Soft-Power or Hard-Power? Let’s put our heart where the money is – Pratim Ranjan Bose

Pratim - CopyMany years ago, I wrote a ‘story’, as we journalists describe newspaper reports, about an Indian company planning to sell solar powered inverter kits, good enough to run a TV, to Afghanistan.

This was soon after the US invaded the frontier country and established a Taliban-free Hamid Karzai government. The war ravaged country was devoid of civic infrastructure like electricity.

The company wanted to capitalise on two things: Afghans unending love for Hindi cinema and, India’s political presence – through the multi billion dollar civil reconstruction programme – in Afghanistan, creating an environment for Indian business to tap this market.

The question is, what comes first to ensure success of trade and commerce – soft power or hard power? Should we try to solve the egg and chicken dilemma or try to make the best of both worlds?

What is power?

Leaving moralities aside, power in today’s open and consumerist world is largely equated to economic power. Barring a few exceptions (like North Korea), bargaining strength of nations is increasingly linked to the economic opportunities they offer.

The increasing interdependence of economies – be in terms of market, trade and commerce or source of raw material and energy – does not leave much scope for either war mongering or moralistic politics, as in the past.

Even the single-party rule in China is not driven by the aspiration to create a communist brotherhood. True it has a strong military but, that is a part of the strategy to be a super-power, not the corner stone of a strategy to be rich!

Soft or softer power?

Clearly the role of brute military power – or Hard Power – is being redefined in the new power game. But that may not mean a clear advantage of the traditional soft power either.

Gandhi’s non-violent movement, a stable democracy, hugely popular Hindi films or Ayurveda, India has reasonable cultural influence in Asia as well as in the West.

But, is it enough to ensure the nation’s stronger grip on global economy? Can such cultural proximity be translated into economic gains for the country?

The rising super-power, China, and its evolving relationship with countries as alien to its culture as Bangladesh or Sri Lanka may tell us a different story. The US preaches democracy but its economy is more closely knit with China.

In fact the same American and European journalists, who had been outright critical of China – barely 15-20 years ago – are now running short of words to appreciate its prosperity and good governance. In comparison the six decade old multi-party democracy in India is often described by The Economist as “poor and chaotic”.

The mention of ‘Democracy’ may earn India an extra pat on the back but not more than that.

It does not mean that the cultural proximity between communities has outlived its purpose. An Indonesian is perhaps more comfortable with an Indian. He watches each and every Hindi film dubbed in Indonesian language – Bahasa – which is heavily influenced by our own Sanskrit.

But, that may not give India any added advantage in trade and commerce unless it can match the money-power of Japanese, Korean or a Chinese.

Cultural traditons, in this new consumerist world, may be as negotiable as a China-made Banarasi Sari.

The bottom line is: just like the traditional hard power, the definition of soft power should also undergo a change.

Aid politics

The balance clearly lies in the middle path. A recent article titled “The rise of India’s soft Power” in elaborates how India – as well as the rest of BRICS nations – is now geared up to pursue the aid politics. This is irrespective of the fact that India is the largest recipient of foreign assistance.

According to the writers, in 2011 India has disbursed $1.5 billion (approximately Rs 8000 crore) worth of foreign aid, second to China among donors from the developing world.

In the same year, the country pledged $ 5 billion worth of soft loan to Africa. The country’s total foreign assistance tripled in the last decade.

The result is perhaps visible in Indian steel companies wining large, if not the largest, Hajigak iron ore reserve in Afghanistan or Mozambique entering concession agreements with Coal India.

Aid or fiscal assistance is not everything. The economic power house of the world is shifting to the East for last two or three decades. And, it is high time that India should build on its strategic advantage to improve trade ties with immediate and distant neighbours in Asia.

Entering Goods FTA with the all important ASEAN, opening up the large domestic market to Bangladeshi textile exporters and partial removal of trade barriers with Pakistan are correct steps to be more powerful.

I do not know if it is hard or soft power. But, I surely know that money talks. So much so that the jingoistic politics in either Bangladesh or India, is increasingly giving way to the politics of cooperation.

Some concern

But, there are some concerns as well for India, in this race to be powerful.

Both India and china started opening up their economies almost at the same time.

But, a closer comparison will prove that China has paid greater attention to bring its house in order before embracing a liberal economic regime beginning end 1980’s. And, I am not merely talking about coal or industrial production but also the human development indicators – the broad spectrum growth indicators.

True, they didn’t have a democracy. And, they could hide many deaths, as Prof Amartya Sen pointed out. But, there is little doubt that they eliminated poverty to a much greater scale than India before promoting consumerism.

It is of great disrepute to know that your country contributes 42 per cent of the stunted, underweight children population in the entire developing world. It is of extreme pain to know that we have more poors than in the Sub-Saharan Africa. And, it is a shame that half of India defecates in the open.

How can you explain to have left nearly 300 million people below poverty line for 40 years now and still aspire to be powerful in the world? The questions, I am afraid, have started to come up in popular realms and will sooner or later be a drag on foreign policy.

(Excerpts from a speech on ‘India’s Soft Power in Asia’ in March 2013 at a symposium at Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies (MAKAIAS), Kolkata.) 

Pratim Ranjan Bose is a senior journalist with one of the leading pink papers. This article is being reproduced from his linkedin page :

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