Prime Minister Modi arrives in Canada in 2015: The Modi Government and India’s projection of its soft powerApril 2015: Prime Minister Narendra Modi steps off a plane upon arrival at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C. [The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck via Alamy]

India’s latest globetrotting Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, visited just under 20 countries in his first year in office, for which he drew severe criticism at home.

His critics claimed the prime minister was vacationing abroad while domestic problems continued to explode exponentially every day. India, which remained non-aligned for much of its independent history and struggled with its position regionally, has been reluctant to accept the ambitious goals of its newest statesman leader.

A foreign trip provides ample opportunity to scrutinize a leader’s foreign policy goals and directions. Speeches abroad are not aimed for the consumption of the domestic audience, but are primarily targeted at an international audience.

Naturally, there is a lot of posturing, pretending and photo-ops involved; Narendra’s Modi’s selfie photograph with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was hailed as the most powerful selfie on the planet. Modi has acquired ‘rockstar’ status among politicians; Modi’s Twitter following is second only to the US President Barrack Obama.

Scholars and foreign policy pundits are passionately debating whether Modi has instituted a new doctrine that will guide India’s foreign policy during its rise. The term doctrine has been used to describe the perspective or ideology of leaders rather than a strict path adopted by a state that guides all its foreign policy behaviour. Whether or not we use the label doctrine, it is worth considering the focus and scope of Modi’s approach to foreign policy. Modi has used a surprising element in his foreign policy approach: leveraging India’s abundance of soft power regionally as well as globally.

Modi’s current foreign policy strategy can be termed ‘universal engagement’. Being the astute politician and champion of commerce that he is, Modi realizes that India can advance only by selectively engaging foreign powers that hold the key to its future. Rising to power on a mandate of economic growth and development, he understands that India cannot grow without acquiring requisite raw materials and energy resources that remain in limited supply but high demand by other fast growing economies, such as neighbouring China as well as other BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) economies. His foreign trips are as much about securing access to crucial sources of energy and raw materials as about cementing India’s long-ignored diplomatic and political ties within the region and beyond. If India hopes to be treated as a major power, then its outlook cannot be inward looking; it must embrace the responsibilities of its role as a major power state.

Belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party and holding the image of a Hindu nationalist hardliner, Modi was expected to be realpolitik in his approach to international relations. Instead, he is using smart power, which is a blend of hard and soft powers, to pursue India’s foreign policy goals. Much to the surprise of his supporters and the chagrin of his critics, Modi has taken a mixed approach to handling India’s international business. The word business is purposeful and key in the preceding sentence, for above all Modi is an astute businessman turned politician. He hopes to revive India’s economy and return it to a double-digit growth rate, thus alleviating poverty, unemployment and other social evils that plague the country.

The iconography generated by terms in the title is fitting (Chaulia, 2011). The elephant, though unbound, is hardly as scary and threatening as the Hulk can be (especially when infuriated). However, in spite of his vices, the Hulk remains a lovable character worldwide.

As India starts to amass unprecedented military strength and power, it is this image of the lovable icon that its leaders must continue to preserve. Failing to do so would invite counterbalancing strategies by threatened neighbours and major powers alike. Modi’s several international visits help to reassure friendly states and economic partners of India’s intentions to rise peacefully. India does intend to challenge the status quo, but it plans to do so incrementally, without causing a major disturbance to the current international order.

This article proceeds as follows: first I discuss the concept of soft power, followed by a discussion of the sources of India’s soft power, which are many and diverse; next I discuss how Modi is employing soft power to nurture friendships and reduce animosities regionally as well as beyond the Asia-Pacific; third I analyse the motivations for India’s sudden interest in its sources of soft power, many of which are ancient and have been ignored by leaders in the past. Last but not the least, I end with a critique of Modi’s foreign policy and outline changes that would improve India’s foreign policy establishment and enable it to tackle the many challenges that lie ahead.

Soft power as coined by Joseph Nye is the ability to attract rather than coerce. Soft power consists of intangible sources of power such as democratic values of freedom, equality, the rule of law, morality, as well as cultural and linguistic influence, etc. Soft power can take many shapes and forms; it is not intimidating, unlike hard power (such as military or economic power). Nye (1990, 166) suggests ‘when one country gets other countries to do want what it wants—might be called co-opting or soft power in contrast with the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants’.

