Under Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, India began a deliberate organic push in changing the narrative to include the entire gamut of its repository of soft power.
By Rohit Kumar Singh
From being known as the land of elephants, black magic and snake-charmers, to the rising popularity of Bollywood and Chicken Tikka Masala on foreign shores – how the world views us is on a default setting. It was only when PM Modi was voted into power with an absolute majority in 2014, there began a deliberate organic push in changing the narrative to include the entire gamut of India’s repository of soft power. His unmatched oratorical skills and personable aura found their way in global speeches, State-visits, and actions on the ground.
It is no coincidence that there was also a sense of rising nationalism and pride in our ‘Unity in Diversity’ during this time. Perhaps, our most visible export to the western world has been the practice of Yoga – its origins can be traced to northern India over 5,000 years ago. First mentioned in the Rig Vega, Yoga is amongst the six schools of philosophy in Hinduism and is also a major part of Buddhism and its meditation practices. PM Modi, in his 2014 UNGA address, emphasized the need for an International Yoga Day. June 21 was chosen as it is when the Sun reaches its highest position and hence the day with the longest period of daylight.
Since times immemorial, and as a cradle of early civilization, India has been a treasure trove of rich and ancient culture, traditions, and art forms. The first sculptures in India date back to the Indus Valley civilization, where stone and bronze figures of the Dancing Girl and Harappa Torso had been discovered among others, currently housed at the National Museum at New Delhi.
As a nation brimming with countless tangible and intangible heritages, the recent inclusion of the Harappan city Dholavira and the Ramappa Temple in the UNESCO’s World Heritage List are a welcome addition to India’s repertoire.
While we are looking inward more than ever before, we are increasingly appreciating the common thread that binds us. Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, a commemoration of India’s 75th year of Independence gives us that unique and unprecedented chance to honor our shared monumental history, with a focus on its people, culture, and achievements. PM Modi’s personal involvement and mentorship in Amrit Mahotsav as head of the National Committee is the demonstration of his belief in the unparalleled power of this very culture. Home Minister Amit Shah presides over the National Implementation Committee that monitors the implementation of Amrit Mahotsav.
The five themes of Freedom@75, Ideas@75, Achievements@75, Actions@75, and Resolve@75 celebrate our collective pride and joy interweaving our India of the past, the present; and as PM says, the Amrit Kaal comprising the next quarter-century leading to India 2.0, the Vishwa Guru of 2047. Under the Mahotsav, beginning March 12, 2021, over 13,000 events have been held so far across the country and the results are beginning to show.
For example, at the recently concluded Kashi Utsav, a three-day festival organized to celebrate the classical heritage of Kashi, focusing on literary luminaries like Goswami Tulsidas, Sant Kabir, Sant Raidas, Bhartendu Harishchandra, Munshi Premchand, and Jaishankar Prasad witnessed huge participation and interest. The rich cultural heritage, splendid history, and resplendent beauty of Kashi were in full glow while we celebrated the Rajbhasha jewels. When Poet Kumar Vishwas recited “Kankar Kankar Mera Shankar, Main Lehar Lehar Avinashi Hoon, Main Kashi Hoon, Main Kashi Hoon” it nearly brought down the magnificent Rudraksha Auditorium, the latter being a glorious symbol of Indo-Japanese collaboration.
A mix of Religion, Culture, and Culinary
At his opening remarks at the Quad Summit earlier this year, PM Modi brought out the age-old philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – the world as one family, for promoting shared values. While also investing in Buddhist diplomacy and acting upon “Neighborhood First” and “Act East” policies, PM Modi inaugurated the Kushinagar International Airport in UP last month. This will ease the process for Buddhist pilgrims to reach the important site of the Mahaparinirvana Temple, where Lord Buddha attained nirvana. This furthers the Indian government’s plan to develop a “Buddhist Circuit” to attract overseas tourists to India, the birthplace of Buddhism and home to its holiest pilgrimage sites.
There are also visible signs that Indian culture is moving up the food value chain, as is evident in the establishment of myriad Michelin-rated desi restaurants overseas. Culinary diplomacy has survived the test of time. PM Modi has leaned on this strategy while he hosted US President Obama in 2017, by laying out an elaborate spread. Even in his talks with the Japanese PM sometime back, PM Modi expressed his desire for more Japanese restaurants in India.
The Indian Government has now a comprehensive and well-structured policy to delineate India’s soft power resources and their articulation abroad. A “soft power matrix” is also being put into place, to measure the effectiveness of such policies. The present dispensation has been particularly serious about the soft power push – from cultural exchanges to courting the diaspora and an increased emphasis on India’s solid democratic credentials. Due to the relentless efforts of PM Modi, a number of stolen artifacts and antiquities are being repatriated – a true Ghar-wapsi for our stolen Gods. Over the past year alone, 65 objects from the UK, Canada, and the US have been retrieved. PM Modi personally brought some back from the US on his last visit there in September this year, including the idol of Goddess Annapurna Devi now duly installed at the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi.
Diaspora is India’s Ambassador
It is an undeniable fact that the Indian diaspora has been our greatest strength in furthering soft power. A shift in the universal perception of India, as well a meteoric rise in the country’s global stature can be attributed to the ever-growing highly skilled non-resident Indian community. Standing on the shoulders of giant achievements of the likes of Sunder Pichai, Arvind Krishna, Ajay Banga, Indra Nooyi, Satya Nadella, and now Parag Agrawal among many others, the diaspora has kept the news cycle abuzz at home and abroad.
Innovation continues to flourish at home too. In his monthly Mann-Ki-Baat address, PM Modi had elucidated the existence of over 70 Unicorns, start-ups valued at over 1 billion USD, and how in just 10 months, a new unicorn was made in India every 10 days.
Shaping the creation of a multipolar world, with policy led by heart and soul, India under the dynamic leadership of PM Modi, is engaging robustly in soft diplomacy. It is increasingly evident that the 21st century will be dominated by India. I am certain that with the current trajectory fueled by soft power, India shall remain the land of the better story, more attractive and persuasive.
(Rohit Kumar Singh, a 1989 batch IAS officer, is Additional Secretary in Minister of Culture, India)
Joseph Nye, who coined the term “soft power”, argues that soft power is a more difficult instrument for a government to wield as many of its critical resources are outside the control of governments and sometimes take years to produce the desired outcomes. The strategy is a delicate mix of one’s culture, political values, and foreign policy.