Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s article “‘Soft power’ and storytelling in India, China” in the 29 January 2010 edition of “News India Times”.
“‘Soft power’ and storytelling in India, China” by Kavita Ramdya in “News India Times” (29 January 2010)
Shashi Tharoor, a Keralite writer and former member of the UN, has recently come under the gun by colleagues in Indian parliament for his frequent use of Twitter as a vehicle to candidly and regularly express his views on political matters. India, although the largest democracy in the world, does not mean its politicians are the most communicative. Instead, Mr. Tharoor’s attitude towards using social networking sites and openly conveying his thoughts on matters such as whether India should tighten its visa requirements in the name of preventing terrorism has incited a wave of disapproval among his colleagues who admonish his very public disagreement with senior members of Parliament.
Respecting one’s elders and superiors remains a relevant value in Indian society. What makes Mr. Tharoor’s dilemma more interesting is his use of Twitter, a one-way form of communication via the Internet, to broadcast his thoughts to his half-a-million followers. Clearly, Twitter serves as a significant vehicle for communicating his political ideas, but what of his and fellow intellectuals’ cultural concepts?
In the 2009 TED (Technology Entertainment Design) India Conference which took place in Mysore, Mr. Tharoor proposed that nations pursue a policy of “soft power” versus traditional methods of asserting control such as politics and trade. “Soft” power, originally coined by Harvard scholar Joseph Nye, is defined by the ability to spread culture – in India’s case, more specifically, it means exporting Bollywood movies, offering curries and dhosas in English towns, and performing the tabla in Europe’s greatest concert halls. Ultimately, Tharoor suggests that what will make a country more powerful is its ability to embed itself in people’s minds the world over via cultural exports.
Elucidating concepts from his book “The Elephant, The Tiger, And the Cell Phone: Reflections on India – the Emerging 21st-Century Power”, Mr. Tharoor goes on to argue that “the entire notion of world leadership seems to me archaic”. In a historical moment where the concept of BRIC ascendancy (Brazil Russia India China) is so widely accepted that it informs investment banks’ directions for growth and expansion in the global markets, Mr. Tharoor takes a risky stance by downplaying the role India is expected to have in the global markets. He argues that the country’s military strength (India has the 4th-largest army in the world), its population (India’s will exceed China’s by 2034), and economic growth (while other world economies have recently shrunk due to the global economic crisis, India’s grew 6.7% in 2008) will be overshadowed by India’s contribution to the world by India’s culture, its soft power.
Some obvious examples of soft power, or a country’s ability to attract others via culture, political values and foreign policies, include China’s Beijing Olympics and America’s Fulbright Scholarships. However, Tharoor suggests that MTV and McDonalds have done more for promoting American culture and values than anything the U.S. government may orchestrate: soft power spreads because of and in spite of governments’ actions.
Although official news outlets such as print media, radio and television have traditionally been the source for news about the world, social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter informs people globally about countries, including stories governments might not want to spread. This notion of “soft power” which has gained credibility the world over is critical in understanding the current face-off between Google and China. Whereas originally Google agreed to censor its China-based search engine, cyber attacks on Google mail accounts held by human rights activists have incited Google to cease censoring its sites while engaging in talks with the Chinese government with regards to the incidences of hacking.
Censorship is anti-democratic and, in the current world we live in, impractical in terms of limiting the spread of information and managing a country’s global public image. Information will always find a way out. That said, the current example of China and Google is useful in terms of discussing public image and publicity since, rightly so, “soft power” is emerging as a widely-accepted tool in wielding power globally.
In the case of China, if the country that “tells the better story prevails”, then it should come as no surprise why the Chinese government takes pains to control and consolidate outgoing narratives about its political workings, people and products. Of course, China’s struggle for control of its image is a losing battle; the prevailing western notions of open society and democratic values have been exported, sold and embraced globally and, via technologies offered in the current information era, will win over government propaganda.
Mr. Tharoor concludes his TED presentation about soft power by asserting that what makes India different, helpful in understanding the current conflict between Google and China, is the agreement “on ground rules of how you will disagree”, a sunny image for India where territorial conflict in Kashmir is still handled by the military and terrorism is still a concern one year after the November 26th Mumbai attacks by terrorists. And, despite the proliferation of Indian restaurants and yoga studios globally, screenings of Bollywood films in European capitals, and Ravi Shankar’s ability to sell-out shows when he performs at Carnegie Hall, media about India is still often focused on dire stories about honor killings and economic migrants.
However, Mr. Tharoor’s point that countries agree on how to disagree is a useful one: something for economists and capitalists to contemplate when pondering the potential BRIC countries have to offer in the global markets is the BRIC countries’ own commitment to establishing and maintaining an “open society”. Now we see the reality of western companies’ inability to compromise values in exchange for financial returns. In a world where soft power has emerged as a widely-accepted instrument for power, politicians and corporate titans alike need to contemplate what the BRIC countries’ stories tell us about them.
Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America”. www.bollywood-weddings.com