NEW DELHI – I’ve become rather fascinated with all the hype that I’m hearing about India. All this talk about India stepping up as a world leader, even the next super power. At an airport bookshop, I walked past the title, “The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cellphone,” with the gratuitous subtitle “India: the next 21st century superpower.” But I don’t buy that this is all India is about, let alone what it should be.
I find the entire notion of world leadership archaic. It reminds me of Kipling ballads or James Bond movies. So what constitutes a world leader? If its population, you don’t have to look further than India (last I read, India is projected to overtake the Chinese population by 2034). Is it military strength? India has the world’s fourth largest army. Is it nuclear power? India has that too. Is it the economy? India has the fifth largest economy in the world (in terms of purchasing power). And so India will continue to grow. When the rest of the world was crippled by the Global Financial Crisis, India’s economy grew by 6.7 per cent.
But none of these figures satisfy me when I think of what India has to offer the rest of the world. I think all of these things should be tied to something else. The power of example, the attraction of India’s culture. In other words, all of India’s quantitative values need to be intertwined with soft power.
Soft power is a term coined by Joseph Nye, the esteemed Harvard International Studies scholar. It essentially refers to a country’s ability to attract others because of its culture, its political values and its foreign policies. A lot of countries successfully do this, and when Nye wrote of this concept he was referring to the United States. Soft power is The Voice of America and Fulbright scholarships, Hollywood, MTV and McDonald’s. The Beijing and Sochi Olympics are all formidable examples of a country exercising soft power.
Soft power is something that emerges both because of and despite government activity. In the information age, most countries are judged by a global audience that is fuelled by internet news, email gossip, televised images, and cellphone videos. This means that all sorts of mobile devices are sharing the stories of countries, regardless of whether or not the official channels of those countries want those stories told, This also means that countries with access to multiple means of communication and access to information have the advantage. India has more news channels then any country in the world.
On top of this, to possess soft power, you must also be well-connected. India is currently selling over 15 million cellphones a month. There are supposedly over 500 million cellphones in circulation within India. The scale of telecommunication in India exceeds both China and the United States.
These are symbolic figures that show just how far the country has come. A few decades ago, telephones only existed for those lucky enough to be wealthy businessmen, doctors and journalists. Elected members of Parliament had to ration telephones for those deemed worthy. The wait list to get one was eight years.
Rajiv, a Delhi resident who sat beside me on the plane, told me of the high school he attended in Kolkata. He described the telephone as an ‘instrument’ that would sit in the school’s foyer. Half the time, the phone had no dial tone. If you were lucky enough to get a dial tone, two out of three times your call would not go through to the intended recipient, “The words ‘wrong number’ were more popular than the word ‘hello,’” he chuckled. If you wished to connect to another city, you were required to book something called a trunk call, then sit by the phone all day, waiting for the call to come through. Or you could pay eight fold for a lightning call, but “lightning moved rather slow in those days,” so it would take up to an hour for the call to come through.
So pitiful was the telephone service that in 1984, that the then-Communications Minister replied disdainfully ‘in a developing country, communication was a luxury, not a right, and that the government had no obligation to provide better service’.
Fast forward to today: over 15 million cellphones a month. Even more striking is who is carrying these devices. Walking through the streets of Delhi, you will find a fellow with an ox cart, wielding a very backward coal-fired iron- all while carrying a 21st century device. He carries it because most incoming calls are free, and that’s how he receives orders and earns a living.
Fishermen going out to sea carry cellphones. When they catch their keep, they call markets along the coast to find out where the best prices are. Farmers who previously used to send a young family member on a long journey to the town market and back to find out if the market was on and if their goods could be sold now get that same information from a 30-second phone call.
The empowerment of the Indian underclass is the true result of the country becoming more connected. That transformation is a sign of where India is headed. There is also Bollywood. My feelings towards Bollywood are best described by a tale I overheard on the plane to Delhi: two goats at a Bollywood garbage dump are chewing away at celluloid discarded by a Bollywood studio. The first goat, chewing away, turns to the other and says, “This film is not bad.” The second goat replies, “No, the book was better.”
I tend to agree that the book is usually better, but even I can’t deny the way that Bollywood is transporting Desi-ness and Indian culture across the globe. Not just to target the Indian diaspora either, but to the screens of Africans, Arabs, even Europeans. I heard a story of a young man whose illiterate mother in a village in Senegal takes the bus once a month to the capital city of Dakar just to watch a Bollywood movie. Note that she cannot understand the dialogue, nor can she read the French subtitles. But Bollywood movies are made to be relatable to the viewer despite these shortcomings. She has a wonderful time, connecting with the music, dance and action, and leaves with her eyes filled with awe about India.
