It’s time India got smart

The soft power game is getting more competitive. Bollywood alone can’t do the job of making sure that we rise in the soft-power stakes.

If the Mayans were right, and we are headed towards the end of the world in 2012, then let the tuneless among us start practising, so that on that last day, we sing our last song more mellifluously, Jim Morrison style, “This is the end… the end of our elaborate plans, the end of everything that stands...”

Interestingly, the part of the world that came up with the doomsday prediction — south-eastern Mexico, the heart of Maya territory — plans a year-long celebration. Mexico’s tourism authorities are pulling out all stops to turn the end-of-the-world prophecy into a booming business. More than 50 million visitors are expected. That is about double the number of tourists Mexico gets every year. If the world ends, the Mexicans will be dancing and singing as they go. But if it is not Apocalypse now, they will be richer, and the tourists much happier, after all the fun and games.
In India, in 2012, we will be thinking of a different Maya. But whichever Maya we take more seriously, there is work to do. One can safely predict hard battles ahead. You have heard the dirge about the economy being in the doldrums; ditto with politics and society. But there is one area where India is on a fairly strong wicket, and could improve its score with more effort. This is the business of being a “soft power” — a phrase coined by American political scientist Joseph Nye to describe a state’s capacity to influence others through persuasion and attraction, instead of coercion.
There is growing evidence from across the world that hard power — military and economic might that a country uses to get what it wants — alone is not enough to swing things one’s way. In 2012, every country that has global clout, and every country that aspires to that status, will use smart power — a combination of soft and hard power — to achieve national goals. India is not doing badly, but it has to brace itself for hard battles in soft power in the years to come.
There are slivers of hope: Bollywood, yoga and Ayurveda are a rage with growing numbers of people across the world. YouTube has clips of Japanese girls dancing to Kolaveri di, Tamil actor-singer Dhanush’s saucy ode to anger, which got even the grumpiest smiling. Bollywood trade magazines are reporting that Aamir Khan starrer 3 Idiots, an adaption of the novel Five Point Someone by Chetan Bhagat, has broken all records to become the highest grossing film in the overseas market. The Chinese are the latest to fall under the spell of Phunsuk Wangdu and Ranchodas Chanchad.
All this is good news. But that is not to say all is well and we can relax. The soft power game is getting more competitive and our peers are working hard at improving their score. So, we can’t assume Bollywood alone will do the job of making sure that we rise in the soft-power stakes.
Take China. It is far ahead of India on economy and infrastructure, but we always prided ourselves on having the more attractive political system with democracy and therefore would seem to have an automatic lead on the soft-power score. But China is not sitting idle. It is working on its strengths and weaknesses. A recent report in the Financial Times noted that “China’s soft power within the emerging world is primarily driven by the growth and visibility of its multinational corporations, increased tourism and the rapid expansion and ranking of its universities. It has established thousands of cultural centres to help disseminate its language. State coffers heavily subsidise its athletes, resulting in more Olympic gold than most EM (emerging market) countries.”
What about Brazil, part of the club of emerging markets? Many analysts have been busy writing obituaries of the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) story because of deceleration of economic growth in recent times. But that has not put the brakes on soft-power initiatives. In fact, soft power assumes more importance now than before.
Brazil has not only overtaken Britain as the world’s sixth largest economy, it has also been consistently improving its soft-power rating. An article by Anna Petherick in Nature last October noted that improved public healthcare gives Brazil soft power. “With its booming economy and surging population, Brazil is expected to emerge as one of the major global powerhouses of the 21st century. But the country’s growing influence on the world stage is driven by more than just raw economic and demographic might. Brazil has been particularly adept among so-called Bric nations at using a gently persuasive form of ‘soft power’ diplomacy — and the country is using public health issues in particular to leverage long-term economic and political gain.”
Some telling examples — Brazil has been extremely proactive on HIV/AIDS policy, on access to affordable medicines and tobacco control.
India realises the value of soft power. While Bollywood expands its footprint, we have been also building hospitals in Africa, taken important steps in tackling the HIV/AIDS epidemic and are now considering universal healthcare. But India’s overall record in healthcare and in human development is not impressive. Despite all the interventions, there are too many illiterate Indians, too many people below the poverty line, too many who go hungry to bed, too many Indian women dying during childbirth and too many newborns who don’t live to celebrate their first birthday, though the economy has been doing better than many countries over the past two decades.
In the battle for soft power, all these count. In the game of being “attractive”, there are many things that matter. Being entertaining is one strong asset. Fluency in English is another, offering enormous power to connect globally. But there are weak spots. In the Skolkovo-E&Y Institute report mentioned in the Financial Times last month, India does well on English language skills, on overall freedom, compared to some other countries. But, the analysts point out, “endemic corruption and poverty hurts the country’s image, and soft power throughout the world.” Good governance combined with better quality of life for the ordinary Indian will be a force multiplier, amplifying our existing strengths, and will ensure that India is far more admired around the globe, in 2012 and beyond.

The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached a

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