‘Soft power’ is overrated. In India, it is over-celebrated too. The idea enjoys support across the political spectrum: Shashi Tharoor is an articulate proponent, and so is Venkaiah Naidu. Everything from Indian films, cricket, cuisine, yoga, spirituality, and the insufferable television soap operas are claimed to be elements of India’s soft power.
After all the self-congratulation is done with, there’s little empirical evidence to show that all these things actually constitute some form of ‘power’; and if they do, that India can do something with it.
Indeed, if soft power were something, the governments of our immediate neighbours ought to have been favourably inclined towards us. After all, on a per capita basis, it is perhaps the people of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Pakistan who are the foreign consumers of India’s cultural exports. Yet, even if they like Indian films, music, and celebrities, popular attitudes and their governmental policies towards India are not reflective of that warmth. Further afield, the richer states of the Arabian Gulf and South East Asia might well watch our films and dance to our music but have a condescending view of Indians and India. For all the praise of our soft power, its effect is negligible in the manner in which foreign countries vote on important national issues.