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
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
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
For clarifications/queries, please contact
IANS NEWS DESK at
Direct: 91-11-2610-4655, Mobile: +91-9873188969
or mail us at