From Saris To Surya Namaskar: India’s 5 Major Soft Powers

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has very often brought up the idea of cricket as a soft power for India. When former cricketer Imran Khan was elected Pakistan’s PM, Modi, congratulating Khan, spoke of cricket diplomacy to forge peace between the two nations. And when it comes to maintaining ties with our other neighbours (Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan), we have repeatedly used our cultural similarities to initiate peace talks.

Do you know why?

Because for decades, ‘soft power’ has been an important foreign policy in India – with Bollywood and cricket taking the forefront in maintaining diplomatic relations. And what is soft power really?

When you think of a country’s might, you probably envision images of its military or economic prowess. That’s hard power. But soft power isn’t meted out with a gun, or with monetary success: it’s a subtle measure of global influence and your nation’s identity. For example, China is seen as a leader in green manufacturing, while Italy’s soft power is the Pope and the Catholic culture. The UK has less military might as compared to the US, Russia, China or even India, but its image as a former coloniser acts as a soft power in influencing other nations in its support.

So even though you would rarely hear these words in a diplomatic context, its colossal implications aren’t alien to world leaders. And what are the soft powers that India uses to further its diplomatic goals?

Pranayam for peace

One of the greatest Yoga masters of the 20th century, it was Swami Vivekananda who introduced the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the western world in 1893. And since then it’s popularity has only been increasing. Today there are over 36 million Yoga practitioners in the US alone (up from 20.4 million in 2012).

Yoga is multi-billion dollar industry – $16 billion. In the UK, Yoga was one of Google’s top searched words in 2016. And every time someone looks up Yoga, they are reminded of where it came from. And Indians were quick to make this a political tool. After coming to power, the Modi government was quick to harness yoga as the country’s soft power. It rallied to get 21st June recognised as World Yoga Day marking celebrations in hundreds of cities around the world. Tens of thousands of people assemble to practice yoga together breaking Guinness World Records. In Rajpath, New Delhi, close to 36,000 people attended a single yoga class in 2015, then in 2018, 1 lakh people gathered for a session in Kota, Rajasthan.

And this is not just in India – from Times Square in New York to the National Museum in Dhaka, world records are broken regularly. In 2017, over 180 countries held yoga sessions on 21st June. It took years, but India has finally made yoga as an official soft power. Since 2006, yoga gurus like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar have been trying to lobby the UN to declare a world yoga day. And after a vigorous push in 2014, the United Nations General Assembly put the date in the calendar.

World Yoga Day is being promoted as “yoga for peace” putting out the image that we are a peace loving nation. As a result, surveys by Adam Robert have found that India was better placed than China to build ‘supportive international networks’. 

Analysts have termed it “Yoga diplomacy”. And what’s the purpose of this diplomacy? It puts India on the map. Around the world, Yoga is bringing in so much profit that no country can dare argue about it.  Researches have suggested that countries with higher cultural influence attract more trust and can persuade other nations of their political goals more easily. And Yoga has helped India do just that. Today India is among the top 20 most influential nations in the world. 

Ayurveda – when modern medicine fails

Besides yoga, Ayurveda (which can be translated as “science of life”), an ancient practice, is another Indian soft power tool. At present, there are about 2000 Ayurvedic Retreat centres around the world, and out of which about 100 centres are based in the United States. They employ and heal thousands of people and their popularity has made Ayurveda an inseparable part of their local communities. And this is not just in West.

During war time, India sent Ayurvedic medicines to Iran, Iraq and other Gulf countries because for them importing Western medicine was a costly affair due to high export tariffs by the US. The same thing happened with Russia during the cold war. By doing so India used traditional healthcare to win trust in these countries and acquire their political support. Even today, Turkey, Iran and Russia are one of the premier importers of Vedic medicines. India is the second largest exporter of herbal medicine after China – such is our reach.

