Why India needs its writers, historians, entertainers and scientists

Amit Khanna
Amit KhannaFeb 13, 2015 | 18:12

Why India needs its writers, historians, entertainers and scientists

Since Pandit Nehru every prime minister has talked about films and music being India's soft power. We all know of Raj Kapoor's following in the Russia, east Europe and China. Of "Awara Hoon" sung across continents. Amitabh Bachchan has been voted "Star of the Millenium" in a BBC poll. The three Khans have legendary followings across nations. Similarly Indian cuisine is virtually global now as is yoga and the Indian textiles.


We are all aware that India is fast emerging as a major economic power. Although there is talk of India also being an important "soft power" the fact is we are far from achieving that status. According to a soft power survey carried out by Monocle, a British lifestyle magazine the top ten soft power countries are Germany, UK, US ,France, Japan, Sweden, Australia, Switzerland, Canada and Italy. India is not there. One would have thought India had a lot going for itself besides its cultural diversity and varied flora and fauna.

What is soft power? It is about creating a credible and positive image of a country in the comity of nations. The term "soft power" was coined by neo-liberal academician Joseph Nye of Harvard University "to describe the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, use force or give money as a means persuasion". Since then the term has also been used in context of increasing social and public perception through lesser visible lobbying (culture, sport, cuisine, art) in the global village. In 2012, Nye explained that with soft power, "the best propaganda is not propaganda", further explaining that during the Information Age credibility is the scarcest resource".


The power of culture is often not felt immediately. It slowly permeates into our day-to-day life. Cultural power is glacial. It moves slowly but with great force. Of course in a networked world where travel and communication is easier than earlier some cultural leit motifs become obvious .Thus we use words like "soft power" or "smart power" as analogous with the power of culture.

A classic example would be Hollywood which has become all pervasive around the world. Or Chinese food. Or yoga. And a host of transnational iconic people and products. With an estimated turnover of USD 2.4 trillion annually culture (and this excludes tourism and travel) is one of the World's largest Industry. France for instance draws over 70 million tourists every year mainly because of its heritage and culture. Its distinctive cuisine, fashion and art amongst other things.In fact cultural power. When I go abroad people always ask me about Bollywood. This is the power of culture. It can overprint on other peoples' minds images, sounds, taste and smells of another nation and in the process monetise an intangible asset or undermine another.

We have heard in the past two decades various people around the world including most recently Prime Minister Narendra Modi have talked about India as a soft power. India's soft power has rare characteristics when compared with the other great powers of the emerging multipolar world: US, China, Russia, Japan and Europe (as a unified entity). Its relatively neutral, non-threatening image, nuclear weapons notwithstanding makes India a uniquely attractive great-power partner for countries looking to hedge against future fallout between the US and China, and not wanting to antagonize either superpower.


Historically the rise of India's soft power is ancient. Some symbols are the Vedas (amongst the oldest written texts in the world) and Buddhism especially after its spread across Asia, 2,500 years before Christian faith. For the Mesopotamian, Roman and Greek Empires India's soft power was its aura of being the land of knowledge, riches, fabrics and spices. Hence the continued pursuit of trade with India followed repeated invasion of India. Also home to the wondrous Taj Mahal.

In the last 100 years, the most powerful expression of Indian soft power was, again, a galvanising idea: Mahatma Gandhi's notion of nonviolent resistance to colonial rule captured the world's imagination and inspired others who struggled against oppression, from Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela to Lech Walesa and Aung San Suu Kyi. Except for an occasional Nobel laureate like Dr Hargobind Khorana ,Dr Amartya Sen. or the more recently Kailash Satyarthi and a handful of authors like Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth, a couple of sports people Viswanathan Anand,Sachin Tendulkar, Leander Paes and Sania Mirza we don't really have real world heroes.

Arguably India's best known global brand today is Bollywood (incidentally so named by yours truly).Around 50 years ago; Indian cinema began to attract fans across the world, especially in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. In 1957, Mother India became an international hit, one of the first not produced in the US or Europe. Actor-director Raj Kapoor was mobbed on the streets of Moscow and Beijing. His brother Shammi became a heartthrob in Baghdad. Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar (Asia, Middle East) and later Guru Dutt and Satyajit Ray achieved global acclaim. In 2003, when three Indian truck drivers were kidnapped in southern Iraq, a tribal sheikh offered to arrange their release-if he got a phone call from Asha Parekh.) From the 1970s, Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan demonstrated the same cross-border appeal. Similarly Sharukh is mobbed by raving mobs in several cities of the world. Mithun Chakravorty, Madhuri Dixit, Amir Khan, Salman Khan are amongst those who have a large overseas following. Indian songs from Awara Hoon and Mera Joota Hai Jaapani to recent item numbers are now routinely heard in cabs,cafes and night clubs around the world. I was once in Iceland and pleasantly surprised to hear one of old my songs ChalteChalte. Unfortunately besides talking the government has done precious little to market this globally.

