For a decade and a half now I’ve been a tireless advocate of India’s soft power, arguing that in the information age, it is not the side with the bigger army that wins, but the side that tells the better story. In the past India has successfully managed to be what I’ve called the “land of the better story”: As a society with a free press and a thriving mass media, with a people whose creative energies are daily encouraged to express themselves in a variety of appealing ways, India has an extraordinary ability to tell stories that are more persuasive and attractive than those of its rivals.
This is not about propaganda; indeed, it will not work if it is directed from above, least of all by the government. But conversely, government actions can undermine the story. Indeed, troubling internal disruptions have begun to tarnish this global perception of India.
If one were to pick up an international daily of repute, such as the New York Times or the Washington Post in the US or Le Monde or Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in Europe, to look for stories on India, one would be assailed by the reportage on incidents of communal violence, cow vigilantism, minorities feeling besieged and the alienating effects of the present ruling party’s disposition towards a narrow-minded Hindutva ideology. Even less traditional news outlets and programmes such as Vice and John Oliver’s popular Last Week Tonight show have picked up on this disturbing trend in India. The recent murder of Gauri Lankesh raises India high on the list of countries where journalists are perceived to be in danger.
In this super-connected world, people across the globe are now more aware than ever of incidents of beef violence, the rise of gau rakshaks, the assassinations of rationalists and the episodes of mob-lynchings that have taken place in India in the last couple of years. Instead of strongly condemning these incidents and bringing the elements that have perpetrated them to heel, our dominant political dispensation has instead decided that their energies are best spent making unbecoming statements about everything from disowning the Taj Mahal as a symbol of Indian culture to the “cleansing” of Western cultural influences from India’s ethos. The horrors of Kathua and Unnao, and the unforgivable political defence of the perpetrators by the ruling party, have plunged India’s image worldwide into the depths.
For the “better story” is not merely the story that can be told; it is the story that is heard and seen (and repeated), whether or not you are trying to tell it. That is what the Indian government and ruling circles seem to be in danger of overlooking.
For millennia, India offered a haven for the persecuted, a refuge to Jews after the destruction of their Temple by Babylonians and Romans, a new home for Parsis, Tibetans, Sri Lankan Tamils, Nepalese fleeing their civil war, and most famously 10 million Bengalis escaping the Pakistani Army’s crackdown in 1971, the largest recorded refugee crisis in the history of humanity. In all this India’s humanitarian record has been exemplary and has been admired around the world. Yet our present government announced a unilateral decision to deport all members of the Rohingya refugee community in India back to Myanmar, where a state-sponsored genocide is currently taking place in the Rakhine state against this ethnic group. This move, which seems prompted by the fact that the Rohingyas are Muslims (and therefore are being accused without evidence of supporting terrorism), has invited strong condemnation across the board and has damaged the popular perception of India abroad as a democracy and a land of asylum.
As a result of all these developments, a global impression has gained ground that India is now governed by obscurantist and intolerant forces determined to put minorities, rationalists and liberals in their place. This has far-reaching implications for India and threatens to derail the country’s soft power projection. It is a far cry from the time of the 2004 elections. I remember, when I was travelling through the Gulf as a diplomat with the UN, senior officials I was meeting expressed their astonishment and unabashed admiration about the 2014 election results, where a party led by an Italian woman of Roman Catholic faith had made way for a Sikh to be sworn in by a Muslim President as the Prime Minister — of a country where 80 per cent of the population were Hindus. To go from that celebration of diversity to a time when our President, Vice President and Prime Minister are all followers of a sectarian Hindu chauvinist movement is a fall indeed in the eyes of the world.
I have repeatedly argued that we cannot simultaneously sell ourselves to the world as a land of pluralism, tolerance and Gandhianism, while promoting intolerance, communal hatred and minority insecurity within the country. The present government would do well to learn that it cannot promote ‘Make in India’ abroad while condoning the propagation of ‘Hate in India’ at home.
However, that said, as a cautious optimist, I still believe that India can reverse this recent trend. It continues to have a thriving free press, a strong watch guard in its civil society and an independent judiciary (which has passed verdicts that have struck down triple talaq, upheld an Indian citizen’s fundamental right to privacy and convicted a popular religious leader for rape, despite an overwhelming show of force and violence from his supporters). I believe it is these principled elements of India’s society, along with our civilisational ethos, that are and will continue to be an immeasurable asset for our country.
This is also soft power and we don’t have to thank the government for it. When people argue that cultural diplomacy is important, they tend to focus on what governments can do to showcase the culture and promote Indian society. I believe the message that really matters and the one that gets through is that of who we are, not what we want to show.
As an opposition Member of Parliament, that is my message to the Indian government too. Don’t change our invaluable traditions. Don’t try to remake India in a way that will actually damage its soft power. We as a society have celebrated our own diversity, our own democracy and our own pluralism and the world has admired us for these very things. Today we have unfortunately given free rein to those who have promoted bigotry and intolerance that should have no place in the narrative of Indian society.
We must be conscious of the qualities that are so attractive about our culture and that give us our soft power in the world and we must ensure those qualities are not undermined by recklessly irresponsible, often semi-educated individuals who have been given a free hand by some of those in power who should know better.
I believe that the principal ingredients for India’s soft power success continue to remain. But in order to realise that potential, India needs to address its own internal challenges first. It is essential that India does not allow the spectre of religious intolerance and political opportunism to undermine the soft power that is its greatest asset in the world of the 21st century.
Our democracy, our thriving free media, our contentious civil society forums, our energetic human rights groups, and the repeated spectacle of our remarkable general elections — all of these together make India a rare example of the successful management of diversity in our globalised world. It adds to India’s soft power when its non-governmental organisations actively defend human rights, promote environmentalism and fight injustice. It is a vital asset that the Indian press is free, lively, irreverent, disdainful of sacred cows. Maintain that, and true leadership in our globalising world — the kind that has to do with principles, values and standards — will follow.
(In our “Shifting Sands of Culture” series, Shashi Tharoor, the second of five noted personalities, traces the changing dynamics of India’s soft power in this article written exclusively for IANS. Shashi Tharoor is a former UN diplomat; a writer of several bestselling books and a Member of Parliament, representing Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram constituency. The views expressed are personal. The copyright of this article rests with the author.)