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India’s Soft Power Success In Light Of Her G-20 Presidency

Abstract: India’s G20 Presidency in 2023 is not coincidental and not merely a routine one. Despite hurdles and obstacles, India was able to milk the success through exquisite hosting and efficient diplomacy. This presidential term was also pivotal in enhancing India’s image and credibility as a great power to the rest of the world. Beyond Yoga and films, the nation was able to market its diverse traditional and modern cultural attributes to increase its soft power in a short period. Accordingly, this article examines India’s rising soft power credentials in the context of India’s G20 Presidency under the second Modi government.  

Problem statement: How to understand India’s efforts to enhance its image both locally and globally with the help of multilateral organisations like the G20?

So what?: Thus far, the G20’s effectiveness and on-ground execution have been questionable. Despite the rotational presidency of G20, it was utilised by India as a whole and not just the government machinery.  The general public and institutions played a major role in the success of this year’s G20 meetings and summits amidst the polarisation.

Source: shutterstock.com/ssi77

Coercion, Inducement, Attraction

In the article “Soft Power”, Joseph Nye refers to the ability of states to influence or set the agenda through multiple methods. The three main methods suggested were coercion, inducement, and attraction.[1] The idea of ‘soft power’ is that the post-Cold War era is not dominated by countries with military strength or economic might but by other aspects that make these countries more relevant globally. In contrast to the age of states prioritising military security over everything else, soft power suggests a unique approach. Joseph Nye proposed that even if the U.S. was on the decline in the post-Cold War era, its soft power never declined and continues to remain robust. This is especially true if we take the example of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) whose soft power is unparalleled to that of the USA. In a recent survey, over 61 per cent of people worldwide see the role of the U.S. in the world positively.[2] Despite having the second-largest (by quantity) military before 2022, even Russia is not seen as an important player in world politics today.[3] Although Japan and Germany caught up economically with the U.S., they could not utilise their potential to be in the top positions. The days of evaluating bilateral relations as merely government-government interactions are history. The idea of diplomacy cannot be just reduced to formal relations between countries. Today is the age of people-to-people interaction, and soft power’s role is significant in the globalised world.

The idea of soft power is incomplete without accounting for the U.S.’s contribution to the same. The U.S. has the ability to influence outcomes in the system today. This ability is unrivalled by others in the international system. The idea of American exceptionalism is not new and has always been part of the country’s foreign policy. The U.S.’s major role on the global stage is not just due to its military stature but also its institutions, economy, technology, ideology, communication, and culture. In addition, the U.S. has utilised the period of globalisation to its fullest advantage. The country has also been open to accepting other cultures and people through immigration. The U.S. has succeeded in using Hollywood and radio as part of its soft power since World War II.[4] The PRC tried to replicate this success using alternate approaches through Hu Jintao’s doctrine of the “Peaceful Rise of China” in the 2000s.[5] Under Xi Jinping, Chinese actions do not reflect a peaceful China but a jingoistic and confrontational role in world affairs.

The U.S.’s major role on the global stage is not just due to its military stature but also its institutions, economy, technology, ideology, communication, and culture.

Nye pushes countries to look beyond conventional diplomacy to invoke public diplomacy that portrays culture, heritage, and entertainment. In the age of information and disinformation,  entertainment, media, and social media have equal importance in influencing public perceptions and opinions. Each country has a unique marketing potential, which distinctly allows it to pursue soft power as part of its foreign policy goals. All these factors have enabled the U.S. to become a superpower. Today, soft power is valued as an important strategic concept.[6]

India’s Soft Power- A Historical Understanding

India is a rising great power of the 21st century. It aspires to build its own path and destiny. Gradually departing from the ideas of isolation and non-alignment, Indian foreign policy changed its track in 1991 when the country decided to liberalise its economy. However, the idea of India’s soft power is not new.  In the 1950s and 1960s, India supported forging the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) with recently independent countries.[7] Under then-Prime Minister (PM) Jawaharlal Nehru, India was at the forefront of making the idea of uniting the Global South a reality. He believed that countries of the Global South could only develop through collaboration. In the 1970s, Ms Indira Gandhi constantly tried to promote India’s national interest on the world stage through its own doctrine of controlling the neighbourhood.[8] Hence, India always aspired to be on the centre stage of global geopolitics by using attraction as the main engine of soft power.

Under then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, India was at the forefront of making the idea of uniting the Global South a reality.