There are several reasons to question Modi’s motivations for investing time and resources into ratcheting up India’s soft power. First, realist critics argue that while it is good to have soft power in a state’s arsenal, it is insufficient on its own to bring about change in an adversary’s actions. Second, soft power is cultivated slowly and will only (if ever) pay dividends in the long run. Thus, Modi can hope to receive little return from it in his tenure as prime minister. Third, soft power is very difficult to use as an instrument of foreign policy and works best when left alone and not manipulated by the government (Hill and Beadle, 2012). For instance, the BBC World Series functions as an icon of the UK’s cultural wealth. Fourth, India has not just woken up to its soft power potential. Even if it was not sure of the scope of its soft power resources, India was always aware that it had potential reserves of soft power in various forms, some more popular than others. Indians have attempted to capitalize on it for a long time, especially economically. However, this may be the first time that the government and the prime minister are actively involved in cultivating and spreading India’s influence abroad. So the puzzle is why the sudden focus on building and exporting soft power now, especially in light of the above arguments?

India has several avenues of soft power, ranging from its recognition as the world’s largest democracy to the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, the proponent of ahimsa, India’s non-violent struggle for freedom from the British Empire. India’s ancient treasures such as Ayurveda and the widely practised yoga are other examples of soft power. Contemporary examples include the mass appeal of Bollywood movies and musicals as well as Indian soap operas that are viewed from Shanghai to Seattle. In addition to this, there is a huge Indian expatriate community in several countries around the world that has helped disseminate and popularize Indian culture, tradition and cuisine. Modi is exploiting this existing network to pursue a better status for India globally.

If India cannot beat China as far as hard power is concerned, it can certainly give China a run for its money as far as soft power is concerned. China has done very well in terms of spreading its culture beyond its borders by establishing several ‘Confucius’ institutes as well as investing in exchange programmes for higher learning. With the advent of economic liberalism in India, the growing and relatively powerful middle class has been able increasingly to capitalize on opportunities for higher learning outside the country. A remarkable number of Indian students now get their higher education degrees from universities in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and other countries. Indians form the second largest number of foreign students in universities across North America. A large percentage of these students settle down in these host countries, forming a network of expatriates with strong familial links to the motherland, India. Indian Americans continue to be the highest income community in the United States. These are hardly small achievements for a developing state. The Indian American community persistently lobbied George W. Bush’s administration to form better relations with India post India’s nuclear tests in 1999. These efforts contributed to the 2005 nuclear deal between the United States and India, which also paved the way for India to have better relations with other states that had ostracized it after its nuclear tests.

Indian food has made inroads globally. It has been transformed and absorbed into several cuisines around the world. Chicken Tikka Masala is now the national dish of Great Britain, a country that once colonized India. Gyms globally continue to use Bollywood foot-tapping music in their fitness repertoire. Bollywood actors and music have found their way into Hollywood movies. Yoga is very widely practised across the globe. India continues to remain a popular spiritual destination, as highlighted in the bestseller Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

India’s soft power extends beyond yoga and Bollywood; it has been providing modest amount of assistance to smaller neighbours such as Nepal and Bhutan ever since independence. India has consistently provided technical assistance, training (of bureaucrats) as well as foreign aid to states in Asia as well as Africa; it is second only to China in terms of developing country donors (Mullen and Ganguly, 2012). In discussing the relationship between foreign aid and soft power, Mukherjee (2014) provides a long list of sources of India’s soft power, including: cultural and institutional soft power resources which, according to various analysts, include India’s sports, music, art, film, literature, beauty pageantry, anti-colonial history, democratic institutions, free press, independent judiciary, vibrant civil society, multi-ethnic polity, secularism, pluralism, skilled English-speaking workers, food, handicrafts, yoga, status as a responsible nuclear power, the rapid growth of the information technology sector in places such as Bangalore, and the existence of a large Indian diaspora in certain western countries.

