India has an edge over China in soft power, divisive politics must not harm it

Tridivesh Singh Maini
Tridivesh Singh MainiOct 20, 2017 | 12:36

India has an edge over China in soft power, divisive politics must not harm it

Recently, Indian defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, visited Nathu La in Sikkim and greeted soldiers with a namaste. The Chinese soldiers responded with "ni hao" (hello in Chinese). The defence minister’s gesture was appreciated in the Chinese media.

While there are numerous problems between both countries, there has been focus on the role of "soft power’"(especially yoga and sanskrit) in improving the relationship – even after the Doklam crisis. A number of experts have argued, that this can lower the tempers. This concept was propounded by Joseph Nye in the 1990s, and defined as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment”. Of late, other countries too have been proactively using soft power in different ways.


It is common to compare the strategies employed by both countries.


Chinese soft power: Strengths 

Those sceptical of India's approach towards soft power often argue that India does not have a clear strategy to promote it. China has taken a number of important initiatives. It has invested heavily in Confucious institutes in different parts of the world (there are a total of 500 institutes globally), the state owned China Central television has launched the China Global Television Network (CGTN) in six Languages. Also, China has begun to attract a lot of overseas students through a number of ways, including scholarships. As of 2015, over 4,00,000 overseas students studied in China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping while commenting on the importance of soft Power stated in an address:

"We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s message to the world."

China’s efforts have yielded positive results, with China ranking 25 in the "Soft Power 30 Index" published by Portland.


This is not to say that the Chinese approach towards soft power has not come for criticism. While there are over 100 Confucious institutes in the US, many US universities complain that they push a Chinese agenda, obliterating certain uncomfortable aspects of China’s history such as the Tiananmen Square and the issue of Tibet. Despite all its efforts, attitudes towards China are not particularly favourable in certain regions, including its neighbourhood.


China’s assertiveness on the South China Sea, for instance, has caused significant discomfort in South East Asia. A number of infrastructural projects such as high rail projects are facing numerous challenges, including opposition from local population.

India’s efforts

India has not been as proactive in harnessing its soft power as China. According to the "Soft Power 30" report, India did not rank even in the top 30 in terms of soft power.

But it would be unfair to say that India has completely failed in using of soft power. In fact, Bollywood movies have made an impact even in China. Two clear instances are the successes of Hindi films such as Dangal and Three Idiots even in China. Dangal, which was released in May 2017, earned Rs 86 crore on the first day itself. Out of the total earnings of Rs 1,800 crore, the movie earned two-thirds in China.

Interestingly, during a meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Astana (June 2017) the movie found a mention. 

Democracy and diversity: India's greatest strengths 

If one were to look beyond what is traditionally perceived as Indian soft power; Bollywood, Yoga, Ayurveda, Buddhism and India's diversity, pluralism and ability to accommodate different points of view are all important element of soft power. Even the fact that India has remained a stable democracy adds to its soft power. The fact was highlighted by former minister and senior Congress leader, Shashi Tharoor, while delivering a lecture at Washington DC. Tharoor said:


"In this increasingly globalised world where there is so much backlash against immigration, India of such diversity of caste, religion, language and others rally around the democratic value of consensus. Acceptance rather than tolerance is the Indian secret. And I think that has been the strength of India's soft power."

The fact that India has been a democracy has also been highlighted by the sort of assistance it has provided in other countries for capacity building. This has gone beyond mere financial help. In Afghanistan for instance, India constructed its legislative house, which was inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi during his visit in December 2015.

PM Modi's efforts 

Modi deserves credit for hard selling India's soft power. He realises that while India cannot match up to China's economic prowess and ability to open purse strings, it can compete in soft power. It is for this reason that a number of important initiatives have been taken during his tenure towards effective utilisation of soft power.

The UN for instance declared June 23 as International Yoga Day. Apart from this, PM Modi has spoken about Buddhism as an important bridge between not just India and South East Asia and East Asia, but also with South Asia. In May 2017, PM Modi attended the International Vesak Day celebrations — the most significant day in Buddhist calendar as chief guest.

PM Modi has also sought to use Sufism. It is for this reason that a Sufi conference was organised in March 2016, where Modi said:

"Sufism is a celebration of diversity and pluralism, expressed in the words of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya that every people has its own path of truth, beliefs and focus of reverence. These words reflect the divine message of the Holy Prophet that there is no compulsion in religion; and also that to every people, we have appointed ways of worship which they observe."

Another important component of India’s soft power has been the diaspora which Modi has sought to successfully reach out to.

Uniformity and attempts to obliterate history

Elements trying to impose uniformity or trying to obliterate an important element of India's history are doing no favour to India's soft power and are undermining the PM’s efforts. This includes those trying to tamper with India's history, and obliterate the contributions made during important periods such as the Mughal era. A recent such step was the removal of Taj Mahal from UP government's tourism list. This was followed by a legislator of the ruling party from Uttar Pradesh, Sangeet Som, saying:

"Many people were pained to see that the Taj Mahal had been removed from the list of historical places… what history… which history… the person who made Taj Mahal imprisoned his father… he targeted the Hindus of Uttar Pradesh and India… if these people still find place in history, then it is very unfortunate… and I guarantee that history will be changed."


It may be mentioned that Taj is a major attraction for tourists from different parts of the world. In fact, some people associate India with the Taj Mahal.

Why India should not lose its soft power advantage over China

India may not have achieved China's stellar growth rates, but it has been respected for long for diversity and democracy, especially in the western world.

Vice-president of the Indian National Congress, Rahul Gandhi, made an important point in this context during his US visit, where he distinguished between the two models. Gandhi said:

"India is a democratic country and unlike China, it has to create jobs in a democratic environment. India does not have, nor does it want, China’s coercive instruments. We cannot follow their model if massive factories are controlled by fear."

In conclusion, there are a lot of things for India to learn from China, but in the area of soft power, India would be advised not to ape the Chinese obsession with uniformity, and propensity to obliterate certain periods of history. Otherwise, it clearly has the edge, despite not investing financial resources as China has.

Last updated: October 20, 2017 | 12:36
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