Assessing India’s “soft” power: Viable in relations with Af-Pak? – II


“Soft” Power in India’s Foreign Policy

To effectively understand “soft” power influence in India’s foreign policy, this topic is divided into two segments. The first segment will outline India’s foreign relations with Pakistan within the background of Indus Water Treaty. This will cover India’s “hydro diplomacy” and how it influences India’s foreign relations. The second segment outlines India’s extensive relations with Afghanistan, particularly highlighting “cultural diplomacy” and its importance in India’s foreign policy.

The concept of “soft” power so “detailed” by prominent scholar and political expert Joseph S Nye, one understands by soft power as “to achieve objectives desired by a nation and the same objectives desired by another nation, without using coercion tactics, but through cooperation and coordination”.

Elongating the aforementioned argument, Nye states that, a nation’s soft power rests on three principle pillars: culture (attractive enough to invite people from all over the world), domestic politics (the government steps for the welfare of the people) and the foreign policy (the nation’s participation at the global arena). Another feature which could be added here, the nation’s efforts to keep its masses secure and its ability to counter non-traditional actors, terror based violence and nuclear capable “threatening” states creating a scenario of a full-scale military action in the near future.

India is the only nation which shares it borders with all South Asian nations except Afghanistan, and with frequent skirmishes along its border with China, which it shares a previous history of “military confrontation”. Thus, India’s foreign policy has largely been influenced by the nation’s culture and politics and welfare policies. It would not be incorrect to state that, “India’s soft power is centred on India’s neighbours and its success lies heavily on extensive cooperation through economic independence, strengthened cultural cooperation and humanitarian assistance”. The success of soft power diplomacy of a nation relies heavily on the nation’s domestic “public policy”.

Through the nation’s practice of public diplomacy, one can understand its effects on the nation’s foreign policy, and its ability to influence the masses of target nation as well as its ability to influence the masses of their own country. With global integration, cooperation and coordination, domestic politics influenced by public policy plays a major role in deciding a nation’s external relations.

Although traditionally, public diplomacy involves interaction limited to designated government machineries only, the “advanced order of public diplomacy” involves, frequent exchange of ideas and active participation of concerned actors of the state followed by active participation of the non-state actors. This “advance public diplomacy” is not only limited to frequent diplomatic delegations meet, dialogues, summits but also involves extensive interaction between the state machineries in an effort to strengthen bond between nations, and further strengthening public appeal within the targeted audience.

Policy makers must note that, India’s public diplomacy in the post-1990 was largely influenced by “Gujral doctrine”, a framework actively advocated by the Indian Prime Minister I.K Gujral in 1997. The doctrine repeatedly remined India to respect “sovereign equality, maintain non-interference and non-reciprocal magnanimity”.

Although, the success of the Gujral doctrine was extensively argued, which continues to be argued even at international arena today. The success of the Gujral doctrine depends principally on India’s South Asian neighbours, if they adhere to the doctrine and follow it strictly, particularly those of non-interference and systematic use of violent non-state actors, Gujral doctrine would then be successful. India, rising under a new leadership, has not only expanded Gujral doctrine, but also rigorously follows it.

Moreover, Gujral doctrine majorly emphasises on “South Asian countries refusal to accept any sovereign interference or control of its territory in an effort to inflict wounds of instability and chaos against another country”. This points directly towards the extensive partnership between India enjoys with Afghanistan, which Pakistan in an effort to compromise the success of this relationship, uses violent non-state actors to spread violence and political instability in Kashmir while spreading terrorism in Kabul. In the light of such “stress relationship”, strategic security continues to be a primary priority for India at diplomatic corridors. Looking after its strategic interests, India’s diplomatic relationship with Pakistan hinges majorly on public diplomacy and “extensive public diplomacy” in its foreign relations with Afghanistan. In the light of diplomatic relations aforementioned, “soft power” aspect in India’s foreign policy aggressively covers three segments of Nye’s “soft power” concept i.e. propagating national culture or language, domestic politics and lucrative foreign policy.

Assessing Hydro-diplomacy

Today, water scarcity has not only taken a toll on “socio-economic” elements of life, but also forced nations to involve “hydro-diplomacy” as an active element in its foreign policy. Global instances such as Turkey reducing the flow of water into the Euphrates and Israel preventing the transport of clean water in Palestine settlements, clears nation’s agenda to use basic “socio-economic” needs such as water as elements of war. In an effort to accomplish their strategic and political influenced objectives, nations extend their battle to “water wars”.

The equal distribution of water resource not only balances the relationship between communities but also enhances the socio-economic development of regions, this then becomes a non-traditional security for the nations, with the capability to influence domestic and international issues. Since, disagreements on numerous issues force a nation to use natural resource as a bargaining chip, unstable “vulnerable” local governance might escalate use of hydro-diplomacy from a bargaining chip to a cause of war. In an effort to de-escalate the issue, policy makers utilize maximum public diplomacy by inviting technocrats, environment experts and engineering gurus to reinforce hydro-diplomacy, and in the name of sustainable development, actively propagate ideas on public domain. Although active diplomacy over the distribution of water or any natural resource may not result into a closure of other relevant issues between countries, rather opens a gate for dialogue between the nations, which serves as a gateway to regional cooperation which might result in closing a long-standing issue.

The sponsoring of the Indus Water Treaty by the World Bank Group (WBG) which was later signed between India and Pakistan in 1960, has become a principle example of “hydro-diplomacy” where both the nations, which fought over four wars, kept their differences aside and in the interests of socio-economic security of the people understood the need to cooperate.

