For the last five-plus years under Narendra Modi, India has formally begun to articulate a greater belief in acquiring hard power.
From the post-Uri surgical strikes to Doklam to Balakot to the recent smart use of Article 370 to reduce it to nothingness in Kashmir, not to speak of demonetisation, the goods and services tax (GST) and the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC), the Modi government has tried to abandon India’s old ambivalence towards power, especially hard power.
It is not right to credit Modi alone with this pursuit of hard power, for India has not lacked political leaders who had the same belief in acquiring hard power that Modi is now clearly emphasising.
If we were to set aside the woolly soft-power advocates such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, in the early post-Independence years we had Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, B R Ambedkar, Veer Savarkar and Syama Prasad Mookerjee, among others, who believed in hard power.
Without them the foolishness of the Gandhi-Nehru approach would have brought us faster to ruin and Balkanisation. Without hard power, Jammu and Kashmir, Hyderabad and Goa would never have been a part of modern-day India.
As for the pre-Independence revolutionaries, primarily from Bengal, Punjab, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh (Bhagat Singh, Chandrasekhar Azad, Netaji Subash Chandra Bose, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, et al), they were intrinsically hard power advocates to the core.
Post-Independence, Indira Gandhi was a strong believer in hard power, and so were Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee (it was Rao’s aborted nuclear tests that Vajpayee finally brought to fruition in 1998), but the 10 years of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule under Manmohan Singh can be seen as a lost decade for India’s hard power quest.
In the long line of India’s soft power advocates, the continuity is from Gandhi and Nehru to I K Gujral and Manmohan Singh, while the remaining prime ministers (Lal Bahadur Shastri, Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, V P Singh, Chandra Shekhar and Deve Gowda) did not have sufficient time at the helm in order to leave much of an imprint in the area of hard power.
Rajiv Gandhi could be considered a hard power advocate of sorts, given his decisions to send the Indian armed forces into Sri Lanka and Maldives to keep the peace, but his tenure did not achieve much success beyond the induction of the very effective Bofors gun, which unfortunately was dogged by a corruption scandal.
The above synopsis of India’s hard power quest can be disputed, but the purpose is to provide a historical backdrop in order to develop a broader understanding of why we need hard power, and what its implications could be for the projection of soft power.
It is not about rubbishing the idea of soft power, but to emphasise that the choice is not binary. We need both hard power and soft power, for one without the other is meaningless.
If you have only hard power, sooner or later you will be unpopular with your own people. But if you have only soft power, you will be conquered, both physically and intellectually, where your soft power then becomes someone else’s property.
The speed with which modern-day Christian missionaries are adopting Indic religious symbols and ideas in order to pursue conversion agendas shows how easily soft power can be captured and misappropriated by rivals if not protected by hard power.
Today’s conversion tactics include making churches look like temples (complete with a dhwaja sthamba); Christian weddings often include the wearing of a mangalsutra by the bride, but with a cross embedded in it; and Yoga is being hijacked as a Christian practice. This is nothing but an effort to turn Indic soft power into its own nemesis.
A flashback to history will explain the roles of hard and soft power in colonisation.
The British did not rule us only through military might. They first won the hard power battles, and then used soft power (the English language, societal reforms, offer of government favours, etc.) to entice many Indians to play their game.
The British found it easy, for they could build on the alienation of India’s Hindu subject populations under Muslim rule to play one against the other, offer economic benefits to a favoured few, and rule over everybody.
Both Hindus and Muslims accepted the ‘superiority’ of British civilisation as a given as the colonisers did not merely subjugate them, but invaded their minds. Nobody understood this better than T B Macaulay, whose policies created the ‘brown sahib’.
The fact that India’s Constitution is substantially a borrowed document from many Western constitutions also shows the extent of our mental colonisation during years of British rule.
Pax Americana over the last century was not driven by military power alone; it was made palatable by the spread of development aid, Hollywood, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, among other things.
When Hollywood blockbusters are translated into Indian languages, it brings US soft power and culture right into all our homes.
Over the last two decades, American soft power has been broad-based through Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon. They entice us with cheap products and services and end up owning our most precious asset: our personal data.
This is smart use of soft economic power to acquire harder economic power. The big Western tech platforms are succeeding because they carry a blend of both hard power and soft power.
The purpose of soft power is to make hard power more valuable and acceptable; the purpose of hard power is to give soft power the space to work its wonders.
For India, which has only now formally accepted the need for hard power, the focus at the macro level ought to be a strong military and a bigger economy.
This means defence spending must slowly be expanded to 2.5-3 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) over the next decade, and the economy itself must grow to $5 trillion over the next five to six years, and to $10 trillion over the next 10-13 years.
At $5 trillion, we become a mini superpower, and at $10 trillion we become a midi superpower, which cannot really be denied permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, or any other global decision-making club, for that matter.
This includes the Nuclear Suppliers Group, where China currently exercises its veto to keep us out.
Most important, hard power is also needed to protect our soft power. Take Yoga, for example. If it is merely going to be expanded globally for anyone to claim it as his own, then India’s soft power will no longer be India’s.
India will have to give Yoga hard power protections, by creating systems to regulate and certify Yoga teaching and certifications, and by arming itself with intellectual property rights (IPR) over the use of the term Yoga. This IPR can be shared with Buddhist and Jain religious authorities, but not with others.
The use of the term Christian Yoga, for example, ought to be opposed as a cultural IPR theft. They can call their practice of Yoga-like breathing and stretching techniques as anything but Yoga.
The same applies to Ayurveda and other geographically-indicated Indian products, practices and services. If champagne can only be produced in one region of France, and Darjeeling tea in only one area of India, Yoga and Ayurveda clearly need the same statutory protections that only a hard power Indian state can ensure.
Soft power needs a hard casing for protection, just as a tortoise needs its shell to survive in the wild.
The argument is no longer hard power versus soft power, but hard power plus soft power. We need both. One cannot survive without the other; neither can one be effective without the other.
But with the balance having tilted firmly away from hard power in an India where Gandhian and Nehruvian ideas dominated for decades, we now need to give hard power more emphasis over the next decade, so that Indian soft power gets its legitimate due in the decades after that.
Without hard power, we will lose it all.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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