Monday, November 21, 2011

Significance of soft power

United states is now considered the only super power of the world. She has a mighty armed force, world’s biggest economy and people who are biggest consumers of world’s energy and resources. She can influence economy of any country in any part of the world. She can also strike against any nation, which she believes is acting against her own interests. Yesterday it was Iraq . Today its Afghanistan . We never know what would happen tomorrow. Yet except for small bands of people, who feel that America is their worst and biggest enemy, almost everyone else, anywhere in the world, just adores America. This love for America is not because of the awe of her mighty armed forces. It is not because of any cheap or world class consumer products made by her and distributed throughout the world. It is also not because of the food or any other aid provided by her to real poor countries. Some people may be misled into thinking that the reason for this love is the individual freedom and the high democratic standards adopted by United States. Many people in many parts of the world do not know even today, what is democracy or individual freedom? Leave aside any thinking about high standards. Still they all love America.

The reason for this love is actually very simple. People basically love products and ideas that came originally from America. They symbolize these products and ideas with America.
The first product from America, which I came across as a kid, was Coca-cola. This was way back in Fifties and being in India, we kids had really no idea at all about America. We had never met an American or even knew good enough English to read anything about that country. Yet in our minds, we associated this blackish sweet, fizzling drink with a weird name such as Coca-cola, with that distant land. I often thought then, that in America, where this wonder drink was made, people must not be drinking water. As I grew up, in spite of the best efforts of the then Indian Government, which clearly favoured socialism, the things American always fascinated me. Whether they came in form of a pair of funny looking blue trousers called Jeans or giant sized sandwiches of a funny shape, served wrapped in paper towels and were called with a weirder name such as Hot Dogs. By then, I had acquired at least some rudimentary knowledge of the English Language. This opened up a new dimension for me to the world of American Westerns. Those were the days of John Wayne and Bert Lancaster with their Guns, Trains and horses. I had clearly fallen in love with all things American. As I grew up, I was enchanted and mesmerized further by the Hollywood extravaganzas and musicals.
The idea of delving into my past personal love affair with United States, is to point out, how an individual, alien to the culture of a totally strange and unknown far off country , can still get totally enmoured with that culture. This was hardly a unique experience restricted to me as an individual. Almost everyone of my age, had then exactly the same feeling and same love for things America. Even though I did not realize it then, this was the soft power of the American culture. United States was probably the first country to propagate this power, may be inadvertently, to the world. I do not think they did it with any purpose, except for the commercial interests of giant American corporations. However, it worked and America became the darling of the youth from the world. Today, if you ask any youth anywhere in the world regarding where would he or she would like to work and spend his or her life? In majority of the cases, answer would favour United States. The other day, I was reading a book titled as River of white nights, by Jeffrey Taylor. In this book the author has described his journey in deep Siberia. Even here, every person he met, wanted to go to America.
India was ruled by British for a long time. Many of the household names in our life such as Lifebuoy soap or Britannia biscuits have British origins. Many customs, traditions and Laws we follow, have again some British legacy. Yet, I have seen, no one ever falling in love with things done in British way. However, in complete contrast, anything about America, may it be American films, American clothes, or almost anything American. is loved by the world.
America has given millions of tons of food aid to India during Sixties and Seventies. American Government has given financial aid to many countries of the world. Has that aid helped in propagating America’s soft power? I do not think so. It seems that aid receiving countries somehow resent the fact that they have to accept aid from a foreign country. Pakistan has been aided by United States over the years with all forms of aid. Yet, Pakistanis do not like America. Any kind of aid does not seem to propagate this soft power.
Recently, I came across the results of a survey reported by a US news paper. This survey was carried out in Afghanistan by ABC News/BBC/ARD National Survey of Afghanistan. The sample which was taken was fairly large and across the countryside, which made this survey fairly reliable. What interested me the most was the fact, as reported in this survey, that “Seventy-four percent (74%)of Afghans see India favorably.” This was against the backdrop of marked discomfort with neighboring Pakistan. Reflecting long-tense relations, a near-unanimous 91 percent of Afghans have an unfavorable opinion of Pakistan (up 11 points from last year), 86 percent say Pakistan is playing a negative role in Afghanistan and 67 percent think Pakistan is allowing the Taliban to operate within its borders.
The survey also observed that a majority, 57 percent, of Afghanis also have a favorable view of Iran, Afghanistan’s neighbor to the west. Among Western countries, Germany’s favourability is high, at 61 percent; its NATO/ISAF troops in Afghanistan have been in the North, away from the heaviest fighting. Favorable views of Great Britain are much lower, 39 percent; of the United States, as noted, they’ve dropped steadily to 47 percent, from a high of 83 percent in 2005. The results of the survey are very interesting and it should be possible to discuss the results in many ways. I shall however restrict my self to India. India has over last few years aided Afghanistan to the tune of 1 billion US$. The aid has gone mainly in the form of construction projects and power transmission lines. India also is building a new Parliament building for Afghanistan.
