Right Communication is a Must for Promoting India’s Soft Power: Daya Thussu

Daya Thussu is a Professor of International Communication at the Hong Kong Baptist University and the Managing editor of the international journal Global Media and Communications. His 2013 publication, Communicating India’s Soft Power: Buddha to Bollywood remains one of the most cited works on Indian soft power as an academic discipline. Currently, he is writing a book titled Changing Geopolitics of Global Communication, which will be one of the first books on this subject, to be published next year by Routledge, London. "It focuses on how in the age of digital connectivity, global communication is becoming increasingly important in affecting discourses of geopolitics. The emergence of new players, notably China but also India, are complementing, if not challenging, the traditional Western domination of global communication," informs Prof Thussu.

A scholar, author and media studies expert, Prof. Thussu has extensively worked on China and India. Delving on the increasing global clout of the two countries, Prof Thussu shares his plans to “write a book which compares soft powers of India and China – two large civilizational states with long histories and current and future rivalries. Being based in Hong Kong is very helpful for such comparative research.”

In this interview, Prof Thussu talks about India’s soft power and its global influence.

Being the oldest living civilization in the world that has had far-reaching influence, what is India’s version of soft power?

Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam is the stated mantra of India’s external presence; its version of soft power is rooted in a distinguished history of peaceful coexistence and a pluralist worldview.

Indian thoughts, embedded in a Hindu-Buddhist tradition, in arts, language and culture, traveled out of India not through military conquest but via scholars and travelers, and you see its remnants in various parts of Asia – notably in temples in Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the world’s largest religious structure.

In your opinion, what are some of the key instruments that can be effectively used for furthering our soft power?

That history needs to be taught not just to the world at large, but more importantly, to Indians. So, creating a narrative–based not on unclaimed past glory but on scientific research and empirical data–should be a priority. Once a credible narrative is created it needs to be communicated vigorously, in the first instance via India’s extensive diasporic presence across the globe. In my view communication is central as an effective mechanism for promoting India’s soft power.

India's contributions globally in the field of arts, science, medicine, economics, etc. are immense. I think such contributions have to be first recognized, systematically studied and brought onto the national discourse before they could be meaningfully exported. The Human Resources Ministry should have dedicated funds for the study of Indic knowledge systems – scientific, philosophical, religious, in elite universities, perhaps by setting up centers of world-class research, properly funded to attract the best students, researchers, and faculty. And then we need a clear communication strategy–a public-private partnership–aimed at circulating this knowledge to the world at large.  In a digitized interconnected world, it is relatively easy and affordable to do this, if there is a will. The timing for such an ambitious intellectual intervention is now, as we begin to come to terms with the post-pandemic realities in a ‘post-American’ and multipolar world.

While the exchange of ideas and spread of cultural influence has largely been people-driven across the world, many countries such as Thailand, France and even smaller nations like Israel have implemented policies and formal programs to enhance their cultural diplomacy. In the case of India, how successful has our exercise of public diplomacy and cultural diplomacy been and what more can be done?

India’s public diplomacy requires energizing. It needs more resources–human as well as technological–for a start. The foreign policy mandarins must recognize that in a competitive global space, India has to have a strong communicative presence, professionally produced and distributed among opinion makers across the world. I see a very strong contrast with what China is doing in this area: investing heavily in external communication and for the promotion of the Chinese language and culture. This is indeed ironic since China is perceived, accurately in my view, as a hard not a soft power.

India is a ‘soft’ power: its culture; celebratory religiosity; successful and vocal diaspora, popular cinema and music, cuisine, arts crafts, etc. are recognized globally. The institutional support, however, remains minimal.

How has India’s participation in global governance initiatives, humanitarian aid and assistance shaped India’s global image?

I would say relatively poorly, India’s voice within the global governance system is rather limited. Despite being the world’s largest democracy and a major economic power where English is widely used, none of Indian media and communication outfits have a global presence or influence.  It is a pity since countries such as China, Russia, Iran, Turkey – where English is not common - have a vocal presence in the global news and information space, and therefore, their version of events is, at least, available for consumption by a global audience. A striking example is the recent and continuing upheaval in Afghanistan: I doubt whether many people outside Afghanistan know that India had invested something in the range of $3 billion in that country, including building its parliament? Don’t expect the BBC or the New York Times to publish let alone highlight such a story. We must have our own communication mechanisms to do so.

In what ways does soft power enable nations to wield strategic influence in global politics? Where does India stand with regards to this?

Soft power is supposed to make a country attractive for investment/tourism etc. Unfortunately, what gets published/broadcast about India is not particularly attractive (in fact, more often than not, India gets bad press internationally) it is seen as a country of stark inequalities and intolerance, steeped in backwardness. Communicating a different and more realistic and aspirational India would need a concerted effort to create an efficient and professional external media/communication infrastructure.

The Indian diaspora community is significantly large in terms of numbers and its members occupy some key leadership positions in governments, businesses and non-governmental institutions. How can this diaspora dividend be tapped into to represent Indian interest on the global stage?

Indian diaspora is second largest after the Chinese but unlike the Chinese diaspora, Indian one is the world’s largest English-speaking diaspora – scattered all across the globe. Sections of this diverse community are what might be described as soft power resources: including people associated with businesses, corporate leadership, academia, think tanks, and elite journalism.

Although India was one of the first countries to tap into this resource, the interactions could be further institutionalized by adopting a more active diaspora communication strategy – encouraging sections of the diaspora to engage with a resurgent India to challenge and correct the distortions in representations and narrative-building about India.

Where do you see India’s position in global soft power rankings in the coming few years?

We are not even in the top 30: the only way is up. I remain deeply skeptical about the mechanisms of measuring soft power – like the concept itself such indexes are not without their inbuilt biases.

The bottom line is for India to be taken more seriously as a global power it must first improve governance to raise the standard of living for the majority of its 1.3 billion people. Parallel to this, there should be a systematic and long-term project to develop and sustain a strong communication hard and software to promote India abroad. Given that India has the world’s largest ‘open’ internet, I am very hopeful that a convergence of the democratic, digital and diasporic aspects of Indian soft power will propel India in the position it deserves.