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India’s soft power and media

Richa Singh |


The proliferation of mass media – television, radio, internet and print media – with its reach across vast swaths of the globe has made it a strategic imperative for countries today to proactively manage their image and perceptions if they are to become a Soft power. Forming, communicating and managing India’s appealing attributes in an era of 24/7 news becomes increasingly important to how we are perceived by other nations and peoples. A corollary to communicating our attributes is that we need to contemplate and define the attributes that best define India as a nation.

India is fortunate enough to be endowed with a rich ‘Soft Power’. The foundation of India’s Soft Power is its pluralism, tolerance, secularism, unparallel cultural heritage of music, dance-drama, yoga, Ayurveda and a tradition of absolute thinking. This tradition of abstract thinking has given an unrivalled edge in the contemporary world. It is this tradition of abstract thinking which has put India in the centre-stage of Information Technology. A long tradition of learning enabled India to master modern Western Science & Technology. IITs and IIMs and other Institutes become the primary vehicles of keeping abreast with the western Science and Technology. The appeal of its democratic system and growing economic success make it an exciting counterpart to more authoritarian China and a far more affluent United States.

What India can achieve can be guestimated from the following figures:

(a) 38% of doctors in America are Indians.

(b) 12% of Scientists in USA are Indians.

(c) 36% of NASA employees are Indians.

(d) 34% of Microsoft employees are Indians.

(e) 28% of IBM employees are Indians.

(f) 17% of Intel employees are Indian.

(g) 13% of Xerox employees are Indians.

(h) 23% of Indian Community in the USA is having green Card.

(J) In Silicon Valley, one third of the engineers are of Indian descent and 70% of high-tech firms are led by Indian CEOs.

This is what Indians can achieve in the most developed country of the ‘developed world’ – USA. So, is India in a position to get due recognition by other nations of the world? Its economy is growing at a stupendous rate of over eight percent. India now is a nuclear power, having the fourth largest military, and supports over 17.5 percent of the world’s population. Its foreign exchange is a whooping 313 billion dollars and growing. Indians dominate the list of top 10 billionaires, with four Indians on the list. Does this prove the grandeur of India? So, now can it have a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, and be allowed to join the elite power group? Can it now be placed above the ‘Third World’ status, and be known to the world as a developed country? India has not adequately utilized its Soft Power resources at home and through the Indian Diaspora. India should realize where its strengths lie if it wants to resurrect its image. In ShashiTharoor’s words, “India must determine where its strengths lie as it seeks to make the twenty-first century its own.” [iii]

Today, we find ourselves often being referred to as a “potential power” in spite of nearly half a decade of record economic growth. To be acknowledged as a global power India needs to unlock its vast potential to be a Soft power.  We are uniquely positioned to tap into the characteristics – an ancient culture, expanding economy, vibrant democracy, spirituality, diversity, and a widespread Diaspora – which provide India with core attributes that are attractive to the World. Examples of success abound, Bollywood today reaches an audience twice as large as that of Hollywood; our Information Technology industry competes globally; Yoga has become mainstream in the west, and even the IIT’s and IIM’s have become synonymous with world class education. India’s philanthropic efforts in the reconstruction of Afghanistan and more recently the aid offered to countries affected by the tsunami underscores our concern for the world around us. For India to truly become a tour de force in the community of nations, it needs to look at its weaknesses and turn them into our biggest opportunity by offering the world a new vision, a vision that would have to be rooted in our own success.

The values of love, peace and brotherhood are the qualities that Indians are known for, with Gautama Buddha, Mahavir, Ashoka and Mohandas K. Gandhi being prime examples. At present, the Indian diaspora seems to be winning the hearts of the world with their endearing character and peaceful qualities. SreeramChaulia, in his article, “The Geat Indian Diaspora,” mentions that, “For the most part, an average American, Canadian or Dutchman does not see Indian immigrants as national security or economic threats, thanks to their humble, flexible and endearing qualities.”

Cultural Diplomacy

India is acutely aware of the importance of soft power and cultural attractivity, and needs to do little to render its culture appealing to the rest of the world. The process is natural, almost organic. This is consistent with India’s long history as both a birthplace of ideas, and of peaceful cultural diffusion. The peaceful propagation of Buddhism is a multi-millennia old bond that India shares with the rest of the Asian continent that acts as a testament to the power of its civilizational pull.