I do not however believe that India’s favourablity with Afghani people, has anything to do with this aid. Obviously, India’s tensions with Pakistan make it broadly appealing in Afghanistan. This must have increased the favourability by a few percentage points no doubt. India also had years of good relations with Afghanistan. This could be also one of the reasons. However, primary reasons, according to me, for India’s popularity with Afghanistan, appear to be quite different. India offers about 500 scholorships to Afghani students for free university education. In the first year itself (2006), 12000 students applied. These kind of gestures create far better impressions on minds than buildings and power lines. When these students come to India, see things here with their own eyes, get their graduation and return to their country, imagine the goodwill created for India. Yet, two other main factors for India’s popularity, appear to be Bollywood films and Indian TV sitcoms. Bollywood films and Indian music are extremely popular in Afghanistan but what surprises me most is the fact that Sitcoms primarily designed for India’s Hindu population are predominantly popular in a traditionally orthodox Muslim country. I read somewhere that a tear jerking sitcom called ( Mai Tulsi Tere Angan ki or I am the Basil in your courtyard) is so popular in Kabul that when it is aired , the traffic on the roads drops considerably. Such sitcoms promote new fashions in jewelry, clothes in Afghanistan and Afghani women just love that. This promotes demand for things Indian and boosts up the trade. This is really the soft power of India. This power has far reaching range than any military, financial or food aid.
In Brazil, a sitcom or a Telenovela, named “Caminho das Indias” (Way of the Indias) was aired regularly on TV. It is Brazil’s latest soap opera hit, a lavish production that has sparked a mini India boom in Brazil, even while taking liberties with its portrayal of India. The pink-walled palaces, shimmering saris and Bollywood dances are all there. The story, which like most Brazilian soaps, is told in a grueling 200 or so episodes over more than six months, centers on a forbidden love between beautiful high-caste woman Maya and handsome Bahuan, a low-caste Dalit. Filmed partly in India’s Rajasthan state, the action shifts between Jaipur and Agra where tradition and religion hang in the air. It even shows Indian values such as the respect for the elders of a family, which isn’t always the case in Brazil. However the funny part about this sitcom is that it is neither produced or even conceptualized by any one even remotely connected with India.
This sitcom with a viewership in order of millions, has already created a new awareness in Brazil about India and the things Indian. Hindi phrases such as the exclamation “Arre Baba” (Oh my goodness!) have entered everyday speech; interest in yoga, meditation and Indian dance is on the rise and demand for Indian clothes and decorations has jumped. Caminho das Indias shows how effective this cultural soft power can be, even when it is not propagated by the original country or the Government.
Popularity of Bollywood films in Malaysia can only be compared with India herself. A film award function held in Malaysia last year was watched by a huge TV audience. Bollywood Idols are also immensely popular hear. Last year I was pleasantly surprised to find Ramayana serial being screened on Malaysia’s TV on a Sunday Morning. Latest Bollywood fashions are found to be reflected in Malaysia. I somehow had this impression, that Bollywood films shown outside India are mostly watched by the Indian diaspora. This might be true in western countries to some extent. However in middle east and far east. This is just not true. Bollywood films, Indian TV Sitcoms are watched and loved by the locals as much as Indian diaspora. These films create a new cultural window for India. Trade can and surely follows this.
For Indian soft power, there are three more agents of propagation, First comes in the form of gastronomical pleasure created by Indian cuisine or cookery. Indian cuisine is popular in many countries like Britain where certain types of curries have even become Britain’s national dishes. The other soft power agent propagating India comes in form of beautifully hand woven textiles with rich embroidery. For many years, government of India has been trying to promote Indian hand loom woven textiles, through dusty shops set up abroad with uninterested salesman. This never worked. Luckily, an American businessman Mr. John Bissell, a former Ford Foundation consultant sensed the true soft power of Indian textiles and set up a business named as FabIndia in 1960. Mr Bissell and his son William have now built Fabindia into a 112-store, $75 million retailer with outlets in Rome, Dubai and Guangzhou, expanding the product line to include designer clothes, jewelry, home furnishings, body care products and organic foods — all without straying from the company’s socially conscious roots. They managed to give usually staid and stale handicrafts, a slick, modern look. The company is incredibly popular with ordinary Indians, posh socialites and Western expatriates alike. The last but not the least, agent propagating India’s soft power is Yoga, perhaps the most popular part of Indian culture. Yoga classes are found in many parts of the world. With Yoga, a plethora of things Indian follow to that part of the world.
City of Shanghai is the venue for EXPO 2010. A record number of 192 countries and 50 organizations have registered, the highest in the Expo’s history. It has been described by the Chinese government as “a great gathering of world civilizations”. Almost all major countries of the world have used this opportunity to showcase their economic might or technical capabilities. Yet, India pavilion in Expo 2010 appears to have intentionally given up this path and is different. The official website of the pavilion describes the pavilion as a journey of Indian cities from ancient times to medieval period to modern India.

