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India pile-on misses soft-power gains

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COMMENTS

13 July 2012 15:14

'It's open season for criticising India's leaders', notes veteran Delhi-watcher John Elliot in his blog at The Independent. He's right, of course. Pack-like creatures that we are, the past week or so has seen a global media pile-on.

Time's cover portrait across much of Asia this week features Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh looking vacant and lost. 'Underachiever' reads the headline, a cruel reversal for a leader once celebrated for his unassuming success (and a curriculum vitae which includes degrees from Cambridge and Oxford, the governorship of the Reserve Bank of India and a transformative stint as Finance Minister in the early 1990s).

'India Singhs the Blues' notes Foreign Policy. 'Why the country will pay the price for its wildly overrated prime minister.' In another piece, FP asks: 'Is the world's largest democracy ready for prime time, or forever a B-list player on the global stage?' Both are worth reading. Sumit Ganguly's analysis, which offers a revisionist rake on the expectations that have come to be attached to India, is particularly sharp.

Having myself fired a few arrows at Dr Singh and the ruling Congress Party last month, I thought I would turn to an area where India is enjoying success: the projection of its soft power abroad. Here, arguably, it is outstripping China, its Asian Century rival.

In an essay for Chatham House's The World Today, Shashi Tharoor, the former UN diplomat, Indian parliamentarian and one-time minister in Dr Singh's cabinet, argues that 'India's effulgent culture' has become a prime asset abroad. Bollywood movies are watched the world over. On Afghan television, Indian soap operas are dubbed into Dari. Curry houses in Britain now employ 'more people than the iron and steel, coal and shipbuilding industries combined' (even if many are run by Bangladeshis). America harbours a high-achieving Indian diaspora.

In just the last 15 or-so years, India's international reputation has been completely overhauled. 'The old stereotype of Indians as snake-charmers or fakirs lying on beds of nails has been replaced with images of software gurus and computer geeks', notes Tharoor. As the world has watched the emergence of its hi-tech and outsourcing sectors, a condescending orientalism has been replaced by something nearing awe. Just read Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat.

This projection of soft power has been largely inadvertent, and 'emerges despite the government', notes Tharoor, the former External Affairs Minister. 'International goodwill has not been systematically harnessed as a strategic asset by New Delhi.' Any strategic advantages, he notes, have been 'unplanned.'

Tharoor is vague on what precisely those strategic advantages have been. But soft power has been particularly useful in Afghanistan, where the Indians have trained much of their recent diplomatic efforts on making the Karzai Government more Delhi-friendly (and more Islamabad-hostile).

India's 'likeability', for want of a better word, has also helped with Washington. Successive presidents, from Bill Clinton through to Barack Obama, have been charmed by India. Such was the mutual affection demonstrated by George W Bush and his hosts during his visit in 2006 that it looked to your correspondent, who was posted in Delhi at the time, like a Bollywood remake of the Hollywood movie of the moment: Brokeback Mountain.

Certainly these new friendships helped when it came to signing the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement. Soft power here helped nourish the idea that an emergent India would meliorate the world rather than destabilise it.

That agreement also came about because of the trustworthiness and all-round decency of Manmohan Singh. In diplomatic circles, Brand India is linked inextricably with Brand Singh. Barack Obama has praised him as 'a wise and decent man.' He is portrayed as a global elder. So that is one of the major downsides of this week's rash of negative headlines, and the personal attacks on Dr Singh. India's soft power has come to be linked with its soft-spoken Prime Minister.

Photo by Flickr user timparkinson.

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