While India may still have miles to go in its quest to be a global political power, the world is already embracing it as a cultural superpower. From Bollywood films and food to authors like Kiran Desai conquering the Booker Street, brand India has seen transformation of sorts. No wonder, cultural diplomacy has evolved into a significant track II. Brand India is now flexing its muscles as a soft power, which is essentially the international influence a nation acquires when others are drawn to its culture and ideas. While the term may have become clichéd, it is being taken seriously by the South Block given the huge potential and gains that it may accrue.

While cultural diplomacy may not always provide solutions, it can help narrow differences. For instance, troubled relations with a country like Pakistan can be improved by cultural diplomacy, which India is currently engaged in. Besides strategic gains, it will supplement India’s economic relations with countries like China and can boost tourism, where India has fared below its potential.

Indian cinema has more recently begun influencing Western musical films, and played a particularly instrumental role in the revival of the genre in the Western world. BazLuhrmann stated that his successful musical film Moulin Rouge (2001) was directly inspired by Bollywood musicals. Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire (2008) was also directly inspired by Indian films, and is considered to be “homage to Hindi commercial cinema”. Films by progressive female Indian directors such as Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta have revealed that Indian films are more than escapist fantasies, and can be simultaneously contemplative and entertaining.

India releases more music, in more languages, than any other country in the world. We have, of course, the world’s oldest living tradition in music. Compared to India’s music tradition of 3000+ years (at least), Western Music is about 400-500 years old. Most are aware of modern music – but the scene in classical music is still very vibrant. Bhajans from Mirabai’s, Tulsidas, Surdas of 500 years ago, continue to sell in volumes and are in demand. Thyagaraja’s and Dikshitaar’s compositions in Telugu, 300 years old are still mainstream music. Compare this to the Western classical music, itself originating from the Romany Gypsy music. Western classical music has become a fringe music tradition, while India’s Bhakti geet is alive and vibrant.

One of the ways in which India’s soft power in education can be significantly enhanced is by becoming a global hub for higher education. The US and the UK realized the importance of this and opened its doors to foreign students in the 20th century. India has some natural advantages to attract students in terms of low annual tuition fees (less than $ 10,000 per year), low cost of living and most of the universities teaching in English capable of handling English speaking students. India can attract many students from emerging economies in Africa and Asia. India has the potential to become a global education hub and also rival Bollywood with education as a soft power.

In this twenty first century, India is regarded as a knowledge-producing machine, with its doctors, engineers, scientists and software professionals being the first preference of the international community. Indian education is high quality. Barack Obama, the U.S. President, in his election campaign had promised Americans that he would improve the level of American education to such high standards so as to enable the American students to compete with the students of India and China.

In the US, there are Indians in almost all the good research labs. Indian doctors have made a name for themselves in many parts of the world. Many of the Indian immigrants to the US have been professionals – engineers, doctors, scientists, etc. If India is able to contribute more to this growing tribe of educated professionals, it will create yet another category of soft power.

The Indian healthcare industry is seen to be growing at a rapid pace and is expected to become a US$280 billion industry by 2020. The Indian healthcare market was estimated at US$35 billion in 2007 and is expected to reach over US$70 billion by 2012 and US$145 billion by 2017.

India once again seeks to leverage the tremendous intellectual, financial and communicative resources of its diaspora, estimated to number 25 million, widely scattered across five continents. Through their glittering academic and professional careers overseas, the diaspora opened the eyes of the West to India as a reliable destination for business process outsourcing (BPO) and for the cutting-edge phenomenon- knowledge process outsourcing (KPO). India is the proud recipient of more remittances from its Diaspora than any other country, beating China and Mexico and reigning at $21.7 billion per annum.



