‘If India wants to be taken seriously internationally it has to deal with its fault lines’

Joseph Nye defined soft power as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.” Ever since Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister and began travelling the world on carefully scripted, much publicized missions, a lot is being spoken about the country’s soft power – how the land of the Buddha, yoga and Shah Rukh Khan, and no longer just elephants and snake charmers, is out to conquer global hearts. But will India’s butter chicken masala really feed its foreign policies?

Daya Kishan Thussu’s Communicating India’s Soft Power: Buddha to Bollywood, publicized as the first book-length study on India’s soft power, helps deliver some answers. First published in 2013 by Palgrave/Macmillan in their Global Public Diplomacy Series, the book’s South Asia edition has been published by Sage India this year.

Thussu is Professor of International Communication and Co-Director of the India Media Centre, Westminster University. He has authored and edited 16 books on global media and communications. He speaks to The Diplomat about his book, India as a soft power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s successes with the diaspora and his failure in projecting the legacy of Indian Islam, and the current environment of minority persecution in the country.

Indian Islam because of its history and interactions with Indic religions, like Hinduism and Buddhism or Jainism, has a very strong tradition of tolerance, Sufism for example. So my argument was that India had the potential to promote a different version of Islam, which is more tolerant than the kind of extremist version that we see in many Arab countries. However, with the BJP government coming to power and the so-called “love jihad” and “gharwapsi” gaining currency in the media, there has been very little attempt to promote an Indian Islam within the global sphere. It is a shame and a missed opportunity.

But to my mind the fundamental problem in India, and one that is not going to go away soon, is its failure to provide decent living conditions to a majority of its people. One can talk about India’s great culture and civilization, cinema and whatever. Despite very impressive economic growth through the last three decades, India remains home to the [world’s] largest number of extremely poor people, 300 million plus. And here we are speaking of abject poverty, extreme poverty. At one level the country has the capacity to send a vessel, Mangalayaan, to Mars for the cost of a major Hollywood film. But they can’t address the key issues, like basic health or basic sanitation. Bangladesh has a better record than us. Unless we are able to address that, our soft power will sound hollow.

Another thing is the idea of creating this us-vs-them discourse, not thankfully by the PM himself but certainly people and groups around him. That’s quite worrisome. If you emphasis those fault lines rather than trying to bridge them and sorting out the more fundamental problems Indian soft power will remain an ideal.

Read the full interview story published in The Diplomat magazine here.


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