Soft power has been an integral concept in the discipline of international politics since the late 1980s, when Joseph Nye first introduced the notion to explain the changing dynamics in American foreign policy. Hard power, as Nye defines it, consists of a state’s ability to shape the perceptions and behavior of other states according to its own preferences through coercion and economic rewards. A country’s ability to sway other states toward its preferences is known as soft power.
Although the term itself is relatively new, India adopted soft power as a tool in its foreign policy approach long before Nye formally conceptualized the term. Many scholars attribute India’s soft power potential to its democratic values, tolerance for diversity, economic growth, and rich cultural values. However, these qualities are not unique to India and, indeed, many Western countries have used soft power more effectively than India.
Ultimately, India can attribute its successful adoption of soft power to Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent struggle against Great Britain’s colonial dominance. Gandhi’s efforts had a decisive impact on the Nehruvian perspective on international peace and cooperation, conceived by India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The Nehruvian view heavily revolves around the idea of non-alignment and a democratic, international order.
Gandhi’s freedom movement was a moral undertaking, not merely because it fought for human freedom and dignity, but also because Gandhi used love and self-sacrifice (“Satyagraha”) as a moral weapon to push for the civil, political, and socio-economic rights of Indians. According to Nehru, winning freedom through peaceful means demonstrated that “physical force need not necessarily be the arbiter of man’s destiny.”
Nehru believed, in light of the Cold War’s start and India’s newfound independence, that the only alternative to a world order defined by power politics was collectively working towards a cooperative and peaceful world order. This view was only intensified by his belief that the world’s superpowers, including the United States, its European allies, and the Soviet Union, continued to be heavily immersed in power struggles. Nehru concluded that India could set an example for the world by pursuing a policy of non-alignment.
Similar to Gandhi’s “Satyagraha,” Nehru’s notion of non-alignment strived for a just and equitable international order through active participation in world affairs. Like Gandhi, Nehru believed that it was easier for India to encourage peace and universal brotherhood among the populations and leaders of the major powers than to coerce them to drop inclination for more economic and military power. The success of Gandhian and Nehruvian ideas laid the foundation for India’s use of soft power and provided a revolutionary alternative to traditional, hard-hitting power politics.
India’s Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) provided it with an international profile larger than was warranted by its economic and military strength. Though Western observers often mistook NAM for neutrality, they eventually could not ignore the impact of the movement, which was especially palpable in 1962, when Nehru rejected American attempts to tie Western aid to the conditionality of settling its Kashmir dispute. India’s moral high ground in leading the NAM was instrumental to America’s continued provision of aid to India without conditionality.
India came to be considered a leader among third world countries and was asked to play a pioneering role in the Non-Aligned Movement, primarily due to Nehru’s innovative ideas and convincing rejection of power politics. Nehru pointed to a North-South division of the world based on economic inequalities that was overshadowed by the Cold-War driven East-West division, which he considered an ideological divide designed to serve the interests of the world’s superpowers. This persuaded other developing countries to rally around India’s leadership to work for a democratic international economic order
Nehru believed that the global South could only overcome its poverty and underdevelopment through peace and cooperation. Therefore, India and other non-aligned countries collaborated to end global apartheid and colonialism, promote disarmament, and mediate Cold War-related disputes. India played a pivotal role in the international diplomatic efforts to address the above predicaments by participating in the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council, the U.N. General Assembly and its committees, and the Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). India also helped found the Group of 77, which adopted formal resolutions to address the unequal distribution of resources and technology in the global economy.
During the Cold War, many U.S. Presidents, including Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, realized that the non-aligned countries could play a decisive role in the Cold War and, therefore, sought to engage them through constructive diplomacy. India’s assistance was crucial to the Kennedy Administration’s efforts to stabilize the Republic of the Congo. India’s key role in defusing the Korean War (1950-53) led to its appointment as the Chairman of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission. For its contribution to Indo-Chinese peace, India was rewarded with the role of chair of the International Control Commission, set up under the Geneva Agreement. India and other Afro-Asian countries’ influence prompted massive amounts of aid from both the United States and the Soviet Union. Despite Nehru’s inclination toward the USSR’s socialist model of development, the United States was the largest provider of aid to India throughout the Cold War. Had India been a part of the Cold War’s power politics and joined either military bloc sponsored by the competing superpowers, it would have been virtually ignored by the other. Therefore, it was not possible for India to play any meaningful role toward securing international peace and security.
The Nehruvian approach to foreign policy, however, accorded greater importance to world politics than to regional issues, making the impact of India’s soft power historically weakest in its own region. China’s decisive victory in the 1962 Sino-Indian Border Conflict prompted India to recognize the importance of economic and military power. Subsequently, India devoted more of its budget to defense and intelligence operations, and despite Nehru’s commitment to peace and nuclear disarmament, started its covert nuclear program. China’s growing influence drove India to open trade to states like Nepal and Bhutan in return for allegiance. India, under successive prime ministers, reverted to strong regional policies whenever it perceived a vulnerability to external pressures in the region.
During the Cold War, land and water disputes with Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh made India a controversial political actor in South Asia. India’s intervention in Pakistan’s and Sri Lanka’s civil wars made its neighbours more cautious of India’s hard power. Moreover, stipulation of representation by India on foreign policy matters and exclusive assistance from India in resolving internal conflicts in the trade treaties provided grist to a perception among India’s neighbors that the treaties were unfair.
Current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tried to recreate a regional atmosphere of trust by inviting South Asian leaders to his swearing-in ceremony and making diplomatic visits to neighboring countries. However, India is still having difficulties in changing its neighbors’ behaviors by using soft power. Neighboring countries with weak democracies and frequent political transitions continue to be threatened by India’s strong and stable democracy. Additionally, countries with heritages rooted in the former Indian subcontinent may feel the need to assert their own identities in order to distinguish themselves from India’s prominent legacy.
Gradually, India is moving away from its role as a leader among third world countries, a position that has fueled its use of soft power. On the contrary, India has become a mere follower of the West by shifting its focus from general purpose third world groups, like NAM and G-77, to issue-specific groups like the G-20. Modi is pursuing a course of multi-alignment and is promoting India as a reliable economic and military partner by showcasing India’s soft power, including its democratic credentials, tourism, yoga, Sufi music, and Bollywood culture. Currently, India treats soft power as a complement to its hard power resources with the hope that its flourishing economy will contribute to the build-up of its military.
While hard power resources are necessary for India’s defense and development, India should also preserve its rich heritage of soft power resources, which was conceived more as an alternative to hard power than as a supplement. Many of India’s non-alignment objectives – including an egalitarian economic order, universal disarmament, discourse on sovereignty in the context of human rights issues, and the democratic spread of knowledge and technology – remain unfulfilled. The Nehruvian vision of a peaceful and democratic world should remain an inspiration for India, with the promotion of a peaceful regional order serving as a stepping stone to this vision. While India’s engagement with major economic and military powers has improved disproportionately in relation to its regional engagement, it should ensure moving forward that it engages its neighbors on favorable terms so as to make a concerted effort to assuage their perceptions of India as a threat.