International Yoga Day: A hard look at India's soft power

Jash Dholani
Jash DholaniJun 21, 2017 | 17:19

International Yoga Day: A hard look at India's soft power

June 21 is internationally celebrated as the World Yoga Day. In hundreds of cities around the world, thousands of people come together for yoga. Sometimes the numbers run into tens of thousands.

Guinness World Records are regularly broken. And the cities are not just Indian — from Times Square in New York to the National Museum in Dhaka, yoga has become a near ubiquitous presence around the globe.


Soft power?

Along with speeches about India’s ancient culture, the World Yoga Day inevitably invokes talk of India’s contemporary soft power. The very fact that a world yoga day is celebrated at all is considered an example of India’s soft power.

Since 2006, yoga gurus like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar were trying to lobby the UN to declare a world yoga day. After a vigorous diplomatic push from PM Modi in 2014, the United Nations General Assembly put the date in the calendar.

Analysts have termed it “Yoga diplomacy” and wondered whether the practise of yoga will bolster India’s cultural standing — whether, by exposing and familiarising citizens of a globalised world with its own historic-cultural customs, India will gain geopolitical muscle to flex.

Soft power is the capacity to attract and persuade others to do things they otherwise wouldn’t. Joseph Nye, a US foreign policy veteran, coined the phrase soft power in 1990. He encourages readers of his book The Future of Power to think of soft power in terms of resources. Power is derived from resources, and soft power is no different.

Beijing celebrates International Yoga Day at Great Wall of China.


Hard power rests on military resources like navy fleets, attack aircrafts and a capacity to inflict harm. Soft power, on the other hand, rests on three primary resources: culture, political values and foreign policy.

Indian culture is among the oldest in the world. Throughout millennia, India has exported cuisine, architecture, religious precepts and other cultural products that have taken deep roots in the near abroad and registered their presence in most parts of the world. Besides the age of our culture, its variety is remarkable, too.

UNDP, in its 2004 report, praised India’s “pluralist policies” and noted how great economic and social progress had been made since 1947 despite the staggering diversity of the land — diversity that the “experts” had predicted would be paralysing.

Secondly, India’s political values are much admired in the world. Principles of secularism and democracy have been upheld since Independence. There have been slips — the Emergency comes to mind — but which society hasn’t had occasions that it must look back upon with a pinch of regret and feel the heavy weight of lessons? Today, we are not only a democratic nation — we are also the world’s largest.


Adam Robert, in his new book Superfast Primetime Ultimate Nation, mentions that India is “better placed” than China to build “supportive networks internationally” since it happens to be a democracy. Over 100 of the 192 states in the world are democracies, and soft power originates from shared values. China, for all its economic growth, remains, politically, an oddity of the 20th century and doesn’t offer a model of a democratic society that most people of the world aspire toward. India fulfils that demand.

Thirdly, while India’s foreign policy leaves much to be desired, recent attempts at outreach by PM Modi signal a change in the direction. Sushma Swaraj’s use of Twitter to take note of, and respond to, emergencies abroad hints at fresh vigour. Further, as the magazine Foreign Policy has noted, after China, India is the largest donor in the developing world.

Hence, while India might not be firing on all cylinders, she has the soft power resources in great abandon and seems to be marshalling those resources reasonably well. Why, then, was India not even among the top 30 soft powers according to a Portland report? How did India manage a rank lower than debt-ridden Greece, benign New Zealand, and tiny Belgium?

A hard look

Joseph Nye, in his TED talk, talks about two great power shifts happening in the 21st century. The first is the shift of power from West to East — he calls this power transition. India and China are the most populous nations on the planet — and also two of its fastest growing. This isn’t historically unprecedented — India and China used to be the two most powerful economies in the world before the Industrial Revolution.

Joseph Nye, hence, notes that this century is not witnessing a rise of Asia as popularly reported — but rather, a return of Asia.

The second power shift is happening from state to non-state actors. Joseph Nye calls this power diffusion. Examples of this diffusion are many: transnational corporations exist across borders and terror groups destabilise entire regions. Both of them are non-state actors. Add to the mix NGOs, popular culture, and the disorienting chaos agents of the internet, and we have a world in which power has been democratised.

India is losing out in both of these shifts.

A significant chunk of the transitional shift has been gobbled up by China. As manufacturing jobs moved eastward toward the end of the 20th century, China consistently broke growth records. It established ports, laid down roads, set up new power plants — even today, China opens one coal-based power plant every week. The Chinese economy grew by an average of 9.74 per cent from 1989 until 2017 —an astonishing, breathless run that continued for almost 30 years.

Other than China, Asian nations such as Japan, South Korea, and Singapore wolfed off big pieces as the pie travelled east. Now it is 2017, and India’s manufacturing revolution is yet to happen. In 2016, World Bank put out a report predicting that 69 per cent of jobs in India will be vulnerable to automation in the future. One wonders if the window to experience decades long economic growth—and derive hard and soft power from it—has closed for our country.

The consequences of power diffusion are harder to measure. However, a look at a country’s non-state institutions can be revealing. American brands like Apple, Amazon, Airbnb and others have a global customer base. They help America project soft power — they sell American notions of consumption, freedom, and choice. The British, on the other hand, have the English language — the world’s lingua franca. Institutions like the British Council further promote British values and culture across hundreds of countries.

Taking inspiration from the British Council, the Chinese established the Confucius Institute in 2004. 13 years later, it has 300 centres across the world. Meanwhile, India’s comparable institute, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) was established in 1950 and has a paltry 35 centres around the globe.

Money is a big determinant — the Chinese pump $20 billion into the Confucius Institute every year while ICCR’s budget was Rs 192 crore in 2015-16. The money imbalance aside, is ICCR really the best name for an institute that is supposed to present India as an attractive brand abroad? It wouldn’t hurt, as The Diplomat has noted, to “come up with a more memorable name.”

Portland’s report considers education as one of the matrixes of soft power. USA took in 1.2 million international students in 2016. UK gives 3,00,000 visas to international students every year. China is rapidly catching up — 440,000 foreign students studied in China last year. India, however, doesn’t have a single university in the top 200 universities of the world.

When was the last time an Indian company influenced global tastes as tens of American, European, Japanese, South Korean — and now increasingly, Chinese — companies do? When was the last time an Indian NGO — like Amnesty International of London or Greenpeace of Amsterdam — established a global footprint promoting humanitarian projects?

In the transition of power we are losing to other states. In the diffusion of power, we are ceding ground to non-state actors not our own.

India should move beyond asanas and analysis and take action. Having the Indian story merely out there, jostling with a hundred other stories, isn’t necessarily winning the war of narrative. Our cultural outreach must be well-oiled, well-funded, and primed to produce geopolitical clout.

Our moves — whether they be hard power thrusts or soft power manoeuvres — must emanate from consistent strategy. In the age of internet, India must amplify its strengths and work rapidly to right the wrongs.

The century is still young, and might still smile upon us.

Last updated: June 21, 2017 | 17:19
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