In 2014, in his very first address to the United Nations General Assembly as India’s prime minister, Modi lobbied the international community to dedicate a day for the practice and celebration of yoga. An unprecedented number of countries supported India’s petition to have the United Nations declare an international day of yoga on 21 June (first celebrated globally in 2015) (Ramachandran, 2015).

In May 2015, Prime Minister Modi completed an East Asia trip that included a visit to China, Mongolia and South Korea. Modi’s Mongolia visit was of historic significance; he is the first Indian prime minister to visit Mongolia. In an attempt to engage China’s periphery, Modi announced a one billion dollar assistance package to Mongolia, along with reiterating the spiritual and democratic connection between the two states. Modi commented that Mongolia is an integral part of India’s Look East policy. The two countries also signed 13 agreements on addressing issues such as air services, cyber security and the transfer of sentenced prisoners (Times of India, 18 May 2015). However, Modi continued to stress the spiritual and cultural links between India and Mongolia throughout his trip.

In South Korea, Modi continued to emphasize the ‘democratic allies’ message that he has often employed in dialogue with the United States. It is interesting to note that Modi did not use this language on his visit to China. The common theme on each state visit was developing India’s bilateral ties with its neighbours, with a special emphasis on mutually beneficial economic ties and a plug in for the ‘Make in India’ campaign. In addition to shared democratic values, South Korea already has a successful investment track record in India in the form of multinational conglomerates such as LG, Hyundai, Samsung, etc.

Modi unleashed his inner rockstar once again on his recent state visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in August 2015. While addressing a packed cricket stadium, he frequently stressed the cultural links between India and the UAE. He used the occasion to thank effusively the Crown Prince for dedicating land towards building a Hindu temple in UAE, a monumental achievement in an Arab state. It is worth noting that Modi addresses the expatriate community almost always in Hindi and his speeches are well received by a very diverse community. He has managed to woo the international community while holding his own; part of his popularity is his ability to engage while remaining vernacular without pandering to English. Modi continued the selfie tradition with the leaders of the UAE. His warm embrace of the Crown Prince was a trending topic on social media, suggesting a close friendship had been struck between them.

Modi’s election and subsequent focus on foreign policy has reignited the debate on India’s soft power. I argue that the Modi administration is strategically constructing a positive image of India to help assuage the simultaneous rise in hard power resources by India. The sudden buzz surrounding India’s soft power is a result of the Modi administration’s superior marketing skills. Modi’s ‘yoga diplomacy’ is India’s pathway to great power status (Desai, 2015). Desai wrote, the ‘International Yoga Day served India relatively well by enhancing its attractiveness as a country that has contributed a special philosophy of the harmony of body and mind, much admired and increasingly accepted throughout the world’. Scholars concur that soft power must be cultivated strategically and consistently, rather than as a one-off incident, for it to contribute to the country’s arsenal.

India is the world’s largest weapons importer, and will continue to dominate this area for some years to come, given the recently placed large military orders and contracts with states such as France, Israel, Russia and the United States. Modi intends to reduce this reliance by jumpstarting the domestic defence industry, including the decision to build naval warships and submarines in India (Bajpaee, 2015). The Indian navy has recently received an influx of funds and much-needed attention. To reclaim fully the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and re-establish its prominence in South Asia (both factors are a prerequisite to challenging China’s dominance in Asia), India must carefully build its power resources without threatening apprehensive neighbouring states. This is where soft power comes in handy; Modi is carefully balancing India’s military build-up with initiatives to reach out to states in the region and assure them of India’s intentions to rise peacefully and continue to remain a benevolent regional hegemon. Modi wants to ensure that India’s posture remains non-threatening. Pethiyagoda (2014) states ‘much of the globe sees India as a relatively non-violent, tolerant and pluralistic democracy with a benign international influence. Its values are seen as largely positive’. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot cited India’s non-threatening posture to the international community as a key factor in Australia’s decision to sell uranium for India’s nuclear power reactors. It is this positive reputation that Modi must sustain as India increases its defence spending.