Since soft power is an intangible component of a state’s power, it is difficult to measure its actual impact. The advantages of hard power such as military and economic resources are that they can be measured and compared, and their direct effects are more or less palpable. It is easy for example to compare Indian and Chinese military expenditures. It is impossible however to quantify the appeal of a country’s values, culture, institutions or achievements, an appeal which is inherently subjective and therefore contested and fluctuating. Furthermore, the indirect nature of India’s soft power is more difficult to ascertain. It is for example difficult to assess whether a foreign government acceded to India’s foreign policy objectives because of its partiality towards Indian culture. Nevertheless, in spite of these caveats, some observers of India’s foreign policy have noticed how certain characteristics of India’s history, culture and political development have progressively gained foreign attention. How these soft power qualities have actually been actively used by Indian diplomacy to exert international influence is a2nother matter. In the last decade, Indian diplomats have started emphasising the appealing and also ‘familiar’ nature of India’s culture. India has a long history of civilisation and cultural links with countries in Central Asia, South-East Asia and the Middle-East. Its riches have attracted traders and travellers for thousands of years. Buddhism spread from India to China and beyond, leading to a sustained exchange of ideas since ancient times. Even today, the proposal by India to rebuild the once internationally famous Nalanda Buddhist University in partnership with China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore serves as testament to those historic cultural ties. Similarly, preachers from India have spread the values of Islam across Asia to Singapore and Malaysia. Such historical, cultural and religious ties built along trading routes were regularly raised by Indian diplomats as they sought to improve relations with South-East Asia through the ‘Look East’ policy in the early 1990s, emphasising in particular the religious influences of Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as the spread of language (especially Sanskrit), art and architecture throughout Southeast Asia.

Today, as India also tries to re-establish economic relations with the Gulf countries, it regularly evokes pre-colonial commercial routes as well as centuries-old culturalreligious linkages. Today, alongside China, India offers one of the most dynamic alternatives to Western cultural values. India’s fi lm industry, popularly dubbed ‘Bollywood’, is probably the largest and farthest reaching medium for Indian culture. It is today the world’s largest fi lm industry, surpassing Hollywood with an annual output of over 1000 movies. Thanks to satellite TV and internet, Bollywood movies and Indian soap operas have reached a growing global audience that has become increasingly familiar with Indian society and culture. Another one of India’s most successful and long-lasting exports, yoga, is now practiced around the world as a form of exercise, and Indian cuisine, with its distinctive use of spices, has become popular worldwide. More directly, cricket has proved to be a strong soft powerresource for India, with cricket diplomacy having notably positive effects in reducing Indo-Pakistani tensions. Pakistani Prime Minister YousufRazaGilani’s meeting with Indian Prime minister Manmohan Singh during the 2011 world cup semi-final in India closely followed the resumption of high-level diplomatic dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. On another level, the creation in 2008 of the rich and internationally-popular Indian Premier League (IPL) has reinforced the narrative of India’s rise. However, while the exportation of these cultural products has certainly made aspects of life in the Indian subcontinent more familiar and accessible to people across the globe, it is not evident how this element of India’s soft power has helped India fulfil its foreign policy objectives in the last decade. Whereas Nye could link American popular culture with the US’ ‘co-optive’ power, the effects of the globalisation of India’s diverse culture are not so explicitly political. For example, unlike Hollywood’s approach during the Cold War, Indian films have never really promoted a certain model for political and cultural development. India’s large diaspora is also considered to be a major asset for Indian diplomacy. There are today millions of Indians spread as far as Fiji, Malaysia, Mauritius, South Africa and Trinidad. While many of these Indians originally migrated as labourers for the British Empire in the 19th century, a new wage of richer and educated expatriates have found their way to the US, Canada and Australia in the last decades. These immigrants have come to play major roles in the political spheres of these different countries. For example, the educated Indian-American community has played an important role in improving Indo-US relations by lobbying American politicians and by giving a positive image of India to the American public. Nye argued that ‘smart’ states can increase their credibility and soft power capacity by their domestic and international performance. India’s democratic record, unprecedented for most decolonised countries could be regarded as a strong soft power resource. The new international consensus following the Cold War around democracy, human rights and market-oriented economic reforms has reinforced the appeal of India’s political achievements. The stability of India’s democracy over more than 60 years, especially in a neighbourhood rife with ethnic conflicts, has demonstrated that unity in diversity was possible in a democratic format and there could be an institutional alternative to Western political systems. India’s democratic, federal and secular political model (although not always perfect) could be considered as an institutional model of reasonable accommodation of minority rights, and of flexible adjustment to different ethnic and linguistic claims. While economic power is usually considered a hard and material asset, a country’s economic development model could also be interpreted as a soft power resource to the extent that its accomplishments prove attractive to others.

