IN TODAY’S global information age, victory often depends not on whose army wins, but on whose story wins,’ says the American author John Arquilla. His observation indicates the utility of being a soft power in the post-Cold War era and how crucial it is today to project a winning global narrative. Harvard University Professor Joseph Nye, who often quotes Arquilla, was the first to formally spell out the idea of ‘soft power’ in his 1990 book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, which made a case for diplomatic co-option rather than military coercion to have US objectives met by other countries in a unipolar world after the demise of the Soviet Union. A later book written by Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics is now considered a seminal text in the analysis of global politics. It argues in favour of nations getting what they want through their cultural appeal and policy successes instead of using carrots and sticks to have others fall in line.
The translation of a story with global appeal into a long-term foreign policy stance in the national interest, though, has not proven easy for India. Sculpting a strong narrative using the tools of soft power needed to incorporate not just the image of India abroad, but also the youth’s—65 per cent of the population being under 35 years old—own idea of the country at home. It is not that India has not exercised soft power through its history. It has done so in fields ranging from spirituality and culture to trade and politics, especially in matters of non-violent protests against abuses of civil rights, with the latter inflected by the former (as in ahimsa). Some experts argue that it is only since after its economic liberalisation that other cultural aspects of India’s appeal have begun to make a global impact. But all of this has been rather sporadic, driven by the private sector (as in India’s information technology prowess) and individuals (as with Mahatma Gandhi), rather than a strategy of diplomacy.
An opportunity has been in existence for long. A worldwide Voice of the People survey conducted by the US-based pollster Gallup a few years back found that less people wanted the rise of Russia, China and Iran because they were viewed more as militaristic powers, compared to ‘herbivores’ India, South Africa and Brazil with their cultural, trade, economic and political power and breadth of influence that was capable of winning hearts and minds globally to their cause. Having examined indicative criteria in the first decade-and-a-half of the 21st century, Jean-Pierre Lehmann, emeritus professor of International Policy Economy at IMD, Lausanne, Switzerland, forecasts that while China would likely emerge as the next global hard power, India ‘can and should’ emerge as a global soft power this century: ‘India can be the global hub of intellectual, spiritual and artistic creativity and the vehicle for the creation of Asian Lenses.’ The ‘lenses’ here refer to Asia’s view of its own people and their aspirations, historical and current, traditional and modern, both tangible and intangible. Marketing expert Leela Nandan, whose tenure in the Government’s Tourism Department saw the launch of the domestic awareness campaign ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ (visitors are divine) and also the multi-award-winning ‘Incredible India’ advertising exercise internationally, has written of how the two have served beautifully to capture the drama, spirituality, chaos and serenity of the country. However, left unintegrated with India’s foreign policy, they remained restricted to the realm of tourism and failed to translate into the larger notion of India as a soft power that should include the full panoply of its richness.
Today, a captivating new narrative is imperative for India to emerge as a soft power worldwide; and the Narendra Modi Government, as distinct from regimes before it, has been weaponising the country’s soft power tools both domestically and globally, knitting into its foreign policy diverse streams such as Buddhism, Yoga, the Diaspora, Bollywood, and most recently, by projecting the Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj as the largest peaceful festival in the world.
The Kumbh Mela, despite being observed for centuries, got its due place under the global sun just recently, with the endorsement of UNESCO, which included it in its Intangible Cultural Heritage list during its 12th session held in South Korea. The UN body defines ‘intangible heritage’ as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices and rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or knowhow and skills to produce traditional crafts that communities associate with their culture and pass on from one generation to the next.
The Kumbh is one among several soft power tools that the Modi Government is keen on honing to maximise their potential. In a paper titled ‘Can Soft Power Facilitate India’s Foreign Policy Goals?’, the academic Tridivesh Singh Maini holds: ‘If one were to examine efforts by the current government to promote soft power, its focus has been on Ayurveda, Yoga and Buddhism, besides reaching out proactively to the Indian Diaspora. A major success in this regard is the international recognition accorded to Yoga. In 2015, on the Indian PM’s appeal, the UNGA declared June 21 as International Yoga Day. Since then, the day has been celebrated with mass yoga practice, not just by Indians and staff of Indian embassies but by people of other nationalities as well.’ In a 2018 paper in the Journal of Asian Affairs, Arijit Mazumdar describes the Diaspora, Yoga and Buddhism as the three themes on which the Modi Government has based its global projection efforts. ‘The use of soft power is designed to complement India’s conventional diplomacy, boost its international image, project it as a rising power, improve relations with other countries and help attract foreign investment, technology and tourists in order to promote economic growth and development,’ contends Mazumdar.
Among various projects, it is the erstwhile Ardh Kumbh (half Kumbh), now upgraded by the Yogi Adityanath government of Uttar Pradesh to Kumbh status (as distinct from the Maha Kumbh), that has showcased India best as a global soft power. It has made it to the UNESCO list because it has been deemed to be ‘the largest peaceful congregation of pilgrims on earth and even encapsulates the science of astronomy, astrology, spirituality, ritualistic traditions, social and cultural customs and practices, making it extremely rich in knowledge’. This is also why the religious gathering attracts not just Hindu pilgrims, but thousands of tourists, journalists and researchers from both overseas and within India. Celebrated regularly in the country’s biggest state of Uttar Pradesh, the Kumbh this year has been bigger than the 2013 Maha Kumbh in size, scope, vision and logistics. All the arrangements were orchestrated by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who, much like his mentor Modi, is known for enforcing discipline on large-scale projects that require complex management of resources.
According to Kumbh Mela regulars, this year’s festival is much cleaner and better organised than in previous years. Even the flow of traffic in Prayagraj has been smooth, despite the influx of millions, all headed for the Ganga. There are no alms-seekers in sight to harass pilgrims and tourists. Street cleaners are on duty virtually round the clock, and policemen and volunteers are to be spotted everywhere guiding visitors to the city.
Visitors have been left impressed and they give Yogi Adityanath credit for an elevating and energising experience. The name ‘Kumbh’ is derived from the Sanskrit word for a pot or water pitcher, while ‘Mela’ means a fair or festival. In a cherished myth, a Hindu god was carrying the nectar of immortality, amrit, in a pot and drops were spilt in four different places—spots where the Mela is held. This year’s festival in Prayagraj began in January and runs until early March. A full gathering was originally every 12 years, but seers and ascetics began converging in these holy spots every six years so as to carry on their discourse on religious matters, resulting in the tradition of a ‘half’ Kumbh. Today, that circle of conversation has culturally and spiritually widened, strengthened and diversified at the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers, drawing into its ambit pilgrims and pundits from various streams across the world. It is also a place where the spiritual meets the political, for the Government has made it part of India’s planned ascent as a global soft power.