India’s soft power is unclear

India has soft power to the extent that its values, its way of managing its affairs and its vision for the international system are so attractive to other nations that the latter start doing what India wants without India having to use the sticks and carrots of traditional international relations. By achieving relatively stable democracy in such a geographically large and religiously diverse polity, for instance, India may inspire others to emulate its political institutions. Nevertheless, to understand Indian soft power, we must first ask how others see India. Indian soft power is a function of others’ perceptions of India. Hence it was a surprise that a conference held in London this week, India as a Soft Power, concentrated almost exclusively on India itself.

It was certainly interesting to hear what Shashi Tharoor and other leading Indian political and cultural figures think about what story India should tell the world. As a nuclear power with tricky relations to regional neighbours like China and Pakistan, how India balances its use of military and economic resources against the softer methods of diplomacy or intangible cultural “influence” is important, both for local problems (Burma, Afghanistan) and the broader transition this century to a multipolar or non-polar order. How the Indian story is told through global media around breaking events and crises may also contain lessons for other states about controlling or letting go of “the message”. All governments try to manage opinion; can India avoid the sin of being seen to do so? 

But the success of India’s story depends on others. Indian soft power becomes significant if it has effects on the behaviour of other states or on public opinion towards India outside its borders. Have there been any effects or signs of effects? How would those in the Indian government be able to tell? First, we need to examine the foreign policy decisions of those India is trying to affect. Is there any evidence that China, the EU or the US have modified their actions because they have bought into an Indian narrative? Second, we need to see whether India’s story is indeed viewed positively. State departments in the US, UK and Canada have tools to measure the impact of their public diplomacy initiatives using a variety of digital, survey and face-to-face methods. While embryonic, these tools allow governments to track public responses around the world to its statements at summits, treaty negotiations and so on. This makes it possible to begin to evaluate not just whether “other people like us” but also why. If India is spending money on projecting its soft power, we might expect the Indian government to have a way to find out whether its efforts are having any impact.

The popularity outside India of Bollywood movies, Tata cars or Indian IT services does not mean India’s rivals will alter their foreign policies to align more closely with Indian strategic interests. The export of Coca-Cola and HBO box sets has not created US allies or persuaded non-US publics of the virtues of US foreign policy. To realise its interests, India will have to upset others at some point, and it will have to use at least the threat of hard power. And if India is to become a leading power, it will face the same dilemmas others face. Should it use soft power to put an attractive face on the use of hard power? Can its actions match its positive narrative or, as with every other leading power, will India eventually be accused of hypocrisy? Either way, India will need to find a way to understand how it is perceived. Until then, little certain will be known about Indian soft power.