The Indian Pavilion is built entirely of bamboo and other environment friendly materials like solar panels, windmills, plants, water cascade and earthen tiles; and is the ‘greenest’ and most eco-friendly pavilion at the expo. Over 60,000 saplings, including many herbal medicinal plants, have been used in the roofing panels of the pavilion, which also collect rainwater for use in the pavilion. Over 30 kms of bamboo (which came from eastern Chinese forests) has gone into its construction. It is in fact the world’s largest Bamboo Dome – 35 meters wide and 18 meters tall, and contains an interlaced network of more than 500 pieces of 20 meter-length rods of bamboo.

It is no surprise that it will be spared demolition unlike the other pavilions (excluding China’s), dismantled and then reconstructed in Wushi, Zhejiang Province in China.
The Indian pavilion also features authentic Indian cuisine, Indian cultural programmes, including dances and of course – India’s latest soft power export – Bollywood. The organizers have roped in 50 performers, backed by a team of film technicians and choreographers to act out 40 years of classic moments in Indian cinema. And finally Yoga which happens to be the single most popular aspect of Indian culture and soft power. It is no wonder that the India pavilion being so different from all other pavilions, has become one of the most popular spots at the expo with an average of 25,000 visitors every day.

Many countries are increasingly realizing that Soft Power can be a very effective tool for increasing their influence, this is especially true for countries with rich histories and cultures like India and China. Unfortunately so far, propagation of Indian soft power was never taken seriously by the Indian Government. The entire effort has been done by private enterprises. Shanghai EXPO pavilion is perhaps the first major effort at Government level, to promote India’s soft power.
I do not know whether India would ever become a super power. One thing is certain. India is already a cultural super power. All she needs is to propagate the soft power wisely and effectively. I read lot of speculation about how India would loose its position of eminence in Afghanistan, once the Americans leave that country. I however feel that this is an unlikely scenario since India is loved by ordinary Afghans. Unlike financial or material aid, effect of soft power can not vanish with the change of the Government. It lingers on, perhaps because it has captured the hearts of the people.
10 August 2010

No comments:

Post a Comment