This is far more common that one can imagine. Afghanistan – a country riddled by security issues that many other countries have attempted to take responsibility for fixing. India is not one of those countries (there are no Indian military missions), yet Indian influence in Afghanistan is probably far more entrenched and important then any of the other nations’ whose troops have put their boots on its soil. Why? Because of an Indian soap opera, “Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi,” dubbed into Dari. It is the most popular television show in Afghan history. Don’t bother calling an Afghan family at 8:30pm because that’s when the show airs. Evening functions are scheduled around it. There are even rumours of weddings being interrupted so that families could watch the show, then turn their attention back to the bride and groom. Crime is also said to increase at 8:30pm. I heard the story of how thieves in the town of Musari Sharif stripped a vehicle to its windscreen wipers at 8:30pm. The watchmen responsible for the vehicle were too busy watching the soapy. Scrawled on the car’s windshield was a reference to the show’s heroine, “Tulsi Zindabad,” (long live Tulsi).
And that is soft power, delivered through the entertainment industry. The same is true for dance, art, ayurveda, music, even food. In the 1970s, when my mother was going to university in New Zealand, finding so much as a spice was close to impossible. Today, you can’t walk through almost any restaurant district without finding a taste of the subcontinent. Apparently in Britain, Indian restaurants employ more people than steel, coal, iron, and shipping industries combined. Talk about the empire striking back.
This ever increasing awareness of India, and stories like the ones of Afghanistan, demonstrates something incredibly vital in the information age. Today’s world is one that is not ruled by the side with the strongest army, but rather by the country that tells a better story. I truly believe that India is the land with better stories. So much so that even their stereotypes are evolving.
Today, outsiders speak of the Indian Institute of Technology, the IIT, with the same tone and cadence they would use for MIT. (This has unintended consequences of course, My subcontinental appearance has been the reason behind several people asking me if I can fix their laptops).
India has gone from the land of snake charmers and fakirs laying on beds of nails to a land of mathematical, computer and software geniuses. Beyond this stereotype is a story of something more substantive – a story of political pluralism. India has always been an open society.
It provided refuge to the Jews fleeing the destruction of the first temple by the Babylonians. Legend has it that when the Apostle Saint Thomas, came to the shores of Kerala, around 52 AD, and was greeted by a flute playing Jewish girl. Today, this remains perhaps the only story of Jewish diaspora that did not encounter anti-semitism. Islam came peacefully to the South (although a slightly more complex story in the North) (although the story of its arrival was slightly more complicated in the north). All of these religions have found a home in India.
India is the world’s largest pseudo-democracy. It’s voting population grows by 20 million a year. 2008 saw a woman of Italian and Roman Catholic origin, Sonia Gandhi, win congress leadership; who then paved the way for a Sikh, Mohan Singh, who was sworn in as Prime Minister by Muslim President Abdul Kalam – in a country that is over 80% Hindu. That same year was the first year that the United States, a 220+ year old democracy, elect for the first time a leader who was not white (he was of course still male and Christian).
India is the world’s largest pseudo-democracy. It’s voting population grows by 20 million a year. 2008 saw a woman of Italian and Roman Catholic origin, Sonia Ghandi, win congress leadership. This paved the way for a Sikh, Mohan Singh, who was sworn in as Prime Minister by Muslim President Abdul Kalam – in a country that is over 80% Hindu. That same year was the first year that the United States, a 220+ year old democracy, elect for the first time a leader who was not white (he was of course still male and Christian).
So I like to view India as no longer a country of ethnic or religious nationalism. It is probably home to every ethnicity and religion known to mankind (perhaps with the exception of Shintoism, though I’m sure you could find elements of Hinduism within it somewhere). There are 23 official languages recognised in the constitution. The rupee is covered in different scripts spelling out its worth. This is a country that doesn’t even have geography on its side – as the natural geography of the subcontinent framed by naturally flowing mountains, rivers and seas was hacked by Partition in 1947. Not even the name India can be taken for granted, as it is derived from the River Indus, which now flows through Pakistan. India shows that nationalism is just an idea. It’s the concept of an ever-ever-land, emerging from ancient civilisations in embrace, brought together by a shared history, and sustained by a modern democracy. This is a 21st century story as well as an ancient one. It’s the kind of nationalism that says that you can endure differences of culture, custom, colour, creed, caste, cuisine, costume, and consonant and still arrive at consensus. Consensus of a very simple principle, that in a place as diverse as India, you don’t have to agree all the time, as long as you agree on the foundations of why you disagree, The success story of India, one that was deemed impossible by scholars and journalists of the 50s and 60s, has managed to maintain consensus on how to survive without consensus. The best metaphor for Indian democracy I’ve come across describes it as a messy and chaotic kitchen, where tools and ingredients somehow come together to create a kind of beautiful meal.
If there is anything worth celebrating about India, it isn’t economic and it certainly isn’t military strength. While all of this is important, the country still has issues to overcome. India is somehow both super poor and a super power, and you can’t really be both. India needs to overcome its poverty, and deal with the intricacies of development like roads and ports. For all the software wizardry that is performed in the country, it is yet to make sure that every person has access to a couple of square meals a day, education and employment.
And this is all happening, the great adventure of meeting these challenges, the kind of challenges that no-one can pretend do not exist. It’s taking place in a rich, plural and diverse culture, one that I believe is determined to release the creative energies of its people. And this is why soft power is important, why India needs it, and why the world will become a better place because of it.