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Soft Power of India

Despite a liberal sprinkling of sexism, Hindu nationalism and nostalgic essentialism, the Conference on Soft Power in December in New Delhi was inspiring and thought-provoking.

The last speaker, Oscar Pujol Riembau- a linguist directing the Cervantes Institute in Morocco whilst finalizing the first Sanskrit-Catalan dictionary- began speaking by celebrating oxymorons: 'bittersweet', 'clearly confused', 'original copy' and yes, 'soft power'. It was an apt observation of a term that the speakers in this conference were by no means aligned on.

Some, like the highly respected Sadhguru, rejected the possibility of a country attaching itself to something like 'consciousness' - a concept he felt cannot be instrumentalized for national political influence: " You can be a lighthouse attracting people, but you can't direct every ship". Others, like Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin, India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, asserted the impossibility of soft power without the hard power of money or an army. After his talk, I did note that perhaps the UN could consider soft power a bit more seriously as a way to salvage the reputation of multi-lateralism, collaboration and dialogue in an increasingly hostile and polarized world.

Most however spoke enthusiatically about the possibilities of increasing India's influence in the world ("soft power = mind space" Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, President, ICCR, India). Aryuveda, cuisine ("Indian food is a representation of Indian pluralism" remarked Master Chef India judge Vikas Khanna), Bollywood and cinema, textiles, yoga, literature, quantum physics and the science of consciousness and more- were all discussed as tools of Indian soft power.

I spoke about the soft power of museums (you can watch it on this link), alongside two remarkable women- Deepika Ahlawat- a London-based museum curator, art consultant and writer; and Nalina Gopal, Curator at the wonderful India Heritage Center, Singapore that I had been able to visit the year before.

I had visited the India Heritage Centre in Singapore the year before with my son. It's a great museum!

I kicked off the session pointing out how cities and civil society worldwide are working with museums in order to activate their mutual soft power- in markedly different ways than national governments.

Soft power is premised on trust, and I identified the 4 'e's'- often over-looked features of museums in India and elsewhere that build trust and subsequently, a new kind of soft power:

  • Entrance: making sure there are no visible and invisible barriers to entry- including price!,

  • Experience: exhibition design as a tool to trigger imagination, demonstrate relevance and catalyze learning,

  • Empowerment- through fair employment, opportunities for diverse staff and representing multiple points of view

  • Exchange- amongst and between staff, visitors, other professionals and other disciplines.

Deepika did not spare any punches -(watch her talk here). She condemned the past and ongoing colonialist framing of India ('cultural terrorism') that continues to privilege the white Western supremacist perspective on Indian stories- even in exhibitions that do not involve the West at all- e.g. between India and China. She pointed out however that this situation is further exacerbated by an Indian legal framework that, despite its good intentions to protect Indian cultural heritage, effectively makes it almost impossible for other countries to borrow art and artifacts for their exhibits from India- perpetuating, ironically the situation of India being presented 'abroad' only through problematic colonial collections. Nalina Gopal talked engagingly about how her museum tells the stories of the Indian diapora in Singapore.

Jonathan McClory, the creator of The Soft Power 30 index that assesses countries' soft power, spoke, somewhat apologetically, about India's relatively low score. Global perception of pollution, violence against women, poverty and corruption all contribute to India's score of 41 out of 60 countries. However, he pointed out that Indian culture and digital presence (PM Narendra Modi has one of the most followed twitter accounts in the world) are boosting Indian soft power.

McClory admits, what was also pointed out by one of the attendees- the Western bias in the index. The top 20 are all Western countries with the exception of Japan and South Korea. It's hard to say how much this has to bear on India's score. In any case, the index is but one measure. Kieran Drake, from the British High Commission in India spoke about the Britain is Great campaign- but to an Indian audience fed up of British imperialist cultural attitudes, and against the backdrop of the slow moving public train crash of Brexit - there was a whif of palpable disinterest if not resentment amongst the audience- despite Britain scoring number 1 in the Soft Power 30.

I went into the conference a bit skeptical. An Indian colleague had warned me that the organizers and many of the speakers were regarded as following the 'right- wing' populist agenda of the current government- something I am firmly against. And indeed, Indian and Hindu seemed to be used synonymously- with few talks on Islam, Jainism, Sikhism etc. Nevertheless, I found the speakers and participants to be extremely thoughtful, critical, and insightful. Everyone I had the privilege to listen to shifted my perspective a little- a testament to the soft power people right there in the room.

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