Monday, March 03, 2008

India rise as Soft "Super" Power

It was Joseph S. Nye, Jr., former dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, who coined the phrase "Soft Power" a decade and a half back. Soft power , according to Nye, is the ability to attract and persuade rather than coerce. It stems from the attractiveness of a nation's culture, ideals and policies.

The soft power of a country rests primarily on three resources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority.)

Until recently, soft power was largely a US monopoly..It is generally believed that the Cold War was won as much by Voice of America, Motown and Hollywood as it was by Ronald Reagan's  'Star Wars' program.

Even before the arrival of Gorbachev back in the 1980s, Regis Debray, the French philosopher, champion of guerrilla warfare and pal of Che Guevara had presciently concluded that there was "more power in blue jeans and rock and roll than the entire Red Army." Michael Eisner of Disney was not off base when he said in 1995 that "...the Berlin Wall was destroyed not by force of Western arms, but by force of Western ideas. And what was the delivery system for those ideas? It has to be admitted that to an important degree it was American entertainment. Inherent in the best and worst of our movies and TV shows, books and records is a sense of individual freedom and the kind of life liberty can bring. It's in the movies of Steven Spielberg; it's in the songs of Madonna; it's in the humor of Bill Cosby."

In the immediate aftermath of the fall of communism, American soft power was at its height. MTV had gone where the CIA could never penetrate. The warblings of Michael Jackson and Madonna were the Muzak of the new world disorder, their visages glaring out from every corner of the globe like statues of Lenin in the old Soviet Union. The arrival of CNN and the English-dominated Internet secured the global conquest: America now dominated the metaworld of images, icons and information.

However, Affairs in Middle East changed all this. Now the position of US as "Sole Soft Super Power" has been undermined. This has resulted in Opinion Leaders like Nelson Mandela saying , "America is a threat to world peace."

For decades, any mention of India or China conjured up images of under-clothed, underfed and over-populated nations preaching a combination of socialist dogma and political revolution. To a Western world in the throes of post-war consumerism, they seemed hopelessly disconnected.

During the same time,  India and China are acquiring soft power and turning the tables. Now, as India and China are acquiring their own soft power, they are turning the tables. Recently, US National Security Council, the country's apex intelligence body, was warning its citizens that the growth and power aspirations of the two Asian countries posed serious threats, people in Washington D.C. were queuing up to attend a film festival titled 'From Beijing to Bollywood'.

In a opinion poll conducted for the BBC by the international polling firm GlobeScan ( together with the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland ranking the most popular or admired countries, India came  second behind China for a 'significantly improved global stature.' Citizens of only 17 out of 26 countries gave India the rating of 'positive influence on the world.

The survey also suggested that five least admired countries in our world are ranked in order: (1) Israel (2) Iran (3) America (4) North Korea. In fact, its a revelation that USA was considered more Negative influence than North Korea(A prominent member of Bush's Axis of Evil)

It is a statement of  India's rise as Soft "Super" Power when Indian movies like Monsoon Wedding were box-office successes in the US or when Tamil film "Muthu" attracts  more than 127,000 viewers in a 23-week run, netting the theater about $1.7 million—its biggest gate of the year. So far, nearly 500,000 Japanese have paid to see "Muthu" either on the big screen or on video.

In fact, popularity of Bollywood actors can be gauged from the fact that Time Magazine  called Shah Rukh Khan "probably the most recognizable actor in the world". In Damascus only publicly-displayed portraits that were as big as those of then-President Hafez al-Assad were those of Amitabh Bachchan. Ask any Malay(from Malaysia) teenager these days, and names like Hrithik Roshan, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Aishwariya Rai, Juhi Chawla roll down from their tongues without much difficulty.

India's achievements in the field of education are also being acclaimed internationally. According to former UN under Secretary General Shashi Tharoor "These days, the US puts the IITs on par with, say the MIT," If not anything it did manage to get  David B eckham tattoo  his wife's name  in Hindi on his forearm six years ago.

The Indian food is so popular in England that  Indian curry houses employ more people than the iron and steel, coal and shipbuilding industries combined!

India's use of soft power as a foreign policy tool was visible in Afghanistan after the Taliban fell. The then foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, was one of the first dignitaries to fly into Kabul. But unlike other visitors, Singh, who was eager for India to replace Pakistan as the neighbour of influence, packed his plane not with supplies of food or medicines, but with tapes of Hindi movies and music that were quickly distributed.

The Indian TV soap opera "Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi", dubbed into Dari, is telecast on Tolo TV. It's the most popular television show in Afghan history, considered directly responsible for a spike in the sale of generator sets and even for absences from religious functions which clash with its broadcast times.

One Reuters dispatch recounts how robbers in Mazar-i-Sharif stripped a vehicle of its wheels and mirrors recently during the telecast time and wrote on the car, in an allusion to the show's heroine, Tulsi Zindabad. That's soft power, and India does not have to thank the government or charge the taxpayer for its exercise. Instead, Indians too can simply say, Tulsi Zindabad

India has always believed it is a cultural superpower. Finally, the government is putting its money where its mouth is. The amounts are pitifully small, but it’s the thin end of the wedge.  In his Budget speech, P Chidambaram gave out an extra Rs 75 crore to MEA’s culture wing, Indian Council for Cultural Relations, "to develop India’s soft power".  The Rs 75 crore outlay is in addition to ICCR’s operating budget of Rs 77 crore. Together, this adds up to a pitiful Rs 152 crore, which doesn’t even begin to compare with say, the UK.  The British Council gets a £190 million subsidy from the British foreign office, and its operating budget is £460 million (close to Rs 3,600 crore.)

India rise as Soft "Super" power will prevent a new generation of Indians from becoming "clones" of a dominant US culture. But we still have a long distance to travel, Still  If we  ask someone a question in Hindi on the train, for example, they reply in English just to show they know it.  But We are quietly reasserting our identity.

Tail Piece: Effect of US Softpower on Russian President Boris Yeltsin

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1 comment:

Anuraag Sanghi said...

Hi Panchajanya. Good post. Maybe you can have a look at this also.