India’s Soft power and Leadership in Global South

    • By,
      Neha Rathore – Administrative Assistant, Kautilya

The termination of the Cold War and the consequent end of bipolarity marked the beginning of the nascent multipolar world, which is coming of age with the decline of US hegemony in the world order. This “multiplex” world is marked by increasing diffusion of power. For the first time, it was felt that the world has genuinely globalized. US decline coincided with the rise of several great powers and many regional powers. The US nonchalance toward multilateral organizations and the rise of regional groupings indicated truncated globalization, in which India’s leadership in the Global South plays a crucial role.

The Ukraine conflict, once again, highlighted India’s role as an irreplaceable balancing force in the global systemic transition. In this new Cold War-type environment, India has smartly maneuvered by expanding economic ties with Russia while retaining military ties with the US and providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine. India has successfully carried forward the legacy of Non-Alignment and transformed it into the principle of strategic autonomy as per the contemporary scenario. India could pull off this strategic maneuver precisely because it has always spoken from the perspective of the Global South. For the latter, the choice is between two ideologies: poverty and prosperity. Global South has always been at the receiving end of Climate change, terrorism, food, fuel, and fertilizer shortages, among others, despite not being the reason behind it.

During the pandemic, when most Western nations indulged in vaccine nationalism, India emerged as a global vaccine supplier. Besides, India has always advocated for common but differentiated responsibilities in every climate negotiation. The recent “Voices from Global South” summit highlighted India’s demand for a “human-centered globalization”, where the Prime Minister expressed India’s global agenda as 4R that is, Respond, Recognize, Respect, and Reform. India has thus emerged as a leader in the Global South that speaks for inclusive development and a just world order. The time is also propitious for India to leverage its soft power. Soft power, a term popularized by Joseph Nye, is also known as the “second face of power,” and it uses the methods of co-option rather than coercion. It deploys the tools of seduction and attraction and depends on the charm offensive. According to Nye, the three bases of a country’s soft power are its culture, political values, and foreign policy. In a hyper-sensitive multipolar world order where aggressiveness has become the norm, India can become the beacon of hope and paragon of peace. Historically, India has carefully navigated through challenging dichotomies such as Israel-Palestine, Iran-Saudi Arabia, and North Korea-South Korea have proved that it is possible to maintain a semblance of civility and still do business in a divisive world.

However, framing foreign policy to pursue possession goals and framing it to pursue milieu goals are two very different things. As Hubert H. Humphery noted, “Foreign policy is actually a domestic policy with hats on” the domestic situation of a country guides, if not decides, the foreign policy of a country. The current domestic situation in the country, however, is not congruent with the foreign policy India has in the past and wishes to pursue in the future. It is not congruent with India’s image abroad as the most significant democratic, diverse, and secular country.

India has a diverse cultural profile that has attracted people worldwide and has boosted India’s image abroad. However, the absence of India from The Soft Power 30 index and the conspicuous presence of China is telling. Despite espousing the universalist values of democracy and secularism, India is lagging behind an authoritarian country. The answer can not be found in foreign policy or culture but in domestic policy and the distortion of political values. Domestic malice like corruption, child labor, violence against women, pollution, communal violence, and a recent protest by wrestlers against a sitting MP put a dent in India’s image on the international platform. While Gandhian philosophy, secularism, and cultural and religious diversity are used as currency in the international fora, the contempt these symbols receive in the domestic setting does not sit well with the international posture, and it is something even the international audience is acknowledging and noticing.

However, a perfunctory look at India’s performance in state-driven cultural diffusion attempts shows that the private sector and citizen-led efforts fare better than the former. For instance, the recent Oscar win by the movie RRR highlighted the rich cinematic culture of India. Besides, Bollywood has captured the imagination of people throughout the world. Yoga reached the masses even before the government realized its importance. The biggest cultural ambassadors of India in China are Aamir Khan whose Dangal earned a huge amount in China and Rabindranath Tagore, whose poems are recited more by Chinese students than by Indians.

India’s soft power thus shines where the government takes the role of facilitator and refrains from obstructing the private sector and citizen-led efforts. The government’s efforts in soft politics are best complimented by civil society’s efforts in the cultural and social arena to boost India’s image abroad, especially among its peers in the Global South. Thus, India needs to live up to its political values as espoused in the constitution and practice.

While preaching them abroad. Domestic policy needs to align with foreign policy in such a way that it does not contradict our political values as well as culture.

*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.