly stimulating lecture at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. It was on the topic ‘Communicating India’s Soft Power: Buddha to Bollywood’. In fact this very topic also happens to be the title of his scholarly book published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013.
The lecture covered a wide range of topics. It was an interesting analysis of how India’s soft power i.e. cultural, institutional attractions and diaspora contributions were shaping and moulding the image of India in the minds of international community. He was, however,  worried that no concerted efforts are being made to project Indian achievements. The world does not know what is an Indian view on WTO, United Nations, or for that matter any burning issue that affects the larger international community. He pointed out that most of the Indian newspapers, TV channels do not have foreign correspondents across the world. It is not due to lack of resources but due to lack of willingness. If there is BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera (Arab world), Press TV (Iran), CCTV (China), Deutch Welle TV (Germany), TV5 (France), and Russia TV among others to articulate a particular viewpoint and are accessible the world over, Door Darshan (DD) of India does not have any presence or influence abroad. Nor does it have any specific view or line of thinking.           
Professor Daya Kishan Thussu argues that the concept of ‘soft power’ coined by an American political scientist Professor Joseph S. Nye at Harvard University in a particular geo-political and socio-cultural context needs to be de-Americanised. He cited a number of such projects in various countries including the People’s Republic of China to redefine ‘soft power’ from their own perspectives. It was his lament there were no concerted institutionalised efforts by Indian government to look after this valuable dimension of public diplomacy.          
Daya Kishan Thussu, calls his work a transgressive analysis, crossing the disciplinary boundaries between the fields of international communication and international relations. He attempts to refine and ‘de-Americanise’ the concept of soft power. He does this by focusing  more on the modes of transmission rather than substantive effects of soft power: on the ways in which India’s diaspora, information technology (IT) industry, cultural establishment and brand marketers, both public and private, contribute to India’s soft power of attraction.
He argues that though Indians are the inheritors of an extraordinarily rich cultural heritage, the Indian state struggles to utilise these resources to build ‘soft power’ and to leverage it in world politics. Thussu highlights both ancient and contemporary aspects of that inheritance: India’s Buddhist tradition and its intellectual wealth, its capacity to generate ‘composite culture’ out of Hindu, Islamic and other religious thought, its democratic politics, its media and IT assets, its cuisine and cinema. He concedes that that these attractive attributes are balanced by the persistently unattractive features of Indian society – especially the poverty, deprivation and inequality in which so many continue to live – but still finds it hard to understand why the state cannot make more of India’s soft power assets.
Thussu began his analysis with two scene-setting chapters, one on the advent of the concept of soft power and its adaption by Asian states, especially China, and the next on the historical development of India’s soft power resources. Both are necessarily fast-paced, as Thussu covers an extensive conceptual literature and then some two and a half thousand years of Indian history, from Panini’s systematising of Sanskrit grammar to Nehru’s ideas and practices of nonalignment. He notes in passing the differences between the more corporate conceptions of soft power and public diplomacy in the USA and tenaciously state-centric Chinese ‘soft propaganda’ (p. 37), implying that India might prefer the former to the latter. And he well captures the sheer range of ideas that India might try to leverage, from ancient Indian philosophy to Rabindranath Tagore’s syncretic globalism.
The remainder of the book explores the different channels of communicating India’s soft power to the contemporary world. Thussu examines in detail the impact of India’s diaspora on their host societies – and the ways in which the Indian state has wooed that diaspora since the 1990s, seeking their capital for inward investment and their know-how for innovation. He then turns to ‘software for soft power’ – private sector assets and ‘intellectual infrastructure’ (p. 126) – and their uses in India’s nascent aid and development assistance programmes, and in official public diplomacy. The final two chapters look at culture and marketing. Thussu provides a fine-grained analysis of Bollywood’s influence not just in Asia, but in Latin America, where the Brazilian soap opera India – A love story ran for 206 episodes and won an International Emmy in 2009. Finally, he examines the ‘nation branding’ of India by organisations like the India Brand Equity Foundation, and the branding of specific practices: cricket, yoga, food, democracy and nonalignment.
Thussu rightly criticises successive Indian governments for not taking public diplomacy as seriously as it might and observes that the size of the Indian Foreign Service, by far the smallest of any major power, is partly to blame for this and other diplomatic failings. But he also notes that the Indian state is generally bad at communication, with its own people as well as foreign audiences. He has doubts too about the further involvement of the corporate sector in nation branding and public diplomacy, suggesting that India’s business elite is more interested in Western ideologies than the Indian people and their inheritance. Thussu hinted that a partnership with China to redefine international norms and ‘change the discourse on global affairs’ could be a preferable option.
His rich analysis offered the detailed analysis of Indian soft power and its constant evolution, and in an innovative way, especially in its conclusion that ‘Chindia’ might seek the ‘de-Westoxification’ of Asia and the wider world.
By the way Indian soft power is a relatively less explored academic theme and therefore happens to be a highly promising topic for research scholars. The possibility of collaboration between India and China has been talked about by a variety of people although it tends to be frowned upon by many a realist.
One may still peruse the work of political leader Jairam Ramesh along with veteran commentators like Kishore Mabhubani and Prem Shankar Jha in this context. One does not necessarily have to subscribe to their views. Yet it may worthwhile to at least know the possible areas in which India and China can work together. After all that is what soft power is all about. Hardening of diametrically opposite views may continue while soft power also can be made more lucrative, remunerative and attractive to work. If soft power succeeds then it is always a win-win solution instead of the dominant zero sum game model in which only one view prevails while the other one is dismissed and discarded. If possible, realism be avoided and soft power approach be favoured.  

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