It is important to note that, India and Pakistan are agrarian economies and like all agrarian economies they relay majorly on water availability which not only ensures food and water security but also paves a path for industrial developments in the region. Moreover, India is an emerging economy with a rapid dependency over agrarian economy followed by growing population.

Water security, along with strategic security and diplomacy are aggressively interlinked, opening the closing the doors of water sharing on the slightest possibility of a conflict, untraceable elements responsible and political actors benefitting the most. Inability to fulfil the guidelines and frameworks drafted by the water sharing countries, majorly effects the lower riparian countries. Furthermore, if policy makers continue to use public diplomacy and hydro diplomacy simultaneously, the outcomes so desired by the state would be promising. This would result in active participation of hydro based think tanks and non-governmental organizations which could not only de-escalate the issue but also help in strengthening the “relationship over water” between the two.


In the light of recent entanglements between New Delhi and Islamabad over Indus Water Treaty, diplomatic dialogues have opened doors for active participation of non-governmental experts, hydro-based think tanks, which have majorly contributed in stabilizing the relations between the two nations.

Assessing Cultural diplomacy

For nations, cultural diplomacy plays a vital role in strengthening public diplomacy, a key asset used to further strengthen peaceful relations, ensure respect to each other and successfully “water the seeds of relationship”. Here, cultural diplomacy is not just limited to domestic politics, but also actively invite experts from variant fields to design educational and cultural programs, cinema actors, theatres on vivid culture and plays of prominent personalities in the field of drama.

Although, when culture begins to play an important role in public diplomacy, the latter takes the shape of an “overhead figure”. On the contrary to public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy lays the foundation of deep rooted cultural individualistic nature which leaves a deep impact on the individual’s conscious. On many accounts, the nation’s cultural diversity can be influencive, lucrative and attractive at the same time and leaves behind a deep impact on the masses, fulfilling the goals of “soft” power diplomacy. Then, the diplomacy too begins to show the influences of culture which further strengthens the bond between nations.

For India, it has all been possible because of The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) which is the principle agency playing an active role in “culture diplomacy” since 1950s, participating actively in bilateral relations, signatory to many treaties ensuring competency and legitimacy in cooperation through cultural exchanges. India and Afghanistan enjoys a much deeper extensive cultural and historical relationship than any country. This bond has been further strengthened after the ratification of Agreement on Cultural Relations, which New Delhi and Kabul signed in1963. This bond has recently been reinforced with the ratification of Strategic Partnership Agreement as early as 2011.

Cultural policies are indeed thoroughly drafted by the state machineries, cultural exchange programmes are largely actively participated and, on many occasions, instigated by non-state actors, in an effort to showcase vast rich cultural heritage and vivid diversities. Kabul, in an effort to extend its partnership with India, proposed to open a consulate at Hyderabad, the Afghan Ambassador to India highlighted Kabul’s interests in strengthening “people to people contact” referring to extensive ties in cultural exchange programs, university student exchange initiates and cooperation at the health sector.

The active participation of non-government institutions, think tanks and cultural centres has further strengthened the relations between New Delhi and Kabul, further enhancing public diplomacy skills. Moreover, popular exchanges have resulted in growing interests of Afghans in Bollywood screenings moving ahead in “positive perception” with India. Policy makers must note that, soft power, in literal terms, relates to any power which lay outside the traditional realm of “aggressive, coercive tactics”, which propagates actively within the public domains and relies mostly on cooperation and coordination with regional non-state actors, participating actively on both the sides.24

The argument aforementioned, describes the diplomacy at international corridors on a larger scale and also explores the relationship between India and Pakistan along with India and Afghanistan, highlighting India’s socio-economic and strategic interests. Although, India did not hesitate to adopt and implement “soft” power approach in its foreign relations particularly with nations so volatile, dedicating its resources to serving its national interests, particularly in the light of intense tension, policy makers must focus on two pertinent factors.

First, the concept of “soft” power will only be successfully implemented in a nations foreign policy, when its methods of propagating democracy and a strong political will, able to influence the masses. Armed with a multi ethnic community, Afghanistan too witness different individualistic voices towards India-Afghanistan relations. The Tajiks along with a major progressive community of Pashtun hails India for its cooperation in development, another segment, the Taliban, which controls the Pashtun region, criticises India’s cooperation aggressively.

Second, policy makers must understand that, any nations “soft” power elements in foreign policy might not necessarily be assertive or successful in bridging issues with nations. India’s efforts to counter Pakistan’s growing influence and interference in Kashmir can come to a sudden halt, particularly when Islamabad reaches out to Beijing for assistance. Holding the seat of permanent member at the United Nations Security Council, and China’s aggressive “regularly” skirmishes on the borders, particularly when both the nations share a “militaristic” history, China share a “contentious” relationship with India. This Pakistan-China alliance can pose a serious threat to India’s border security on two fronts.

It is important for policy makers to understand that, looking at India’s growing military arsenal, a direct confrontation with any of the country, would be “fatal”. Furthermore, military unpreparedness can severely compromise “soft” power approaches. Hence, in the light of aforementioned arguments, it is “safe” to presume that “soft and hard” power is best useful, when it is “intrinsic and interlinked” to each other. The essential elements of foreign relations of a nation exists on this, delicate yet systematic relationship between the two concepts.