The third International Yoga Day proved to be yet another success for the Narendra Modi-led government with more than hundred countries joining in the celebrations. When the resolution was first introduced in 2014 at the United Nations General Assembly, it had garnered India the support of 177 nations, the first for a resolution of this nature. Since then, the focus of India has been to leverage its soft power to forge people-people bonds across borders. The International Yoga Day when seen in this context becomes a powerful tool for India to make its presence felt all over the world.
One of the earlier mentions of Yoga is found in the Rig Veda where it is seen as a set of practices for the spiritual well-being of an individual. Over the years, the form evolved to encompass the aspects of both mental and physical well-being. With globalization, the interest in Indian traditions grew manifold and the practitioners of Yoga played an important role in furthering the reach of cultural diplomacy. The incumbent government by pushing for a date to be observed as the International Yoga Day gave an impetus to the formation of cultural linkages with different nations.
India as a soft power?
The question that most definitely follows here is whether this is an attempt to turn India into a soft power, a concept that first came into being through Joseph Nye’s writings. The answer is cultural diplomacy is a narrower term whereas soft power is an all-encompassing idea. While soft power has all its focus on the nation-state, cultural diplomacy tries to bring people together by identifying areas of commonality. The results of this are never immediate but it slowly crawls its way to leave a lasting impact. Be it Bollywood, Indian books, Indian cuisine or the contributions of the Indian diaspora to their countries of residence, it is the very idea of India that people outside come to identify with. For them India no longer remains a hostile entity but a country where there prevails a vibrant and diversified culture.
Cultural diplomacy is the first step in making India into that global soft power envisioned by many inside and outside the country. Before India can have the absolute power of negotiation while dealing with other nations, it has to establish itself as a country that is transparent and democratic. For countries that do not have the economic, political or military prowess, it is the cultural side of India that can establish an instant connect. When they are exposed to the similarities and dissimilarities of their cultures in comparison to the Indian culture, what emerges is an India that is real and accessible.
Even for countries that look at each other with suspicion, culture can be a great factor for dousing the fears. The restoration of the 2000 year old Nangchen Stupa with Lord Buddha’s relics sent by Emperor Ashoka in China by an Indian monk last year is a case in point. These are times when culture bridges the gap between two populations who are never certain of how to view each other.
Why cultural diplomacy?
Apart from generating goodwill amongst different nations, is there anything more to cultural diplomacy? The benefits of such an approach to relation building are endless. This paves the way for people to have a better understanding of the country not just culturally but also politically and economically. The bilateral cultural agreements and the cultural programmes bring with it an element of trust that gets trickled down to the population of different nations.
Considering India’s need to be seen as a non-aggressive power, cultural diplomacy becomes all the more important. While pitching for reforms in the United Nations Security Council, it will be the idea of a country that is willing to co-operate with all that will win India the support of other nations.
There are also other opportunities that get opened up on other fronts. When people are able to see the strides that India has taken in various sectors, there gets created a curiosity to know more about the country. For people looking for new avenues, India becomes a place where they can take risks while expecting to get results. This in particular benefits the economy of a nation. The increased inflow of tourists, the portfolio and direct investments and the growing number of expat population in many ways point to the acceptance that India is now getting on the global front.
The importance of this link between culture and commerce is not understood by many nations. The present government has rightly identified the importance of involving the citizens of any nation in its quest to build brand India. Here the private players are also equally involved in spreading awareness about the nation.
In spite of all the achievements that India has had in spreading the idea of cultural diplomacy, there is still a long way to go before the country can establish a strong foothold in the global platform. One way to strengthen it is by diversifying the festivals of India abroad to include not just a few well known cities but to take it to villages all over the world. When it comes to cultural relations it is always the human to human bonds that will help in the image building of the nation. The idea of India as a friendly nation should penetrate deep enough to let the country garner support for its policies and programs on all stages. The power of public opinion in deciding a country’s policy should not be overlooked.
India should once again pursue the policy of cultural exchange programs with great vigour. It is essential for people from all walks of life to come to India and have an understanding of the opportunities that are available. This in addition to contributing to the positive image building will also help expand the scope of fields like art, science, economics to name a few. The achievements of India especially in the areas of space, communication and technology should be projected so that India will be seen as a nation that has something to give back to the world.
Another aspect that can be looked at is to popularize the Indian languages abroad. Many universities in Germany and the United States offer Sanskrit as part of their course. India should tap into this and offer all those who are interested in the study of Indian languages a chance to study in the respective state universities. One interesting thing to note here is that Max Muller whose name is taken among the most important Sanskrit scholars and who played a substantial part in popularizing Indian culture was a German. This is the real power of cultural diplomacy. It should get an outside population interested in India’s heritage and that interest should result in spreading the culture of India throughout.
In a world which is increasingly becoming war wary and where there are talks of disarmament being heard though very faintly, it will be the people to people bond that will help in sustaining the global order. If used rightly, it is a powerful means in the hands of India to win back its lost allies and make new ones. The aim should be to acquaint people from across the length and breadth of the world to Indian culture and in the process initiate a system which would aid in the effective transfer of values across nations. Only this can help overcome the cultural barriers and make knowledge gathering meaningful.