Be it in the empires of the past, or the nation-states of the modern era, exercising power the hard way has usually been very popular among those in power. This ‘hard power’ is nothing but the use of military and economic means to win over the opponent. Its proponents hail it as a quicker way of achieving the desired result and establishing a global reputation. But I would argue otherwise. Such coercive approach is neither fruitful in establishing a meaningful relationship with other nations, nor is it sustainable in the long-term. What’s the alternative then? It is the ‘soft power’ which, as defined by the American political scientist Joseph Nye, is the ability to persuade others without the use of coercion.
Soft power can help a nation achieve what it might not be able to by the use of hard power. Take the example of North Korea here. The authoritative regime has not responded well to the threats and sanctions by the US, but the attempt to dissipate the tension by diplomacy in 2018 yielded some positive results. Take the case of India. It is not as economically strong as China today, but unlike China’s sole reliance on chequebook diplomacy, India has effectively used its wide spectrum of soft power to become a globally renowned country.
The rise of India’s soft power has been tremendous. Its political values have earned it a lot of appreciation and respect across the globe. It is the largest democracy in the world, is a secular state that treats all religions equally, and has a multi-party system with universal adult franchise. If you see at the international level, the recent win of a non-permanent seat at UNSC with 184 votes and at UNHRC with 188 votes (voting conducted in the 193-member UNGA) demonstrated the goodwill that the Indian state enjoys across the world. India’s dynamic foreign policy has also helped it expand its soft power. Be it the Neighborhood First policy, the Act East policy, or the humanitarian efforts undertaken in foreign countries like Operation Vanilla (2020, in cyclone-hit Madagascar) and Mission Sagar (2020, to deliver COVID-19 related assistance to littoral states of the Indian Ocean), India has displayed that it is a benefactor to the world. India has been instrumental in the establishment of the ISA (International Solar Alliance) and CDRI (Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure), two of the most important global organizations for promoting renewable energy use and disaster-safe infrastructure respectively.
One of the biggest components of India’s soft power is its rich cultural heritage. India has the 6th highest number of UNESCO World heritage sites. One of the 7 wonders of the world, the iconic Taj Mahal, is from India. The diverse types of dances, music, cuisine, dressing styles and languages – all contribute to strengthening India’s soft power. Yoga and Ayurveda owe their origin to India, and are today widely accepted all over the world. The UN even declared June 21 as International yoga day, on a proposal moved by the Indian Prime Minister. Bollywood has created a large audience transcending national borders. Our actors and films are followed by people in countries like China, Afghanistan, UAE, Maldives etc. The vibrant Indian diaspora is yet another significant source of our soft power. The over 17.5 million strong diaspora (as per Global Migration report 2020) has led to the universalization of Indian culture.
However, according to the Global Soft Power index (2021), India has slipped 9 places from 27 (rank in 2020 index) to rank 36. The report highlights India’s inadequate healthcare infrastructure for handling COVID-19 as the prime reason. Apart from this, there also exist some other fundamental issues. India’s global reputation has received some setbacks in recent times for its handling of the migrant crisis, internet shutdown in Jammu & Kashmir and communal riots. Moreover, as per NCRB data, crimes against women have increased by 7.3% from 2018 to 2019. The rising number of rape cases has led to the foreign media often tagging India as the ‘rape capital of the world’. Another cause of concern is the environmental crisis. According to IQAir report, 22 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities are in India. Also, Pakistan and China are accused of spreading an anti-India sentiment at the global level. For example, Pakistan has been using international platforms to portray India as a human rights transgressor by claiming that India is anti-Muslim. All these factors, in addition to others, have affected the world’s perception of India. Therefore, India needs to work harder to reverse these negative factors and fully utilize its soft power potential.
Now, the most important question in the debate between soft and hard power is, “Is soft power alone enough?”. The answer is undoubtedly “No”, and a simple analogy here can explain the reason very lucidly. Your parents or teachers are sometimes compelled to be strict with you, in order to set you on the right track. Similar is the case with nation states. When the soft approach does not work, the use of the hard way becomes inevitable. Thus, a country is justified in building up its hard power to meet its strategic interests. However, considering the significance of soft power, it must be the prime focus of countries as this would help maintain peace and harmony in the world, and help achieve the idea of ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam’.