The rise of India's soft power in Corona times

The next big thing that countries will have to offer will be the true stories of real aspects of life, aspects that form the very fabric of society and culture.

 |  7-minute read |   07-05-2020
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India is in the process of gradually ending the national lockdown and entering a phase where a graded lockdown will follow, and she will guide her citizens in their fight against coronavirus. Nobody knows what the future will hold and how long the graded lockdown will last or whether the country will experience a further wave and be back to complete lockdown once again. The only certain thing is that nothing is certain, but the lockdown has been an eye-opener. During this period, one of the facets that I noticed was the gradual enabling of India’s soft power.

Be it performing arts, music, Ayurveda, cuisine, diaspora, democracy, public diplomacy or even the civilisational gesture of ‘namaskar’ and ‘vanakkam’, the country has had a wide range of mediums to enable its cultural imprint, and these are seeing widespread resonance, acceptance and organic practice.

‘Namaskar’ and ‘vanakkam’ have come into sudden fashion in times of physical distancing, while fighting this epidemic. It is an old civilisational greeting from India, which means that I, as an individual, salute the sacred and the divine in you. It is so much more meaningful than a mere ‘hi’ or ‘hello’. In the recent past, we saw how this simple Indian greeting transcended Indian boundaries when pictures and videos of Prince Charles from the United Kingdom were flashed, as he greeted people with the same gesture at a public function.

Only a few days ago, one of India’s popular diplomats, Syed Akbaruddin, retired from his post of India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. During his tenure, he reinforced India's pragmatic importance in the United Nations and also told the world about India’s contribution to human rights, through Hansa Mehta. In his farewell message, he was seen telling the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that he had a small request before leaving, in a virtual call between the two. He said, “In the Indian tradition, when we leave or when we meet, we do not say ‘hello’ or shake hands, but we say 'namaste'. So before I end, I want to say namaste to you and I hope you can reciprocate.” This gesture was warmly reciprocated by the UN Secretary-General.

In the case of performing arts and music, India is witnessing a number of civic initiatives to help its citizens deal with the pandemic. One such specific initiative, which is aimed at the youth, is the Youth Alliance Against Corona (YAAC). YAAC was formed as an independent network of organisations, spearheaded by the youth across the country. The network’s activities include helping migrant workers in various states in India, feeding the needy through donating groceries and ration, and organising interactive virtual sessions for the benefit of the youth in such testing times. The network organised a live Facebook session with acclaimed playback singer Mohit Chauhan, as part of a host of other sessions. His 40-minute Facebook live session, that is still available on his page, has had over 2,00,000 views. The session saw Chauhan sing a Nepali song on request from followers from Nepal.

In addition to Nepal, the session saw participants from Bangladesh and Maldives, to name a few countries in India’s neighbourhood. The organic response to his messages during the session and his songs that cut across boundaries, truly pay credit to the singer and to the galaxy of Indian musicians who remain in the hearts and minds of the people abroad.

On the occasion of World Dance Day on April 29, several classical dancers stepped up their creative efforts to showcase how to fight the spread of Covid-19 through some out-of-the-box ideas. These dancers used their medium to tell the plight of labourers and migrant workers. Some of the expositions that have garnered a lot of views on YouTube have also depicted how one must be compassionate in such times.

main_prince-charles-_050720081254.jpgThe simple Indian greeting transcended Indian boundaries when Prince Charles greeted people with a Namaste at a public function.

On the cuisine front, social media lit up when the New York Times, in an op-ed on April 28, carried ‘rajma chawal’ (curried kidney beans and rice) as the ‘indisputable king of bean dishes’, going on to explain why it is the best kind of comfort food right now in the times of Covid-19. In addition to this, chef superstars like Vikas Khanna in the US are also enabling and leading relief efforts in their unique capacities, by constantly taking requests from social-media users and ensuring help reaches them.

April 9 marked the founding day of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). As part of its initiatives during the lockdown, the organisation, which is the cultural diplomacy arm of the Ministry of External Affairs, announced interesting and innovative e-classes in various fields of soft power, including education, performing arts, language and yoga. In addition to this, the ICCR also announced a global painting competition as well as an essay-writing competition for NRI students and alumni of Indian institutions.

The diaspora too is an integral part of the country’s soft-power story. Indiaspora, a group of Indian entrepreneurs in the US, has donated close to US$ 800,000 (and counting) for food security programmes in both India and the United States, which was part of a campaign titled, ’Chalo Give for Covid-19’. As part of the initiative, they have also successfully fed close to six million people in both countries thus far.

Interestingly, the American Physicians of Indian-Origin (AAPI) body said that every seventh doctor in the US is an Indian and they are at the frontlines. Famous Indian actor Adil Hussain put out a video of an Indian-origin doctor, Dr Uma Madhusudhan from Karnataka, being applauded for her extraordinary service at the South Windsor Hospital in the US.

The Indian movie world was jolted with the back-to-back deaths of Irrfan and Rishi Kapoor during the lockdown, but the cherished memories that were shared by the cinema fraternity across the globe were discernible. For instance, there were more than 42 million views and thousands of discussion threads on the Chinese social media platform Weibo after Irrfan passed away. A cursory view of some tributes to both actors will also showcase how they were called by their first names in global cities like New York, for the characters they portrayed on the silver screen.

main_rajma_chawal_fr_050720081555.jpgThe New York Times hailed rajma chawal as the ‘indisputable king of bean dishes’. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Dr PLT Girija, the founder of Sanjeevani Ayurveda Foundation based in Chennai — in a paper titled ‘Ayurveda for revitalising Healthcare in India’ — has written that the World Health Organization (WHO) report on Traditional Medicine Strategy 2002-2025, noted that for 65 per cent for the Indian population, Ayurvedic medicine is the “only available source of healthcare”. True to this, for the first time in the history of the Indian government, Ayurveda treatment was approved as part of clinical trials for Covid-19 victims.

In the lockdown period, the YAAC also organised a dedicated Facebook live session with Rajiv Vasudevan, the founder and CEO of AyurVAID Hospitals, who spoke about ‘Building Immunity in the Times of Covid-19: The Ayurveda Perspective’. The session saw viewers from Latin American countries such as Peru, European countries such as France, and Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore.

Finally, democracy. The organic response of adhering to the national lockdown across the country in these many days has been heartening. In a country as big as India, it is not easy to solicit such a response. While the fight continues, the value and commitment to not put lives at risk, and to ensure that the guidelines stipulated by the governments in the Centre and the states, speak volumes of the resolve of the people. There has also been a positive response to the hundreds of social organisations that are doing their very best for the country.

When India’s exceptionalism is defined and takes shape in the 21st century, I am certain that some of these important aspects of our civilisational ethos will be its vital cog. For all we know, armies may not win the next big war if there is one. The next big thing that countries will have to offer will be the true stories of the real aspects of life, aspects that form the very fabric of society and culture. Purely in terms of this, India is very well placed in the pursuit of her ‘Great Indian Dream’.

Also Read | Good news on Covid-19: Drugs, sunshine, vaccine aid in India’s war with coronavirus

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