For decades India's image abroad was of an old civilisation living in abject poverty amidst squalor. A land of snake charmers and swamis. Rarely featured in the Western cultural scene, besides an occasional mention of Ravi Shankar and his famous followers like Beatles or an assortment of spiritual gurus such as Mahesh Maharishi Yogi and Osho with their celebrity disciples .Packaged exotica or the Nehru Jacket, and now the 'bundi' that Modi has triggered a revival. Fashion trends like Bleeding Madras or Rajasthan mirror work and lately sardonic bling are symbols of India's rising influence.

Or take another example Indian food. There is hardly any major city around the world where you can't find more than one Indian restaurant. In fact in the UK chicken tikka masala is the National dish. In the US, people who couldn't place the country on a map can taste Indian cuisine from around the country. India also began to crop up more frequently in the Western cultural scene, perhaps most memorably in the form of the Simpsons character Apu Nahaseemapetilon, owner of the Kwik-E-Mart.

But even as the Simpsons was becoming a hit show, a global scare was about to have a dramatic impact on India's image in the world. It was called the Y2K - the notion that a glitch in software code would bring every computer in the world to a halt at midnight on Dec 31, 1999. Starting in the late 1980s, tens of thousands of Indian engineers and programmers fanned across the world (and especially in the US) to kill the bug and save the world. Suddenly, Indians were being seen as problem-solvers, technically skilled and reliable. When 2000 came and went without the global shutdown, the world began to outsource other problems to India. Call centres ("Hello, this is Charlie. How can I help you with your insurance needs today?") Exposed more and more people to Indians-and to occasionally impenetrable Indian accents. Business process outsourcing, or BPO, now brings India $21 billion in annual revenues.

In the American cultural zeitgeist, meanwhile, Indians have been popping up everywhere: Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project, Archie Panjabi in The Good Wife, and Kunal Nayyar in Big Bang Theory are only a few examples. And notice how the roles have changed-Mindy plays a doctor, Panjabi an investigator, and Nayyar's Raj Koothrappali is an astrophysicist. AR Rehman,Mira Nair,Manoj Night Shyamalan,Shekhar Kapoor and Deepa Mehta and actors like Irfan Khan and Om Puri, Shabana Azmi ,Aishwariya Rai, Kal Pen, Frieda Pinto are all working in International films. Today Indian films are screened in over 130 countries. That's a long, long way from Sabu and Apu.

Other expressions of Indian soft power now abound: IT (Information Technology) Yoga, Bollywood dances, cricket, Ayurveda, Tea and the ubiquitous Indian curry. And here's what they all have in common: the Indian government had virtually nothing to do with their success. It's no coincidence that the one instrument of Indian soft power that was actively promoted by government-non-alignment-is now a sad shadow of the original conception. India has long been content with its indirect soft power capacities. In comparison with Beijing's well-organised and centrally mandated "charm offensive", India's public diplomacy is still in formation. To increase its international clout, notably in its growing competition with China over which power tells the "better story", India will have to use its soft power in a more systematic and planned manner. This process will most probably take time as it will require a domestic debate on how to balance national interests and political values and norms. The resolution of this debate will determine how India finds a right mix between soft and hard power in order to achieve real influence, or what Nye, and many in the Obama administration, in particular Hillary Clinton, have termed "smart power". For India to continue to be an attractive power, and most importantly for it to present a more compelling development model than China, it will also need to continue to improve its internal economic performance. In addition, since soft power has a fluctuating value, India will need to resolve its lack of social and economic equality if it wants to retain its soft power edge. One of the major factors in the rise of India's profile has been its impressive economic growth since the early 1990s. Suddenly, India became an appealing economic model, one that presented a different option from the centralised and authoritarian Chinese model. But the maintenance of this positive international image will require India to simultaneously become a more equitable and efficient society, a global economic power, and an economy that commands a major share of the global ealth, especially from global trade and investment.

This is also a great opportunity for the Media and Entertainment Industry to take a quantum Leap and become a major contributor to India's economic growth. The Government too needs to wake up and instead of keeping tabs on Content Creators make a push for rapid expansion of the Media & Entertainment Industry. This is one of the shortest ways to influencing global minds and Governments.

Last updated: November 02, 2015 | 20:58
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