International Affairs · Law · Politics · Strategy

India and The Concept of Soft Power

Unless you have been living under a rock, chances are that you have heard of the World Cup currently underway in Brazil. You might not follow it or may not be aware of the countries playing it, yet you’re probably excited about it because of all the excitement around you. More importantly, thanks to the World Cup, you will be exposed to the vibrant Brazilian culture and the famous Samba dance. As will all those who follow football religiously.

Soft power is a term which was coined by the famous political scientist Joseph Nye. It basically means the ability of a nation to attract or co-opt another nation through a means of persuasion channeled primarily through the power of its culture, values and institutions rather than coercing it militarily.[1] This concept has been gaining currency since its conception in the 1990s and is now extensively used as a tool of foreign policy by countries, most notably by United States.

Soft power influence has a peculiar means of travelling. It cannot be simply forced upon other countries. Whether your culture will appeal to the people of another country is difficult to judge. The United States has spent millions of dollars in other countries in trying to increase its soft power like the Voice of America program or the Fulbright scholarship,[2] but the fact is that McDonalds and Hollywood have done more to increase American appeal in other countries than any amount of money ever did. Similarly, the Chinese government is building Confucius centers of learning in other countries,[3] but Kung-Fu, Chinese food and Jackie Chan has done more to spread Chinese culture in the world than any such center will be able to.

Today soft power is becoming increasingly important in the conduct of foreign affairs. This is because as democracies start becoming more vocal, which is coupled with rapid globalization, public opinion matters more and more to the leaders of countries in the conduct of its foreign affairs. The world is increasingly becoming smaller and people will naturally travel to those countries which appeal to them. Moreover, as is well known, people to people contacts matter a great deal in improving relations between two countries. Today, thousands of Indian students go to the United States, UK and Australia for education[4] and they come back with a little bit of the local culture and influence with them. This influence will stay with them for the rest of their lives and they will be favorably disposed towards these countries. Similarly, the appeal of the Spanish and the French language helps build a favorable public opinion of these countries among those who learn these languages in distant countries like India. Moreover, tourism industry also gets a boost if peoples of different countries view the concerned country favorably and thus prefer to travel to it over others.

However, as the example of Australia has shown us, soft power is also very easy to lose. In the year 2009, there were a series of attacks on Indian students in prominent Australian cities which were widely covered by the media. This resulted in considerable fall of Australia’s “image” among Indians. Consequently, the number of Indian students going to Australia fell considerably which resulted in precious loss of foreign exchange to Australia.[5] Similarly, the wars fought by US in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in the former’s reputation taking a hit.[6]

So where does soft power stand? The fact is that hard power i.e. brute military force and economic strength can never be replaced. They are still the most effective ways of making countries bend to one’s will. However, soft power helps a great deal by complementing hard power. It helps in building a favorable public opinion, which makes other countries more susceptible to co-operation, instead of taking a hard stand.

Today, Indian soft power quite influential in distant countries but has taken a hit among its neighbors. A recent poll showed that India is one of the most popular countries in the United States, with the trend in its favour.[7] Bollywood leads the way in taking Indian culture to the world,[8] along with Yoga and of course, the curry. Indian cinema is widely popular in African countries and many people will be able to name Indian stars. Similarly, Indian food is extremely popular in the West.

However, as noted above, Indian soft power has been reduced among its own neighbors.[9] Traditionally, our soft power was quite high in countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. However, certain issues in our neighborhood like the Sri Lankan war on LTTE and the fishermen issue, or the allegations of India interfering in Nepal’s constitution building process,[10] or the BSF firing of entering Bangladeshis on the border, has resulted in considerable fall of India’s soft power in these countries. Further, India has been many times accused of being a hegemon and as a big brother which bullies its neighbors.[11] This feeling has also taken the shape of increasing insecurity as a result of the rise of India and their respective positions vis-à-vis India. As a result, relations between India and its neighbors have worsened. Leaders of each country are praised for trying to “stand up” to India, and being accommodative to India’s demands is seen as being weak. If India has to achieve its aim of being a world power, its neighborhood has to provide an enabling environment. However, Indian leaders haven’t done enough for it, which again might be due to the fall of public perception of these countries in India, for Indian leaders also have to display a strong image of their country in front of their citizens. If we have to move towards peace and stability in South Asia, then leaders of South Asia have to do more, and changing public perception about each other is the first step towards it.


[1] Nye, Joseph, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 1990)

[2]Shashi Tharoor, Why Nations Should Pursue Soft Power?, TEDX Talk, Mysore

[3] Mattis, Peter, Reexamining the Confucian Institutes, The Diplomat, Retrieved 22 June, 2014

[4]Andrew White, Indian Students Flock To The U.S., Forbes Magazine, <>, retrieved on 22nd June, 2014

[5]Benjamin Preiss, Indian student numbers falling, Sydney Morning Herald, <>, retrieved on 22nd June, 2014

[6]Nathan Gardel, The Rise and Fall of America’s Soft Power, New Perspectives Quarterly, Vol 22, Number 1, Winter 2005.

[7] Recent trends in Americans’ Favourability towards Countries, Gallup Poll, <>, retrieved on 22nd June, 2014

[8] Zubair Ahmed, Bollywood’s Expanding Reach, BBC News India, <>, retrivedon 22nd June, 2014

[9]J Jeganaathan, Alternative Regional Strategy for India: Exploring Soft Power Options, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

[10]Utpal Parashar, Prachanda accuses India of interfering in Nepal’s internal affairs <> , retrieved on 22nd June, 2014

[11]J Jeganaathan, Alternative Regional Strategy for India: Exploring Soft Power Options, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

About the Author

Digvijay KhapreDigvijay Khapre is a 4th Year Student at National Law University, Jodhpur. His passions include politics, history and law. He also enjoys reading about international politics. A sportsman at heart, he enjoys playing cricket, football, chess and badminton. He is a presently working as a Research Associate for the Alexis Department of Public Policy. 

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