Defining a soft power strategy for India
To re-think its underachieving investments in soft power, and capitalise on the size of its diaspora and the historical sources of its competitive advantage, India can borrow some lessons from contemporary management thinking.
First, it should define a clear strategy. Strategy is about identifying a position in the market. Without a purposeful strategy, businesses are unlikely to achieve their objectives and capture value in the long-term. For India to make progress on its soft power agenda, it needs to outline more clearly the position that would most allow it to meet its objectives. Based on that, it should prioritise the geographies it most wants to target and the sources of soft power that it can leverage in each in a more systematic way.
Becoming a destination for foreign investment and creating a positive environment for Indian businesses abroad are both important goals for the government. Investing in maintaining connections with the diaspora and increasing the reach of India’s cultural activities are two approaches that should help to achieve this. Similarly, if India wants a larger role on the world stage, it needs to better communicate its ability to lead in the institutional, political and moral spheres.
National priorities, local implementation
Second, India should learn from the diffused and outsourced models that the democratisation of technology has enabled many businesses to adopt. Outsourcing allows companies to focus on those areas that need their attention the most, and leave execution to specialists, saving costs while doing so. India needs to decide whether it wants to implement its soft power agenda in a centralised way, as it is now doing through the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), or if it should adopt a distributed approach and provide further support to the private and non-governmental sector to advance its soft power agenda.
I would argue that the success of private individuals and organisations’ efforts on the one hand, and the record of the ICCR on the other, suggests that a distributed approach will have more impact. This would allow India to retain control over the kind of activities undertaken but not over their direct implementation, which is best left to private-sector individuals and organisations with the relevant expertise.
In the UK, this would mean more support from India for organisations which are already drawing on the talent of the Indian diaspora to advance Indian cultural understanding. To name just two, this would mean more support for Akademi, which has been championing South Asian dance for 40 years, or for West-London based Bhavan, already the largest cultural centre outside India.
With its large and young English-speaking population, long history, and rich culture, India has an incredible story to tell the world. It is now time that the government empowers its people to tell it.