[Sansad TV] Perspective: Yoga- India’s Soft Power

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Recently, the world celebrated 8th edition of International Yoga day. Along with speeches about India’s ancient culture, the World Yoga Day inevitably invokes talk of India’s contemporary soft power.

In this article, we will analyse how Yoga is exemplifying India’s soft power.

“India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend and the great grandmother of tradition”

Mark Twain.

What is Soft Power in diplomacy?

  • In politics (and particularly in international politics), soft power is the ability to co-opt rather than coerce (contrast hard power).
  • It is the capacity to attract and persuade others to do things they otherwise wouldn’t.
  • It involves shaping the preferences of others through appeal and attraction.
  • Soft power resources are the assets that produce attraction or centre of attraction in geopolitical arena.

Etymology of the word

  • Joseph Nye, a US foreign policy veteran, coined the phrase soft power in 1990.
  • He encourages readers of his book The Future of Power to think of soft power in terms of resources
  • Power is derived from resources, and soft power is no different.
  • Hard power rests on military resources like navy fleets, attack aircraft and a capacity to inflict harm.
  • Soft power rests on three primary resources:
  1. Culture,
  2. Political values and
  3. Foreign policy

How is Yoga a soft power?

India has a tremendous cultural power or civilizational shakti that has maintained a profound impact on the world for thousands of years.

  • The very fact that the celebration as an international day at all is itself considered an example of India’s soft power.
  • International Day of Yoga reflects yoga’s immense popularity worldwide, underscoring its richness as a soft power resource.
  • Since 2006, yoga gurus were trying to lobby the UN to declare a world yoga day. Now these yog gurus have got their due recognition.
  • After a vigorous diplomatic push from PM Modi in 2014, the United Nations General Assembly put the date in the calendar.
  • By exposing and familiarising citizens of a globalised world with its own historic-cultural customs, India will gain geopolitical muscle to flex.
  • Yoga is a highly secular physical activity. Though originated form a Vedas, it does not represent any political religion. Ex. OIC, Commonwealth of Nations
  • Cultural power is perhaps the main diplomatic power in this era of global travel and the global economy. It must form an integral part of any realistic foreign policy.

Major declared objectives of Yoga

  • Optimism: It involves building a positive self-concept in oneself. Having a positive outlook helps a person to value himself and life in all forms.
  • Compassion: Being Compassionate means having empathetic qualities such as love, kindness, friendliness and doing no harm to others.
  • Inner Peace: Inner Peace as a theme is concerned with resolution of one’s own psychological conflicts and problems and discovering peace of mind. It includes ways of understanding the self and the process of thought, controlling emotions such as anger, art of soothing the mind etc.
  • Self-realization: The concept ‘Be your true self’ means the strength of the character to be honest and direct in expressing one’s needs, feelings and thoughts without letting others down. The skills in such behaviour are necessary for resolving conflicts and effective social interaction.
  • Peaceful existence: People need to learn to work harmoniously in groups with others. The theme living together can accommodate such subtopics as sharing, mutual help, trust building, taking group responsibility, leading and following. Learning cooperation reduces egoistic competitive tendencies in human beings.
  • Scientific temperament: Critical thinking on the part of the citizens is a necessary feature of a democratic society. It involves analysis, syntheses, looking at the other sides of an issue, searching for alternatives and logical thinking.
  • Non-violent conflict resolution: It encompasses such skills necessary for conflict resolution as conflict analyses, negotiation, active listening, mediation, creative problem-solving and alternative solution seeking.
  • Respect for human dignity: Respect for human dignity is based on the concepts of human rights, duties and justice. It attempts to develop a consciousness that recognizes and respects one’s own and others’ rights.
  • Communal Harmony: Building peace in community means providing opportunities for its members to be open to social realities and understand people’s problems and work with them.
  • Care for the planet: The health of the planet has direct and immediate influence on the destiny of mankind. Values like peace with nature, preservation of nature, appreciation and admiration of natural environment, reuse, repair, recycling natural resources, etc. are included in this theme

Limitations of soft power

  • Soft power has been criticized as for being ineffective or less effective tool in diplomacy.
  • Actors in international relations respond to only two types of incentives: Economic incentives and Forceful coercion.
  • As a concept, it can be difficult to distinguish soft power from hard power.
  • Rising powers such as China, are creating new approaches to soft power ex. Debt Traps, thus using it defensively.
  • Soft power can backfire, leading to reputational damage or loss, or what has been termed ‘soft disempowerment’. Ex. India’s perception in Maldives.

Initiatives by India showcasing its soft power

  • Principle of ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam’
  • Non-Alignment Movement
  • ‘Neighborhood First’ Policy
  • Vaccine diplomacy
  • Aid to Sri Lanka
  • Developmental aids in Afghanistan
  • Humanitarian assistance for disaster relief (HADR) in neighborhood
  • Political sensitization of leaders e. Late foreign minister responding to Tweets

Major achievements

  • India has moral high ground at the world forum especially due to the non-violent manner in which we had achieved our independence.
  • International support for tough decisions like abrogation of article 370, and maintaining neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine War. 
  • It keeps India distant from world conflicts like recently in Syria, Sudan, Israel-Palestine issue. So India earns goodwill from all over the world.

Threats to India’s soft power

  • India’s older regimes and academia did little to encourage, protect or to benefit from Yoga.
  • Perhaps no other country in recent times has so ignored the potential value of its soft power.
  • There is a cultural battle occurring in the media and academia, in which India’s civilizational views are poorly represented.
  • India’s cultural diplomacy is often labeled by the left liberals as a Hindutva Politics.

Way forward

  • India should move beyond asanas and analysis and take action.
  • Having the Indian story merely out there, jostling with a hundred other stories, isn’t necessarily winning the war of narrative.
  • Our cultural outreach must be well-oiled, well-funded, and primed to produce geopolitical clout.
  • Our moves — whether they be hard-to-power thrusts or soft power maneuvers — must emanate from consistent strategy.
  • In the age of the internet, India must amplify its strengths and work rapidly to right the wrongs.

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