India’s image abroad acquired a new dimension when Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape touched PM Narendra Modi’s feet while welcoming him to the island nation. It reveals how Indian soft power is impacting areas not generally on the radar of international experts, whose understanding flows from the perspective of the western nations and their global rivals. It goes to India’s credit that, from the time of Independence, it has conducted a foreign policy that was the opposite of colonialism, which it had itself endured for centuries. This is why, while the ‘impact’ of neo-imperialist China’s use of funding to acquire power over small and poor nations may be more visible, India’s ‘pro-people’ approach has earned it friends almost everywhere in the Third World, irrespective of regime changes. Afghanistan is a good example of this, where even the newly ensconced Taliban are eager to resume relations with India.
This trend is what inspired a foreign journalist to paint a picture of how Indian movies, music and cultural practices could become dominantly popular in the West, to which EAM Jaishankar’s response was, ‘Tumhare mun mein ghee shakar’. It would be a reflection of a less insular and paranoid world. India’s ability to exist as a civilisation full of diversity would be communicated in a world where people are still trapped in dominant racial, cultural and religious mindsets. India has achieved its multi-dimensionality by absorbing civilisational shocks over the ages, learning the useful and discarding the unnecessary. Even the present churn in Indian society that results from a more assertive economic and self-confident growth is moderated by its successful adoption of modern democracy. Nothing can be taken for granted as has been witnessed in the recent Karnataka elections.
The stereotypes of the past about India being a poor nation of snake charmers and cow worshippers are changing to new ones shaped by the achievements of the Satya Nadellas and Rishi Sunaks. The realisation, however, should be communicated that India is even beyond this and needs to be experienced at many levels. The soft power should be monetised into big bucks by attracting visitors – despite its extraordinary wealth of destinations and cultural products, it still does not receive anywhere near the number of tourists many smaller nations do. Just as the PM goes out to market India, so should other citizens at their levels. Much of India’s potential remains untapped and there is still a long way to go.