A Not In My Name protest being held in Gurgaon. Is India's soft power being eroded?
A 'not in my name' protest in Gurgaon | Source: Not In My Name Facebook page
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India’s soft power globally is being undermined by the impression that it is being governed by obscurantist and intolerant forces.

For a decade and a half now I’ve been a tireless advocate of India’s “soft power”, arguing, pace Joseph Nye, 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 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 its 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.

But 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 seems 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, millions of 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 Rohingya are Muslim (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 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 Gandhism, 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 godman 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 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, 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.

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10 Comments Share Your Views


  1. Free press by Congress or buying out press..? and a corrupt weak, Nation where Ruling class loots!BAnana republic to a Strong Nation….

  2. really.. what abt emergency?? do we still consider as soft power during indira’s emergency time? all propaganda. rohingyas are national threat. 6-7 incidents of cow vigilantism of 1.25 billion people is not an issue at all. all news papers u mentioned r propaganda newspapers. even local people dont believe in them.
    media is always free. open any new paper and you can see them abusing modi on any given day

  3. Agenda journalism and negative reporting can be done even when everything else is going well… Status quo need to be changed to become great power of the world. When we have so many resources and talents then why should we remain poor just because some of your journalist spreading negative reports… Instead you can ask them to show positives of new development which might not suit you politically.

  4. Is it factually true that communal incidents have increased in India in last 3 years? No.

    Is it factually true that vigilantism is a new thing in last 3 years? No.

    If Emergency and involuntary nasbandi did not affect Infua’s Soft power, if the Delhi riots with Rajiv Gandhi’s approval did not dent India’s soft power, if the vigilantism and rioting in wake of Innocence of Muslim did not hurt India’s soft power, if disinviting Salman Rushdie from JLF did not hurt India’s soft power, then it is unlikely that it has been dented in last 3 years.
    If MMS coming to power after winning election was a good thing, Modi coming to power after winning election is also a good thing. The notion that only if a non-Hindu is in power, then India gets soft power is flawed. Important thing is election. Just because results are not wha Tharoor wanted, it does not undermine India’s soft power.

  5. Comment: India’s soft power has been enhanced considerably during the last three years under the inspiring leadership of Narendra Modi. There is growing respect for India all over the world. Yoga Day is being observed all over the world every year. Within India there is a great sense of pride and our performances in all spheres of life including sports is reaching new heights. It is unfortunate that Mr Tharoor is not able to rise above party lines and makes baseless accusations and has become a gutter inspector.

  6. Indeed India’s soft power has been its biggest and most successful USP. Without it we are nowhere in the world. Apart from our soft power and rich cultural heritage we have nothing to show. At the end of the day we are a large population of highly corrupt people, bureaucracy and politicians who put SELF before the NATION. Not only are we corrupt and selfish lot, we are primarily an agrarian society where most of the people involved in agriculture are unemployed for the major part of the year: free to make their mark in cow vigilantism and following the so-called religious gurus who dish out sena when they are not busy raping their followers.
    The sad part is that the ruling disposition is either unaware of the basic reality of India or have a vested interest in ignoring it to promote their nefarious agenda.

  7. Democracy, celebration of diversity, tolerance, liberalism- these are enlightened thought processes, proposed by people who can read and understand history for its lessons. They are of people who have managed to cast off emotional engagements of hatred, rancour and grudge over issues such as an ancient invader’s atrocities and aggression. These values are owned by people who have the courage to show acceptance, tolerance and accommodation through an ever evolving process so that all fellow beings of today live in better times of welfare and opportunities for quality of life irrespective of their religion, caste and other differences. The Congress should take the current opportunity to forge ahead with its core values, courageously apologise for any mistakes of the past with the promise that it will consolidate India’s soft power in the world and not succumb to its own corrupt practitioners who brought the government down in 2014. The Hindutva forces scare me, I can still trust Modi, but I fear Amit Shah, Yogi Adityanath and their ilk. I call upon the Congress to lead so that I have a credible alternative to vote for.

  8. An amazing piece Sir. Will circulate this on social media. This is a matter we should really be worrying about and should constructively work upon this so that the soft power of India doesn’t get eroded gradually.

  9. Does Mr Tharoor believes that India will regain its soft power by having President, Vice President from communities other than Hindu? Getting a President and Prime Minister from Backward Class does not mean anything to him. He himself concedes that we have Free Press and Independent Judiciary. We have free elections. We have free human right Commission. We have a GST council consisting of all states.
    By regaining Soft Power, does he want us to throw us back to Nehru era when we were known for Non Alignment and Panchshil and we had to rush to USA to save us from marauding enemy across Laddakh and NEFA? Should we go back to PL 480?
    Please do not generalize a few misdeeds of lunatic fringe. We had similar lunatics who called Indira is India and India is Indira. We have examples when a political leader began his election campaign from Ayodhya Temple and did not hesitate in reversing secular progressive judgement in case of Shah Bano.
    I consider you as one of the few intellectuals left over in GOP Congress. Please live up to my expectation

  10. With due respect sir India never had free press or creative freedom, we had a well-managed press with mutual benefits now the benefits stop suddenly freedom of press is under threat, you must be had to ignore reply from cattle class on your twitter status you can check here https://twitter.com/ShashiTharoor/status/921669190108549120 and how you forgot to include your own state emergence as most famous recruitment hub for ISIS.


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