Chinese Takeaway: Yoga Diplomacy

The impressive participation around the world on International Yoga Day is indeed a testimony to India’s immense reservoir of soft power.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Updated: June 23, 2015 12:33 am
Narendra Modi, yoga, International Yoga Day, Rajiv Gandhi, globalisation, cultural diplomacy, india china ties, indian express column, C. Raja Mohan column, PM Narendra Modi doing Yoga

The impressive participation around the world on International Yoga Day is indeed a testimony to India’s immense reservoir of soft power. In his energetic engagement with world leaders, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has put a special emphasis on cultural diplomacy. Modi should, however, remember that India’s soft power has the greatest impact when official New Delhi keeps its heavy hand away from it.

India is not new to cultural diplomacy. India’s self-discovery of its rich cultural heritage and its global reach played an important role in shaping its modern nationalism. Its civilisational riches attracted artists, writers and philosophers from far and wide. India’s first PM Jawaharlal Nehru was quick to recognise the value of cultural diplomacy. He and Abul Kalam Azad, who was minister of eduction in Nehru’s first cabinet, set up the Indian Council for Cultural Relations in 1950. The ICCR has done much since to showcase India’s civilisational heritage.

Rajiv Gandhi gave a new momentum to India’s cultural diplomacy when he launched the festivals of India around the world. Amid India’s globalisation and the intensification of its global footprint since the 1990s, there has been growing popular interest in India’s culture — from yoga to cuisine and from Bollywood to contemporary art. The economic success of the Indian diaspora, especially in the developed Western world, has tended to boost India’s soft power.

Thanks to the significant economic expansion in the middle of the last decade, the UPA government began to devote more resources to India’s cultural outreach and public diplomacy. The resource crunch in the latter part of the decade has, however, tended to squeeze those initiatives.

Beijing Model

As Modi imparts a fresh momentum to India’s cultural diplomacy, Delhi could learn a set of useful dos and don’ts from China’s massive cultural diplomacy over the last decade. As one of the oldest continuing civilisations, China has always had much to offer other societies. Chinese statecraft, which dates back two millennia, has a deep understanding of what we now call “soft power”. Mao’s Cultural Revolution, however, broke that tradition by attacking the very symbols of Chinese civilisation. His successors have now put culture back at the centre of China’s international relations. Making China a “global cultural superpower” is now the avowed aim of the Chinese Communist Party.

As China raced to become one of the leading economies, cultural diplomacy became an important complement to Beijing’s “go out” strategy. Over the last decade, Xinhua, once the classic example of a “staid socialist news agency”, acquired global reach and influence. China’s state-owned CCTV network launched international TV channels in English, French, Spanish, Arabic and Russian. Beijing has also set up nearly 500 Confucius Centres to teach Mandarin and present Chinese culture to international audiences. China is supposed to spend close to $10 billion on external propaganda, nearly 15 times larger than the US State Department’s “public diplomacy”.

Yet, the returns on Chinese investments have been meagre. International surveys show a decline in positive sentiment about China over the last decade. Communist China inspires awe, but not much love. Western nations continue to lead the charts on soft power. Put simply, it’s not easy to translate soft power potential into policy gains.

Soft Power Limits

Unlike hard power, which encompasses military and economic means, soft power is about culture and values. Harvard professor Joseph Nye, who popularised the term “soft power” nearly a quarter of a century ago, defines it as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.”

Governments can easily leverage the instruments of hard power. But soft power, which emanates from deep societal structures, is rather intangible. To be sure, there are things that the government of India can do — ranging from visa liberalisation to nurturing the nation’s rich heritage and modernising its cultural infrastructure. But Delhi should learn to stay out of the business of “promoting” it. Much like propaganda, which works best when it’s not seen as such, soft power strategies are most effective when they are subtle and indirect.

The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’

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  1. G
    Jun 23, 2015 at 11:18 am
    India has inspired awe since the beginning of civilization. Her culture, arts, traditions, religions and all embracing nature have won her love and respect. She is not feared, which of course led to repeated raids, looting and capture. Tarek Fateh, a respected stani journalist notes that the first Mosque outside of Mecca/Medina was actually built on land donated by a king in Kerala. China on the other hand is considered to be arrogant and cold. The idea of middle kingdom and of others being inferior is what puts off people. Mao personified the worst of these qualities. This is a real shame because the Chinese people are gentle, hardworking & trustworthy. They need to cultivate a better image.
    1. M
      Manoj Goel
      Jun 23, 2015 at 1:12 pm
      India and China are only modern great powers that have held a largely continuous culture for several millenniadia is the only state in the world from where most of the religions of the world have originated.Since ancient time India have been known for its culture and values modern times our culture and values have been recognized all over the world.Recently celebration of 21 june as world yoga day is nothing but India.s soft power diplomacydia is seen as non violent and neutral country all over the world.Mahatma hi has shocked w world by fighting freedom struggle with the help of non violence and satyagraha.Hence we should try to enhance our intangible soft power so that our dream of becoming super power in near future may come true.
      1. k
        Jun 23, 2015 at 11:39 am
        First Mosque out side Arabia was built in Kerala on a land donated by a King In kerala. We were so tolerant then, allowed both the Abrahaic religions to take root, even rule us for thousand years. Yet today, we Hindus are bed as intolerant religion despite intolerance is the hall mark of Christianity and Islam even as per their holy books.What a travesty of truth .
        1. A
          Jun 23, 2015 at 6:15 pm
          As we were growing up in a small village Hariana in Panjab, our mother used to tell us: 'Kaga Kaso dhan hare', Koyal kako det, Meetthe Meetthe bacchan se, Jaggh Apna kar Leyt.' Crow does not steal, neither does Koyel give anything to anyone, however whereas crow annoys people with his coursenes, koyel wins hearts with her sweet songs. That Sri Raja Sahab is soft power we have been tought for thousands of years. There is nothing new in Dear Professor Nye that need to be glorified, but then that is Indian way of making ourselves relevant by quoting guys from the West. Wah re wah my India. You are mahaan.
          1. Sanjay Bhattacharya
            Jun 23, 2015 at 7:26 pm
            I am not sure what Raja Mohan wanted to express in this article. I have a faint idea that he is criticizing Modi which he normally likes for the big event around yoga . Actual heart burning is for the fact that Modi has outsmarted Congress in every field. Congress is now lamenting why they could not think about such a simple thing like international yoga day! The credit for World Yoga Day will definitely go to Modi. Congress leaders are now extremely worried that speaking anything in favour of yoga can be construed as praising Modi. It is big dilemma for them. They can neither condemn yoga, nor they can praise it publicly. Modi has appropraited yoga, Sardar Patel, Mahatma hi, Ambedkar, Vivekanada and even Narsimha Rao!
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