As a nuclear power state, India has enhanced its status from a ‘military underdog’ to a ‘credible deterrent’ (Chaulia, 2011). Economic liberalization and consequential rapid economic growth have enabled India to transform its military prowess. Historically, India has failed to maintain harmonious relations with many of its neighbours, including Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, Nepal, Maladies and Sri Lanka. If India is to rise militarily, it must reassure states in the neighbourhood that it does not intend to influence either their domestic politics or their bilateral relations vis-à-vis each other. Neighbours such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have accused India of interfering in their domestic affairs. They have attempted to balance India’s power in South Asia by pursuing close relationships with major powers outside the subcontinent, such as China and the United States. While Indian foreign policy clearly articulates that it will not tolerate outside influence in the region, it has been unable to prevent China’s ability to secure naval bases such as Gwadar (from Pakistan) as well as Sri Lanka. It must now attempt to rebalance China’s lead in the IOR without appearing too aggressive. Carefully deploying soft power resources to pursue better relations with neighbours such as Sri Lanka will be key to doing so. India needs to go where China cannot follow—India needs to play its democracy card to pursue better relations with states in South Asia; it is the one area where India has the advantage compared with China.

South Asia is a dysfunctional region. Intra-region trade is a low percentage of individual states’ total trade. Most South Asian economies are manufacturing and export oriented, and thus dependent on states outside the region; they also directly compete with each other in several factors. States in the region have not capitalized on opportunities for collaboration. The region is also without any strong political and economic organizations; the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has been crippled by hostilities and mutual suspicion between member states; the organization has been unable to take resolute actions on any of its mandates. Modi’s attempts to visit all states in the region individually will serve to undermine misunderstandings and create a fresh start to these bilateral relationships.

India’s Land Exchange Agreement as well as the Teesta River Agreement will go a long way to assuage historical animosity with political factions within Bangladesh. Modi capitalized on a window of opportunity by visiting Colombo after the surprise victory of Maithripala Sirisena, who is sympathetic to India’s overtures of friendship and is less likely to continue in his predecessor’s footsteps of courting China to balance India (Joshi, 2015a; Joshi,2015b). Sri Lanka is not the only state in the region that has attempted to build relations with China in order to balance India’s size, power and influence. It is up to India to help neighbours realize that a democratic state such as India will prove to be far less threatening and a lot fairer in the long term than China, which is transforming its foreign policy from assertiveness to aggressiveness vis-à-vis states in Southeast Asia. In the past, India has not marketed its democratic appeal sufficiently. Modi has already put the democracy buzzword to good use on his trips to South Korea and Japan, highlighting the virtues and similarity of interests between Asian democracies.

India must also signal credibly that it intends to be a benevolent regional power; it must balance its disproportionate influence in any multilateral regional institutions (such as SAARC) with aid and trade opportunities for minor powers. Modi has already made headway on this front by announcing a one billion dollar aid package for Mongolia. The Indian army contributed significantly to the rescue operations in Nepal in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake. India provides training programmes and facilities for bureaucrats-in-training from several states in South Asia as well as Africa. India needs to ratchet up its aid programme and continue to pursue operations that showcase its benevolence in the region. These steps will help in changing India’s perception from a threatening ‘unbound elephant’ to a ‘lovable Asian hulk’, as referred to by Chaulia (2011).

India has an abundance of untapped soft power resources and Modi is creatively using them to create a benign image of the country globally. While the realist claim that soft power resources cannot accomplish much on their own has some merit, it is important to account for the ability of such resources to help create an image or a brand of a state that is positive and desired by others around the world. India cannot afford to come across as threatening or malign to states in the region. India’s position in South Asia continues to remain precarious. India and Pakistan continue to face off at the border, with several skirmishes occurring in the recent past. Inter-government dialogue between the two countries was also suspended recently as India objected to Pakistan’s decision to meet with separatist groups in India. The threat of religious fundamentalism is ever-present for India, which has witnessed several domestic and international terrorist attacks since independence. As India attempts to improve its national security, it must carefully balance the increased military spending with a benign image to ward off a security dilemma in the region.

