The world has heard much about India's extraordinary transformation in
recent years, and even of its claims to a share of "world leadership."
Some of that is hyperbole, but in one respect, India's strength may be
What makes a country a world leader? Is it population, military
strength, or economic development? By all of these measures, India has
made extraordinary strides. It is on course to overtake China as the
world's most populous country by 2034; it has the world's
fourth-largest army and nuclear weapons; and it is already the world's
fifth-largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity and
continues to climb - though too many of its people remain destitute.
All of these indicators are commonly used to judge a country's global
status. However, something much less tangible, but a good deal more
valuable in the 21st century, may be more important than any of them:
India's "soft power."
Take Afghanistan, for instance - a major security concern for India,
as it is for the world. But India's greatest asset there doesn't come
out of a military mission: It doesn't have one. It comes from one
simple fact: Don't try to telephone an Afghan at 8:30 in the evening.
That's when the Indian TV soap opera "Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi,"
dubbed into Dari, is telecast on Tolo TV, and no one wishes to miss
"Saas" is the most popular television show in Afghan history, with a
90 percent audience penetration. It is considered directly responsible
for a spike in the sale of generator sets and even for absences from
religious functions which clash with its broadcast times. "Saas" has
so thoroughly captured the public imagination in Afghanistan that, in
this deeply conservative Islamic country where family problems are
often literally hidden behind the veil, it's an Indian TV show that
has come to dominate (and sometimes to justify) public discussion of
That's soft power, and its particular strength is that it has nothing
to do with government propaganda. The movies of Bollywood, which is
bringing its glitzy entertainment far beyond the Indian diaspora in
the United States and the United Kingdom, offer another example. A
Senegalese friend told me of his illiterate mother who takes a bus to
Dakar every month to watch a Bollywood film. She doesn't understand
the Hindi dialogue and can't read the French subtitles, but she can
still catch the spirit and understand the story, and people like her
look at India with stars in their eyes as a result.
An Indian diplomat in Damascus a few years ago told me that the only
publicly displayed portraits as big as those of then-President Hafez
al-Assad were of the Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan.
Indian art, classical music and dance have the same effect. So does
the work of Indian fashion designers, now striding across the world's
runways. Indian cuisine, spreading around the world, raises Indian
culture higher in people's reckoning; the way to foreigners' hearts is
through their palates. In the UK today, Indian curry houses employ
more people than the iron and steel, coal and shipbuilding industries
When a bhangra beat is infused into a Western pop record or an Indian
choreographer invents a fusion of kathak and ballet; when Indian women
sweep the Miss World and Miss Universe contests, or when "Monsoon
Wedding" wows the critics and "Lagaan" claims an Oscar nomination;
when Indian writers win the Booker or Pulitzer Prizes, India's soft
power is enhanced.
Likewise, when Americans speak of the IITs - India's technology
institutes - with the same reverence they accord to MIT, and the
"Indianness" of engineers and software developers is taken as
synonymous with mathematical and scientific excellence, India gains in
In the information age, as Joseph Nye, the guru of soft power, argues,
it is not the side with the bigger army, but the side with the better
story, that wins. India is already the "land of the better story." As
a pluralist society with a free and thriving mass media, creative
energies that express themselves in a variety of appealing ways, and a
democratic system that promotes and protects diversity, India has an
extraordinary ability to tell stories that are more persuasive and
attractive than those of its rivals.
And there's the international spin-off of India just being itself.
India's remarkable pluralism was on display after national elections
in May 2004, when a leader with a Roman Catholic background (Sonia
Gandhi) made way for a Sikh (Manmohan Singh) to be sworn in as prime
minister by a Muslim (President Abdul Kalam) - in a country that is 81
percent Hindu. No strutting nationalist chauvinism could ever have
accomplished for India's standing in the world what that one moment
did - all the more so since it was not directed at the world.
There's still much for India to do to ensure that its people are
healthy, well fed, and secure. Progress is being made: The battle
against poverty is slowly (too slowly) being won. But India's greatest
prospects for winning admiration in the 21st century may lie not in
what it does, but simply in what it is.
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