Rise of Indian Soft power Diplomacy

There has been a debate since globalization subsumed the entire globe under its fold. The compression of time and space also led to what is said as ‘coca-colonization

Sikhs demonstrate at British High Commission over pulling down of Indian tricolour at London mission
Indian tricolour

By Varuna Shankar

India is a civilizational nation that embraces extraordinary profusion of ethnic groups, mutually incomprehensible languages, religions and cultural practices, topography and climate, and levels of economic development. To rely entirely on indices of GDP, impressive growth rates, and the undoubted skills and entrepreneurial initiative along with strategic thinking, economic interests, and geopolitical affinities may not always lead to a holistic outcome for a nation of being influential among the comity of nations. India must determine where its strengths lie as it seeks to make the 21st century its own. India has always been a country with tremendous ‘soft power.’ Unlike the rise of China, its ‘rise’ is not being viewed with trepidation and alarm in many countries. The substantial inherent value of soft power has also been highlighted by Shashi Tharoor in his ‘guns versus ghee’ debate, which involves the case for expenditure on defense against spending on the development of the power of attraction for India as a heritage nation.

There has been a debate since globalization subsumed the entire globe under its fold. The compression of time and space also led to what is said as ‘coca-colonization.’ The American hegemony in global citizens’ ideas, values, culture, lifestyle, and behavior as the idea of being modern encircled the entire globe. For Nye, the U.S. was the archetypal exponent of soft power, home to Boeing, Intel, Ford, the iPod, the iPhone, Microsoft, MTV, Hollywood and Disneyland, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and most of the significant products that dominate daily life, globally. The attractiveness of these assets and emblems of the American lifestyle is that they permit the U.S. to maximize its soft power and enhance its ability to attract and persuade others to adopt the American agenda.

India can take products of Indian society and culture that the world would find attractive to enhance our country’s intangible standing. This means giving attention, encouragement, and active support to the soft power aspects of Indian society. India’s experience with western consumer products conclusively depicts that we can drink Coca-Cola without becoming coca-colonized. Our popular culture has proved resilient enough to compete successfully with MTV and McDonald’s. There will always be more masala dosas sold than Big Macs. For millennia, the strength of Indianness has lain in our country’s ability to absorb foreign influences. It has transformed them by a peculiar Indian alchemy into something that belongs naturally on the soil of India.


The outreach of Indian soft power diplomacy can be witnessed in the history of Indian culture. Angkor Vat was one of the most splendid Hindu temples ever built anywhere in the world, including India. To walk past its exquisite sculptures, recounting tales from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The symbols protecting the shrine, the Naga, the Simha, and the Garuda, correspond to today’s navy, army, and air force, and marvel at the epic scale of the Hindu temple as impressive as the finest cathedral or mosque anywhere in the world.

The merchants and travelers from the Indic civilization brought Hinduism to Cambodia more than a millennium ago. It was later supplanted by Buddhism, which was also an Indian export. It nonetheless profoundly influenced Cambodian people’s culture, music, dance, and mythology.

The impact of these travelers and preachers was so profound that, to this day, the kings of Thailand are only crowned in the presence of Brahmin priests. Interestingly, the Muslims of Java still sport Sanskritic names despite their conversion to Islam, a faith whose adherence typically bears names originating in Arabia. Similarly, Indonesia’s national airline is Garuda, and Ramayana is its best-selling brand of clove cigars. Even the Philippines have produced a pop dance ballet about Rama’s quest for his kidnapped queen. Yet, India is far less important to the countries that still bear the stamp of Indic influence. China, on the other hand, whose significance is contemporary rather than civilizational, also seems to be a strong contender.

What Indian dons as a dress for a formal event is a variant of the sherwani, which did not exist before the Muslim rule in India. The seven wonders include the Taj Mahal, which all Indians unanimously voted for recognition by UNESCO. A Mughal king constructed it.

In Kerala, Islam came through traders, travelers, and missionaries. The Zamorin of Calicut was so impressed by the sea-faring skills of the Muslim community that he issued a decree obliging each fisherman’s family to bring up one son as a Muslim to operate his all-Muslim navy. India has offered refuge and religious and cultural freedom to Jews, Parsis, several varieties of Christians, and Muslims on a non-reciprocation basis, even though the UN Convention on Refugees does not legally bind it.

