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   Back to Index    09:03:35   
India's soft power: Lessons from Nehru


By Sreeram Chaulia

In a new BBC opinion poll that ranks the most popular or admired countries, India came second behind China for a "significantly improved global stature." Citizens of only 17 out of 26 countries gave India the rating of "positive influence on the world." Had this vote been conducted in the 1950s, India would have registered more goodwill than China. That was the decade when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru launched bold imaginative forays into global diplomacy and made the world notice, admire and take poor, underdeveloped and emerging India seriously for its peacemaking qualities.

Nehruvian peace initiatives of the 1950s stand out for their image-burnishing value. The Korean War was drifting dangerously in 1952 when Nehru stepped in to moot a neutral commission to oversee a sensitive prisoners-of-war repatriation and exchange between the US and China. The 'Menon Resolution' was acceptable to the Americans but not to China and the USSR. Nevertheless, it foreshadowed the substance of the later ceasefire agreement that halted the war in 1953. India was instrumental in bringing this deadly conflict to an end by becoming the chairman of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission.

In the 1956 Suez crisis that pitted Britain, France and Israel against Egypt, Nehru coordinated with the US and made several attempts to steer the war to an early end. US President Eisenhower discussed the possibility of setting up an "elder statesman board of appeals" composed of Nehru and himself to "develop a solution to the Middle East dispute." A joint Indo-US peace brokering effort was considered by Washington as "commanding the respect of the world." Nehru's diplomats entered into parleys with Britain and Egypt and India drew up a list of specific points that were shared between the two antagonists as a compromise formula. 'Peacekeeping', which was an unknown term then, was invented to resolve the Suez war and India was part of that very first mission, the United Nations Emergency Force.

Nehru played other behind-the-scenes and public mediation acts in high profile international crises like the French withdrawal from Algeria, the Turko-Greek tussle over Cyprus, and political settlement for IndoChina (Vietnam). All these interventions were not altruistic or purely moralistic. The objective was to raise India's stature as a peacemaker and an honest broker that does not carry the vested interest tag of superpowers. The tremendous aura that India had in the 1950s was unmatched among developing countries of that time. It is a lesson worth emulating for soft power enhancement.

Soft power, a notion made famous by American intellectual Joseph Nye, is defined as "the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments." The attraction that charms and wins through minimum cost arises from multiple sources - a country's domestic culture, its political ideals and foreign policy impact. Nye emphasises that much of the US' soft power, which is rapidly waning, "has been produced by Hollywood, Harvard, Microsoft and Michael Jordan." Government actions and policies should reinforce rather than undercut these private sources of soft power. Nye specifically mentions India as a country with high soft power potential that goes wasted due to myopic government policies.

To be fair, India does well on public-private partnerships to capitalise on soft power by marketing Bollywood, yoga, soap operas, and spicy cuisine as international brands. Where it lags behind is in crafting a foreign policy that is appealing to a wide cross section of countries. Simply dispatching warm bodies for peacekeeping missions is not quite what Nehru had envisaged as a proper role for India on the world stage. If contributions to UN peacekeeping are measures of soft power, then Bangladesh is ahead of India!

What Indian leaders have completely lost sight of is the soft power- generating dynamo of peacemaking that Nehru perfected. The thought that India could offer its good offices and creative peace designs for raging global conflicts sounds moralistic to the current generation of strategic elites. This is an unfortunate outgrowth of 'hard power' fundamentalism - the belief that India's economic growth and military might are all that are needed to be admitted as a legitimate member to the club of great powers.

Military capability augmentation and galloping annual economic growth rates can get India the outcomes it wants only in some spheres. There are several issue areas in world politics where India will need to be seen as respectable, persuasive and imitable. If the Indian representative at the UN or the WTO tables a proposal, it should be able to win immediate recognition as a way out of a problem, not just another routine piece of paper that enters the official records.

How can India attain such a level of acceptability and allure at global venues? Learn from Nehru. Can a Jaswant Singh or a Pranab Mukherjee come up with a concrete plan for reduction of violence between Israel and the Palestinian territories? Can an Atal Bihari Vajpayee or a Manmohan Singh employ diplomatic skills to try and convince all sides to the Darfur crisis that the horrific violence in Sudan should cease under international aegis?

Throwing up hands and saying that Palestine or Sudan are outside India's core interest range will win no additional friends. If India can help break international logjams, credibility benefits would accrue. All it takes to offer pro bono peacemaking services is vision, not a lot of material resources. Nehru commanded plenty of the former.

(Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher and commentator on world affairs based at Syracuse University, New York. He can be reached at [email protected])

Indo-Asian News Service

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