Monday, July 19, 2010

Indian Diaspora and "Soft Power"

The Asian Wall Street Journal carried an interesting article, today, on the Chinese diaspora and how they connect to the mainland, provide the impetus for its growth.

The Chinese diaspora numbers 40 million, with concentrations in South East Asia (Asia in all, has 78% of the Chinese diaspora), the Americas (15%) with the balance sprinkled around Europe, Africa and the Pacific. The overseas Chinese in Asia (Taiwan, Singapore and rest of South East Asia) and the Americas (the United States and Canada) have been the ones that have channelised investments into the mainland China, in the run-up to its growth.

The Indian diaspora in contrast numbers 24 million and it is often said that there are only countries in world without Indian residents (diplomats are not included). There are no prizes for guessing which countries are these - they are Pakistan (who would want to live there afterall?) and North Korea. The Indian diaspora is just like the Chinese - it's concentrated in the United States, Canada, Europe and South East Asia, with smaller communities in Africa, Latin America and the Pacific - Fiji, Tonga, Nauru besides Australia (if we survive the murderous attacks there!) and New Zealand.

Reading the Asian Wall Street Journal article, I recalled an interesting debate we had on an online forum 7 years back on what could be the engines for India's growth.

In that debate, I had said that if one thinks imaginatively, Indian heritage and culture, food, Bollywood could be game changers for India. Undoubtedly, software services, engineering and manufacturing, automobiles would be big businesses, these softer aspects would help India occupy brain space in the minds of the localities. That's what has been often called soft power.

Soft power is a phrase coined by Joseph Nye of Harvard University in a 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power.

As always Wikipedia came to help me here.

Wikipedia defines soft power as "the ability to obtain what one wants through co-option and attraction..... contradistinction to 'hard power', which is the use of coercion and payment...... soft power can be wielded not just by states, but by all actors in international politics, such as NGOs or international institutions...... can be dated back to such ancient Chinese philosophers as Laozi in the 7th century BC."

The United States' soft power had been the most visible globally through its iconic and omnipresent brands (McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Walt Disney), Hollywood movies and propagation of technology. These iconic brands had sustained the soft power component for over 50 years, till the wars in the Gulf did them in.

For India, one of the most potent instruments of exercising soft power is Bollywood - Bollywood has a very big market from the Americas to Russia, from South Africa to Egypt and South East Asia. And this market is growing and Bollywood is making inroads into the Western market as well. Recent Indian movies have been successes abroad - Kites which bombed at the Indian box-office opened in the top ten in the United States. Similarly, the movie was ranked at position no. 5 in the opening week in the United Kingdom.

Craze for Bollywood is not a new phenomena - for decades now, the Turks, Russians and Central Asians have been crazy about Awaara Hoon.

For once, I will say Bollywood dreamy song and dance teenybopper romances can be India's ambassadors abroad. These movies are doing good for India because they are not portraying India as a land of abject poverty and snake charmers - we are finally breaking out of that 'stereotype'. And as this industry matures, becomes organised and professional, it has the potential of becoming an international money spinner. And our diaspora can do their bit by promoting Indian movies abroad.

Food is another lethal weapon of soft power. Already, Indian curries have set British palates on fire and chicken tikka masala is now called United Kingdom's national dish - all this happened within 20-odd years. Even in places in Africa, India is synonymous with chapati!

The whites have a craze for spicy Indian fare, but Indian fare is generally expensive abroad, and is the preserve of the elite like the Clintons, dining at the Chhatwals'. We can certainly have something like Dominos clones growing out of India, dishing out standardised and affordable Indian fare on take-aways and delivery. Nirula's did try to do it a few years back (I guess in the late 80s) by opening stores in Muscat, but the experiment seems to have failed. Maybe its time for the likes of Nirula's to try growing abroad again. The easiest way for the Dominos clones to grow would be to encourage franchisees. Diaspora Indians would be the best to take up such franchises and promote them in their adopted homelands.

Indian mythology, heritage, culture and therapies (yoga) can also be leveraged by India to build its soft power. While it may be debatable, but Indian god-men (the likes of Osho and Maharishi Yogi) did their bit to promote Indian philosophy abroad. But the real magic will work when all major neighbourhoods in metropolises, the world over, have a yoga centre catering to the local population.

India needs to enhance its soft power, surely but rapidly, to command a share of the global citizen's mind. Military might and economic clout are necessary, but they attract fear and loathing. In such a context attaining soft power status will be a force multiplier in India's quest for attaining superpower status.

We have the right elements to concoct a soft power formula woven around our vibrant culture, fascinating film industry and immensely palatable and acceptable (exotic) cuisine. China had leveraged on its diaspora to multiply its economic success, but we are not far behind - we can use our Diaspora to propagate India's soft power.
All it calls for a vision for the next 50 years at the minimum and the willingness for the government to go the extra mile for our Diaspora.

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