Foreign policy analysts and international relations scholars have largely ignored one factor that could be greatly influencing Modi’s decision to flaunt India’s soft power in its various forms. Indian tourism has taken a hit after several incidents of sexual violence against women came to light in the country’s capital, New Delhi, starting in December 2012. By shifting the focus on to yoga and meditation, Modi is reclaiming India’s appeal as a spiritual state. This will draw a crowd that seeks to visit India for spiritual healing and related purposes, thus abetting India’s vast tourism industry, which caters in no small part to foreign travellers. While sceptics remain wary of Modi’s propensity to undermine India’s secularity and engage in caste/communal politics, he has so far steered clear of mixing religion with politics. On his most recent state visit to the UAE in August 2015, Prime Minister Modi toured the famed Sheikh Zayed grand mosque in Dubai.

Realists correctly claim that wars are not won either by foot-tapping music or by mouth-watering food. They are referring to traditional forms of warfare and conflict that are largely determined by a state’s military prowess. However, we live in an age where the nature of conflict is fast changing. States are competing for a share of the economic pie, scarce and finite resources, and influence, which often help determine the outcome of many bidding contests. It is these types of war that can be won or at least decisively influenced by a state’s arsenal of soft power resources.

Critics argue Modi has spread himself too thin. Visiting a high number of states in record time could mean that he has not taken the time to cultivate quality relationships with foreign leaders. Most of his state visits to the Central Asian republics lasted for a day each. In such a limited amount of time, Modi would have been unable to strike long-term friendships; instead he was on a sales-tour, selling his ‘Make in India’ campaign and/or securing energy contracts for India. While economy does reign supreme for Modi’s foreign policy, India’s prime minister may need to invest more time to achieve long-term convergence of interests with several states on his itinerary.

Second, it is a mistake to base a state’s entire foreign policy on a prominent leader’s ideology and vision as opposed to what is in the best interest of the country. Critics have repeatedly argued that India’s foreign policy apparatus needs to shed its leader-centric lean and be formally institutionalized. This shortcoming helps explain why India is frequently unable to carry out its international promises and responsibilities. A change in leadership, which is periodic and inevitable in a democratic country, contributes to a lack of interest in carrying out the legacy and vision of the predecessor. It is to Modi’s credit that he has attempted to revive several good ideas of his predecessors and carry out their vision for India’s security, while infusing his own vigour and enthusiasm and thereby adding his personal brand to these initiatives (Maiorano, 2015).

There is a pattern of similar themes repeating in academic critiques of Modi’s performance vis-à-vis foreign policy. While certain issues have received more than their share of attention, there is a lack of discussion with respect to India’s policy towards states such as Israel and Iran. A discussion of India’s relationships with Central Asian republics and Russia has come only after Modi’s recent trip to the region in conjunction with a BRICS summit in Russia in July 2015. As yet, Indian foreign policy scholarship has failed to discuss India’s potential role in the fight against the Islamic State and its broader policy towards conflicts in the Middle East.

India’s foreign policy comes across as if it is created impromptu by the prime minister while he is touring various countries, which is undoubtedly not the case. The fact that the discussion of these important issues follows rather than precedes the various foreign trips by the prime minister is problematic and undermines the argument that a conscious and viable doctrine is being practised by India’s foreign policy establishment. We must also distinguish between foreign policy actors paying lip service to a stated goal and investing adequate resources to ensure its execution.

The buzz among foreign policy scholars is that India is embarking on a new path and finally embracing its position as a nation destined to be a great power. The foreign policy sector has been one of the most active since Modi came to office. Modi has set new records and precedents on foreign engagement. He is in the relentless pursuit of two (related) goals: to improve India’s economic performance and to improve overall security. To that end, he has attempted vigorously to revive old friendships and strike new ones, often at the expense of domestic criticism.

Critics, however, are not impressed; they point out that India has a historical track record of making big promises but failing to live up to them. India does not sustain its initial enthusiasm with the requisite funds and responsibility needed to bring big projects to completion.

Thus, India is not a great power of its own doing. Whether it is laziness in the party of Indian administration or a lack of attention, there is some truth to this criticism. However, this time around, there is hope that Modi might be just the taskmaster required to whip India’s intelligent but inefficient bureaucracy into swift action. After all, you cannot afford to be ignored when you produce one-sixth of the world’s total population.