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Communicating India's Soft Power: Buddha to Bollywood

RISJ Admin

Contributing Author

Sudhi Sen writes:Can India be a bridge between the West and the Islamic world? Put differently, can India prevent or in some way minimise what is widely termed as the "Clash of Civilisations"?
Notwithstanding India's own failings and internal contradictions that at times threaten to shake its very foundations, Professor Daya Thussu is hopeful that it can. He believes that India's "multi-cultural" and "multi-religious" society and the long history of "peaceful coexistence of religions" make India automatically best positioned to throw up solutions that will help the West and Islamic world understand each other better.
To his credit Professor Thussu doesn't use the term "Clash of Civilizations." He did however, gently nudge and point his audience towards the alleged tensions between the West and Islamic world.
India's pre-eminence in possibly playing a bridging role is strengthened by several factors, including its moderately high but continuous economic growth. India grew at about 5 per cent in the last few years despite a global down turn. The other socio-economic factors that aid India in this venture are a growing middle-class, or a "demographic dividend": more than 70 per cent of its population is under 35 years old, conversant with the English language, and a trained technical workforce. All these, argues Thussu, add weight to India's voice in the community of Nations and enhance its ability to work out a solution.
More importantly, Thussu believes India's vast and yet underutilized "Soft Power" places it ideally to play this role of arbiter and peacemaker. India's Soft Power, according to Thussu, includes Buddhism and its influence over large swathes of people, "Bollywood" and its yet uncharted influence, the worldwide 'Yoga industry', and finally the very large and widely spread Indian diaspora. He also leans on Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranth Tagore and Jhawarlal Nehru and their continued influence as further proof to buttress his argument.  Even today they still stand out for espousing non-violence as a means of protest, for promoting cosmopolitanism, and a non-alignment movement to deal with opposing world views.
Professor Thussu's thesis was well argued, cogent and even convincing. But several questions need to be raised; the first is how valid is the concept of "Clash of Civilisations"? How is India doing internally, and can it at all play the role of a just arbiter on the world stage? The concept of the "Clash of Civilisations" found many takers among policy makers, arms manufacturers, generals and admirals in the US (many of whom would have been otherwise jobless after the end of the Cold War).
But, in my view, it remains doubtful whether there has been or likely to be such a clash. On a more theoretical plane, the concept is erroneous. The primary deficit is that it confines culture into a box, or assumes that there exists a homogenous relationship between religion, culture and identity. Finally, could India play the role that Professor Thussu sees it to be playing?
Briefly, and as Professor Thussu himself admits, the extent of poverty in India is huge. It has many other problems like a sagging economy, growing communal disharmony, and rising incidences of insurgency within the country. All these mean that India will have to concentrate more on its internal problems at the cost of looking outwards. And despite claiming to be regional power, India still hasn't been able to work out a reasonable solution with Pakistan - a country with which it shares ethnic and cultural routes.