Strands of Soft Power

As an entertainment industry, Bollywood has had tremendous outreach and influence in the spread of Indian culture. It brought its brand of glitzy entertainment even to the screens of Syria and Senegal. Interestingly, the only publicly displayed portraits in Syria that were as big as those of then-President Hafez al-Assad were those of Amitabh Bachchan. Indian music and movies have a large international market and have become increasingly popular abroad, particularly in Asia, Europe, Africa, and West Asia. Even in countries like Russia, Syria, and Senegal, Indian films, notably Hindi (Bollywood, the most crucial movie industry after Hollywood), have a following.

Indian art, classical music, and dance have the same effect. So does the work of Indian fashion designers. Even Indian cuisine spreading worldwide raises our culture higher in people’s reckoning. In England today, Indian restaurants employ more people than the iron and steel, coal, and ship-building industries combined. The number of such ventures has risen exponentially in far-distant countries. Indian food is gaining traction in the West as a part of healthy dietary practice within the whole concept of the art of living.

One of India’s most successful and enduring imports is yoga. It is practiced worldwide as a form of exercise and as a stress-buster by millions. As a result, yoga is already a global phenomenon and is rapidly becoming part of mainstream culture, particularly in the West.

The Indianness of engineers and software developers is taken as synonymous with mathematical and scientific excellence. American give the same reverence to the IITs as they used to accord MIT. The old stereotype of Indians as snake charmers and sadhus lying on beds of nails has now been replaced by one of Indians as software gurus and computer geeks. The success of Indian companies like Infosys Technologies and Wipro Technologies in the Information Technology (IT) sector; the success of other multinational companies like the Tata Group and Reliance Group; and the worldwide recognition of the academic excellence of the Indian Institute of Management (IIMs) and Indian Institute of Technology (IITs)—the center of excellence for higher training, research, and development in science, engineering, and technology in India—have contributed to the new image of India as a country with English educated, enterprising people.

In terms of health care services, medical tourism is prevalent among the western public.As healthcare costs continue skyrocketing in the West, India becomes increasingly attractive as an outsourcing venue for medical services. These medical services range from providing Western patients with timely and cheaper medical treatment in India.

Since Indian newspapers, news agencies, and television networks have created a foreign correspondent base and, with the rapid growth of the internet, and video technology, an international network could be very quickly developed. The news products could first go to the diaspora but subsequently be provided to policymakers, journalists, and academics worldwide to provide an alternative perspective on international affairs.This will give impetus to Public Diplomacy and deeper penetration of Indian values,beliefs, and culture.Public diplomacy and more initiatives like friendship years with different countries should be started. More funding should be given to public diplomacy. India should also hold more cultural festivals abroad showcasing various aspects of its culture.

India’s most significant asset in terms of soft power is its successfully-functioning democracy which has survived despite many challenges. India is the world’s largest democracy. Unlike most other developing countries, India has established democratic traditions. India has never had a military dictatorship and yet has managed to solve, to some extent, many of the problems it faced at the time of its independence has been appreciated worldwide. India has proved that democracy can work even in a poor, illiterate country and is not the exclusive preserve of affluent Western countries.

Due to their shared heritage and civilization, India and South East Asia have a strong connection in terms of soft power and are now called their ‘civilizational neighbors.’ India does not have border disputes with any of them, providing them with a unique position. Indian culture is appreciated in its immediate neighborhood in South Asia. India’s tolerance of different religions and cultures is legendary. This land has preached ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (the world is my family) and LokaSamasthaSukhinoBhavanthu (let there be peace worldwide).


Indian soft power potential is tremendous regarding the outreach of its diaspora abroad. India has a sizable international diaspora, with over 20 million Indians spread worldwide. They act as the instrument of influence to common masses in foreign lands, apart from the role of embassies in providing a platform for cultural linkages. Deploying more study centers worldwide on the lines of the British Council, American Information Resource Centers, Alliance Francoise, and the ConfuciusInstitutes started by China could provide impetus to the nation’s image as a multicultural melting pot. These institutes increase their respective countries’ soft power by projecting a favorable impression of their lands to the outside world through public relations exercises.

Creating a “brand state” through soft power alone may not be sufficient to develop India’s great power status. But they are a necessary component of the strategy since they will work to provide India with a reservoir of goodwill across the world. In addition, it would create a positive image,most notably in the countries where India has the most significant political, economic, and technological ties with the countries of the West.

The author is a Ph.D scholar in the Department of Political Science and International relations at the GD Goenka University, Gurgaon. And also a Research Intern at the Indian Council of World Affairs(ICWA).

(Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.)

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First published on: 03-03-2023 at 17:01 IST
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