The recent global successes of Indian information technology firms such as Infosys Technologies and Wipro, the achievements of other multinational companies such as the Tata Group and the Reliance Group; and the now global reputation of the Indian Institute of Management (IIMs) and Indian Institute of Technology (IITs) have contributed to the development of a new image of India as an economic powerhouse. The stereotypical image of underdeveloped, impoverished India has now been removed by the impression of a modern and dynamic economy attracting now foreign investments and workers from different parts of the world. Soft power is however a difficult resource to leverage, and India’s political leadership and its diplomatic instrument have inconsistently capitalised upon these undoubted soft power resources over the last decade. References to Indian culture, to its diaspora, to its political values and to its economic development have mostly been rhetoric for image-polishing. It poses the question of whether India has really tried to exploit its huge soft power potential.



The Indian government’s efforts over the last decade have helped promote a new and modern image of India abroad. The increase in foreign direct investments in recent years (investment inflows of financial year 2006-07 touched over $13 billion, as compared with $16.5 billion over the whole of the 1990s) may partly be due to these publicity campaigns that promoted India’s soft power capacities. Post-liberalisation India is progressively being seen as a manufacturing hub for international fi rms that are making long-term productive investments in the country. Coincidentally or not, simultaneously many aspects of Indian culture like music, food, style and religions have become fashionable in many parts of the world. However, since India did not have any meaningful public diplomacy program until recently, it is not yet perceived as a political and societal model in other countries. 33 India has long been content with its indirect soft power capacities. In comparison with Beijing’s well-organised and centrally mandated ‘charm offensive,’ India’s public diplomacy is still in formation. To increase its international clout, notably in its growing competition with China over which power tells the ‘better story,’ India will have to use its soft power in a more systematic and planned manner. This process will most probably take time as it will require a domestic debate on how to balance national interests and political values and norms. The resolution of this debate will determine how India fi nds a right mix between soft and hard power in order to achieve real influence, or what Nye, and many in the Obama administration, in particular Hillary Clinton, have termed ‘smart power.’ For India to continue to be an attractive power, and most importantly for it to present a more compelling development model than China, it will also need to continue to improve its internal economic performance. In addition, since soft power has afluctuating value, India will need to resolve its lack of social and economic equality if it wants to retain its soft power edge. One of the major factors in the rise of India’s profi le has been its impressive economic growth since the early 1990s. Suddenly, India became an appealing economic model, one that presented a different option from the centralized and authoritarian Chinese model. But the maintenance of this positive international image will require India to simultaneously become a more equitable and efficient society, a global economic power, and an economy that commands a major share of the global wealth, especially from global trade and investment.


  • “Study of USIA Operating Assumptions,” Volume 2,; Office of Research Special Reports, 1953-1997 (SR); Record Group 306, Records of the United States Information Agency (RG 306); National Archives and Records Administration, College Park (NARA).
  • The University of Pennsylvania established the first U.S. courses in Hindi, at the instigation of the country’s most prominent India scholar of the period W. Norman Brown.
  • “Ambassador’s Press Conference: New Delhi,”; IA; SOA; RG 59; NARA.
  • George Merrell, “Telegram to Secretary of State,” Oct. 11, 1946: CGR; New Delhi; RG 84; NARA.
  • Jessup quoted in Robert J. McMahon, The Cold War on the Periphery: The United States, India, and Pakistan, (New York: Columbia University Press), p. 35.
  • “Recommended Topic for Inclusion in Address by the Secretary of State: Evolving Economic and Cultural Relationships Between the United States and India,”; IA; SOA; RG 59; NARA.
  • “Background Memoranda on Visit to the United States of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehry Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Government of India October 1949” p. 31; IA; SOA; RG 59; NARA.
  • SachidanandaMohanty, In Search of Wonder: Understanding Cultural Exchange: Fulbright Program in India, (New Delhi: Vision Books), pp. 40-1.
  • Joseph W. Elder, et. al., eds. India’s Worlds and U.S. Scholars 1947- 1997, (New Delhi: Manohar Publishers), p. 28.
  • “US Food to China and US-Indian Relations” IA; SOA; RG 59; NARA. p. 1.


Richa Singh is Assistant Professor in Department of Political Science  .GLA College Daltonganj,Palamu,Jharkhamd & freelance Journalist

She can be contacted at : richasinghnpu@gmail.com


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