International Yoga Day's success notwithstanding, India's soft power push will lack potency unless backed by hard power

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the mover and shaker behind International Yoga Day, has billed the event as a 'mass movement'. In its fourth year since United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the India-led resolution (backed by 175 out of 193 member nations) in 2014 — less than three months after Modi had mooted the proposal in his maiden UNGA address — Yoga day has become a global event and a major diplomatic and cultural success for India.

And yet, there is a need to acknowledge the reality that India's soft power projection has its limitations and its impact on India's foreign policy is limited in the absence of commensurate rise in hard power, where India is saddled with organisational and structural challenges.

Held on the day of the summer solstice, the International Yoga Day offers stunning visuals from across India and around the world, including China, which has taken to Yoga in a big way.

Yoga also left its mark during the Malabar military exercises, where officers of the Indian Navy, taking part in the drill along with Japanese and US navies off Guam in Pacific Ocean, performed Yoga on board the warships.

The event's success and global outreach has triggered commentaries about the nature of India's soft power and its status as the repository of an ancient civilisation that may offer something new to the world. The prime minister has hailed Yoga as a "unifying force" that can rise above divisive impulses, bind the world and in the process help India punch above its weight and seal global leadership.

Attending a Yoga Day event at Dehradun's Forest Research Institute on Thursday with 50,000 enthusiasts, Modi said: "It's a proud moment for everyone that today, wherever in the world the sun rises, people welcome its warmth and brightness with yoga. From Dehradun to Dublin, Shanghai to Chicago, and Jakarta to Johannesburg, yoga is everywhere."

Modi's usage of Yoga as a foreign policy tool that taps into and simultaneously highlights India's civilisational primacy is evident. Here, yoga isn't merely a physiological or spiritual discipline but also the embodiment of a value system that defines a 5,000-year-old civilisation. A global projection of this value system may reinforce India's claim for moral leadership, hopes India.

As Modi said, yoga is "ancient yet modern" and presents a "ray of hope for our future".

Yoga's usage as a soft power resource might be new but in his effort to stamp India's global leadership and reinforce India's exceptionalism despite chronic power limitations and capacity constraints, Modi was following the path laid by his predecessors since independence.

In her book From Chanakya to Modi, The Evolution of India's Foreign Policy, Hudson Institute Fellow Aparna Pande writes, "Under Gandhi's leadership, the Indian national movement embraced moral ideals, which in turn have led to the emergence of a sense of Indian exceptionalism — that India is unique, special and an example for the rest of the world." [Chapter 1, Page 7, Harper Collins].

Narendra Modi performing yoga exercises on Thursday. Twitter/@PIBIndia

Narendra Modi performing yoga exercises on Thursday. Twitter/@PIBIndia

Pande cites the very first resolution passed by the Constituent Assembly of India on 13 December, 1946, where Jawaharlal Nehru stated that "this ancient land attains its rightful and honoured place in the world and make its full and willing contribution to the promotion of world peace and the welfare of mankind."

The success of International Yoga Day has raised expectations on India's soft power potential. Analysts have suggested that it will significantly improve India's geopolitical standing and even challenge Chinese hegemony. JNU professor Makarand R Paranjape calls it "one of the outstanding triumphs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy" in DailyO and writes: "Wherever I go in the world, I find this event gathering traction, generating enthusiasm, and inspiring support from the local community."

In her piece for IANS, Bhaswati Mukherjee, former Indian Ambassador to UNESCO, writes: "this 'international binding' through International Yoga Day represents India's new global narrative. It could be as important to its quest for great power status as her candidature for permanent membership of the Security Council."

This buoyant approach ignores some realities and intrinsic challenges that India must recognise and fix if it seeks 'great power' status. Yoga Day might be a huge success but it cannot be the sole metric of soft power. And even if it is, projection of soft power alone is not enough to book India a premium seat in the global comity of nations.

Soft power, the term popularised by noted US political scientist Joseph Nye of Harvard University in his book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (1990) and elaborated further in Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (2004), denotes the ability of nations to effect behavioral changes among rival states through cultural, political, policy-related and other assimilatory tools without using coercive steps such as economic or military might.

"Soft power is more than simply influence or persuasion: it is attraction that leads to acquiescence. It is partly generated by governmental policies and public diplomacy. Popular culture and mass media are also sources of soft power. The success of soft power depends on the state’s reputation," writes Deepak Jain in Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies .

Being intangible, soft power unlike hard power is intangible and difficult to measure. One way to understand it is to look at opinion polls and other indicators. By this metric, India's performance as an exporter and wielder of soft power has been poor.

According to the latest global soft power rankings, India fails to make the cut in the top 30 in a group that is topped by France. "Germany comes in at fourth in the rankings, followed by Canada, Japan, and Switzerland. Australia, Switzerland, and The Netherlands round off the top 10. China makes the cut at 25th, and Brazil and Turkey round it off at 29 and 30, leaving India, which has claims of being a soft power outside the rankings," notes a July 2017 report in The Times of India.

Even if we are to treat these surveys with some skepticism, the larger problem with soft power lies in the fact that the popularity of a soft power resource (Yoga, for instance) is no guarantee of a commensurate rise in influence of the nation unless it is backed by hard power.

In his 2009 piece for Foreign Policy, British historian Niall Ferguson had written that: "the trouble with soft power is that it’s, well, soft. All over the Islamic world kids enjoy (or would like to enjoy) bottles of Coke, Big Macs, CDs by Britney Spears and DVDs starring Tom Cruise. Do any of these things make them love the United States more? Strangely not."

India only has to take a look around its neighbourhood to see that despite being the repository of an ancient civilisation boasting of immense cultural heritage (which should have been enough to ensure India's primacy in the subcontinent) it finds itself being surrounded by smaller nations that are either resentful of India's influence or seeking to balance it against China. Why isn't the soft power working?

Nye, the father of the soft power principle, points out to a question from Outlook on why India lacks influence in its neighbourhood that: "India has impressive hard and soft power, but it needs to get its economic growth up, and include its vast human resources, much of which is still under-utilised."

And herein lies the reality check. In the absence of a grand strategy that seeks to develop a foreign policy based on equal emphasis on hard and soft power (because these are complementary, not rivaling resources), India's soft power appeal will lack potency.

Building hard power capabilities is the surest way to ensure it, but it is here that India faces its biggest challenges. Military efficacy and efficiency must go hand in hand with a growth push of the kind China recorded in three continuous decades. Short of these measures, no amount of yoga day celebrations will have any lasting effect.


Updated Date: Jun 21, 2018 20:57 PM

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