In 1990, when Harvard’s Joseph Nye came up with the phrase ‘soft power’, he had no idea that it was the beginning of one of America’s happiest decades – a time when the American economy, already the mightiest in the world, grew at an even mightier average growth rate of 4% a year (a feat it is yet to repeat).
And as the decade was coming to an end, in Calcutta, I was marvelling at a square piece of red wrapper which contained a magical thing – wafer enveloped in chocolate. Along with Kit-Kat, we discovered a new brag toy – Pepsi via a ‘fountain’. In Calcutta’s famed New Market, Wrangler jeans appeared – my first pair was ‘acid washed’ lavender. Even though I did not know that it was American soft power, it was seeping into my life.
Nearly three decades later, it is easy to see today that the world was not flat after all. Learning to love blue jeans and eating McDonald’s burgers did not make the world a friendlier or more unified place. Instead of a ‘global village’, what we have today are global refugees. At least we in India should have called Thomas Friedman’s bluff when he suggested the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention on how countries that have McDonalds (or similar kinds of open economies) do not go to war against one another. McDonalds came to India in 1996, in Pakistan in 1998 – and the two countries fought their fourth (proxy) war in 1999 in the Himalayan heights of Kargil. Friedman was last seen pitching a certain Saudi Arabian ‘reformist’ prince.
The world is changing and as American power waxes and wanes, there is a new buzz about rising powers.
The fundamental problem of the awash of American soft power was its Friedmanesque idea that commonality means cloning, that culture can be ironed over and unified if only consumer habits can be made identical. This, then, is the great lie of globalization as we have seen till this point.
But the world is changing and as American power waxes and wanes, there is a new buzz about rising powers. China, and slowly to coming to prominence, India, which might overtake the United Kingdom sometime next year to become the world’s fifth largest economy. China and India also have some other things that naturally reticent Germany and Japan, the other two countries that make up the top five, do not have – a promise of expanding populations for a significant more time to come, and a rightful claim to being very old civilisations, not merely nations.
So, the discussion is now shifting to the soft power of China and India. In 2011, in Fortune India, I pointed out the role of Indian business in promoting soft power. In that essay, a distinction was made by many between Indian and Chinese soft power – one was affable and laid back, the other unrelenting and hardnosed.
Since then both the Chinese and the Indian economy has grown significantly and as has India’s efforts to seriously push its soft power – from the United Nations celebrating an annual International Day of Yoga to the creation this month of a 13-member team of bureaucrats from eight ministries, including Indian Council for Cultural Relations head Vinay Sahasrabuddhe and Niti Aayog Vice Chairman Rajiv Kumar, specifically to project soft power.
The first lesson probably is that quality matters – item number-style dancing, as much fun as it is, cannot help a country which wants to be taken seriously.
What kind of soft power would this body project? What ought it? Should it aim to open – in competition with China’s Confucius centres – Shankara centres to teach the enlightening philosophies of the Vedanta?
The first lesson probably is that quality matters – item number-style dancing, as much fun as it is, cannot help a country which wants to be taken seriously. One Oscar won by Satyajit Ray did more for Indian soft power than million dance numbers.
Luckily, this new era of projecting soft power comes at a time when Indian cinema, in every major language, is trying innovative structures of storytelling. India could learn from the way breakthrough filmmakers from Mexico captured the heart of Hollywood giving it a new grammar – directors like Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón have had definitive impact.
The age of curry-cricket-and-cavorting in the name of soft power has come to an end.
It could help create and support publications of global renown. Here the example to take – especially considering growing ties between India and Israel – is from influential Jewish publications like the Commentary magazine which, for half a century, has had a galaxy intellectual stars writing for it, from Hannah Arendt to Susan Sontag, from Francis Fukuyama to Samuel P. Huntington.
If the Indian diaspora could be nudged to put its influence and money behind standout projects of global stature, then it only must look at the kind of publishing supported by the American Jews. For instance, the influential and eminently high-brow Jewish Journal of Sociology, funded by the World Jewish Congress in its formative years between 1959 and 1980, had as is founder Morris Ginsberg, professor of sociology at the London School of Economics. He was followed on the editor’s chair by Maurice Freedman, who had been professor of social anthropology at The London School of Economics and then at Oxford.
It should, at the very least, remember that as renowned a foodie as Swami Vivekananda did not win the world by peddling recipes, and when he met Jamshedji Tata, he pitched the creation of a world-class institution of scientific research.
The age of curry-cricket-and-cavorting in the name of soft power has come to an end. In Indian soft power, as in Indian defence, rising on the cheap is over. If India wants to be taken seriously, it must to put serious money in serious projects.