Another way in which Ayurveda has worked as a soft power is with countries that share similar medicinal practices. Like China, Tibet, Vietnam and Cambodia that also follow Vedic medicine as part of Buddhist living. Ayurveda is one of the few things over which India and China have bonded or at least never logged heads. In fact, India has earlier used both countries being the custodians of the oldest medicines as a commonality symbol.

The Shah Rukh Khan effect

Believe it or not, Bollywood has an unimaginable impact on the world. From Mr Bachchan’s wax statue at Madame Tussaud’s to the Shah Rukh craze in the Middle East, our film industry has been a soft power for decades. In 1957, Mother India became such an international hit that Raj Kapoor was mobbed on the streets of Moscow and Beijing. Even today, Slumdog Millionaire acts as a window for the world to see the real India. All across the Middle East, the minute you say you’re Indian there’ll be welcoming reply – Shah Rukh Khan. The name has become so popular there that Iraqi journalists have said in interviews, “Shah Rukh’s movies were the only thing we’d watch on our TV sets when cities were under curfew due to Daesh terror.”

With movies like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and DDLJ topping global movie charts, Bollywood has gradually become a formidable power in the international scene. And over the years, India has used this to further many a diplomatic relations. In 2003, when Afghanistan was just recovering for Taliban rule, the then foreign minister Jaswant Singh visited Kabul with tapes of Bollywood movies to distribute among the public. This is because for years the Taliban had banned any form of media in the country and so India sent its movies as a mark of support for their newly gained respite. Then in 2010, US officials requested their Indian counterparts to send Bollywood celebrities to war-torn Afghanistan in order to pacify the US-Afghan tensions. The same is the case with Pakistan where the film and television industry was under serious censorship until 2012, forcing its citizens to fall in love inextricably with Bollywood. Even today, India uses celebrities to calm tensions between the two nations.

But war ain’t the only time when Bollywood has come to use. With over 1500 films a year, Bollywood has flourished into the largest film industry in the world. This castes an image of India’s ability to protect and promote media and expression. It strikes a strong point among Western countries where the general notion is that freedom of expression is a quality of a powerful nation. And there have been incidences to prove this. In 2017, China shut down hundreds of social media accounts that praised the movie Dangal, prompting German chancellor Angela Merkel to compare China’s regressive policies (regarding expression) to India’s progressive ones.

Namaste World! Let’s eat a chilli

Spicy Indian food, women dressed in saris and the namaste greetings are all small parts of the Indian culture that make it a global soft power. For decades, India has spread its culture to South Asian countries – a mark that can still be seen and shared in Nepal, Bhutan, Malaysia, Vietnam, etc.

Unlike cricket, Bollywood or yoga, Indian culture is not used for peacekeeping goals. It serves a rather promotional purpose.  It gives India an identity and a recall value. For example,Indian cuisine is among the top ten most preferred cuisines by travellers around the globe, according to surveys. In UK, the Indian restaurant industry is worth £1700 million which is two thirds of the total industry in Britain. In Canada, there are over 60,000 Indian restaurants employing lakhs of people. By generating so much revenue and employment in other nations, we indirectly enforce our influence there.

When it comes to other cultural symbols, the namaste is globally synonymous with peace and humility and the sari reminds one of India’s ancient culture. These tidbits are what act as reinforcements of the Indian image in the world. It’s their popularity that also makes people want to explore the country and boosts our tourism. Today India’s tourism sector is a $450 billion industry – with a large amount of tourists flocking in to meet Bollywood celebs or for yoga in Rishikesh. 

The world’s fascination with Indian culture and food is a massive soft power to persuade leaders in India’s political favour.

Cricket Fever in Politics

Cricket belongs to India. The sport that started in Lords, UK, and was once known as an English game, is now considered Indian. With over 20 cricket world records and the richest council in the world (BCCI), we use cricket for diplomatic relations with multiple countries. India’s emphasis on cricket diplomacy is more popular than any of the previously mentioned soft powers. Watch our video to why.


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