In the 1990s, India, under then-PM Narasimha Rao, extended its hands to both the East and the West. With the Pokhran Test-II in 1998, PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee wanted to project India as a strong nuclear power in the early 2000s. In the following years, India and the U.S. signed the landmark 123 agreement to gain access to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. In 2008, then-PM Manmohan Singh played a pivotal role in establishing the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) forum, celebrated today as a grouping of the Global South. Under Dr Singh’s leadership, India achieved its highest economic growth and extensive poverty alleviation.[9] India is the largest democracy in the world, the third-largest economy by Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms, has an influential and popular film industry and has the highest population in the working age. Today, under PM Narendra Modi’s leadership, India’s soft power diplomacy has reached a new level.[10]

India’s tourism sector is one of the largest and most vibrant worldwide. The country received more than 17 million foreign arrivals in 2019, the highest to date.[11] Historically, India has been a centre for trade, travel, and tourism. All these have been influenced by ages-old Indian culture. Indian heritage, the idea of unity in diversity, and heterogeneous Indian cuisine are well known globally.[12] India has always endorsed the concept of Atithi Devo Bhava, which means “Guests are treated as Gods”.  All these aspects, among others, have made India a top-ranker in tourism and historically contributed to India’s soft power. Besides this, Yoga and Bollywood have been assumed to be part of Indian soft power in the past few decades.[13] Since 1950, the Indian Centre for Cultural Relations (ICCR), established in the 1950s, has successfully held various events exhibiting the country’s cultural brilliance.[14] The role of ICCR in promoting cultural relations between Indian and Foreign populations cannot be understated. ICCR has 37 cultural centres in various cities around the globe, being an important part of India’s cultural diplomacy.[15] The institution provides facilities and incentives like scholarships for international students to study in India for various courses. The idea of leveraging India’s civilisational roots and cultural heritage came very late and has an immense potential to reach out to countries worldwide.

Beyond cultural aspects, India is using its diaspora to wield and boost its soft power. The Indian community abroad has tried to paint an internationally unique image of India. The pluralistic, secular, and tolerant qualities of Indian society have also helped the diaspora to gel well wherever they go. Indian restaurants and cultural marketing have always been integral to its gastro-diplomacy. This can also be credited to India’s economic rise in the late 20th century, making it an attractive destination for the West. India started exploiting this opportunity economically in the early 2000s.[16] In the 21st century, which is also known as the Asian century,[17] India is projecting its culture and other values to the world community while showing itself in the forefront.[18] It is seen as the pharmacy of the world. Even during the peak of the COVID pandemic, India helped partners through its Vaccine Diplomacy, an important part of India’s economic Soft power strategy.[19]

In the 21st century, which is also known as the Asian century, India is projecting its culture and other values to the world community while showing itself in the forefront.

Enhancing India’s global outreach and projecting its soft power have been important parts of Indian foreign policy under all administrations. PM Modi has furthered this through multiple instruments and a differential approach. The Indian worldview has also changed since 2014, when PM Modi first took charge.[20] The drastic shift in the soft power strategy is through more cultural and nationalism that he appeals to domestically. He emphasises the concept of a ‘New India,’ redefining the nation’s stature and identity domestically and globally.[21] The Modi government’s nationalism and pride in Indianness have put forward an alternative lens through which India sees the world.

G20 Presidency Aiding India’s Soft Power

Having overtaken the G20 Presidency from Indonesia in December 2022, India tried to make hosting G20 events a grand festival. India held the Presidency till November 2023, thereby handing it over to Brazil after a successful tenure.[22] Hosting an important forum like the G20 is a significant step toward India’s foreign policy objective of multilateralism and working towards a multipolar world.[23] The theme of G20 put forward by India was Vasudhaiva Kudumbakam One Earth, One Family, One Future – which is rooted in ancient Indian values. The theme strongly adheres to the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030. It shows India’s commitment to the world as opposed to a merely self-centred development. This idea of Vasudhaiva Kudumbakam represents the diversity and inclusivity it has always stood for. This slogan was first mentioned in the ancient text of Upanishad, and it holds true even today. For the longest period, the Indian worldview considered the entire world as a single family. India has always considered all the countries in the world to be given equal respect and support. Hence, India acts as a country to assist each other in times of disarray. The symbol of the G20 2023 was the lotus, which indicates a symbol of hope.[24] When India adorned the presidency, the world was still under the grip of the pandemic as PM Modi unveiled the logo, indicating that the world was hoping for a better world. The policy of vaccine diplomacy is a clear example of India’s selfless contribution to the rest of the world.  

For the longest period, the Indian worldview considered the entire world as a single family.

The Indian capital, New Delhi, hosted its largest conference since the 1983 Delhi Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit during the country’s G20 Presidency. New Delhi has hosted two Asian Games in the past and a grand Commonwealth Games in 2010. Diplomatically, the capital had successfully hosted the Third India-Africa Summit in 2015.[25] Although New Delhi has witnessed many world-class events, the G20 Summits marked a new chapter in history. During the presidency, India managed its multiple sectors well through effective governance.  Despite the pandemic, India is now a stable economy with steady growth and low inflation, and it is a prime example of political stability. This was amidst several other countries facing recession, low growth, and high inflation.[26]

How Did India Capitalise on the G20 Summit?

The 2023 G20 New Delhi Summit was a success, with a formal appraisal for hosting a grand conference with record participation and landmark milestones achieved. This took place against the backdrop of a world polarised by various issues, including Russia’s War of Aggression in Ukraine and the U.S.-PRC rivalry.

Foreign Policy Accomplishments

India’s invitation to various international forums highlights its intentions and contributions to the world. The Gurugram-based International Solar Alliance was one of the most important guest invitees to India’s G20, illustrating the country’s commitment to renewable energy. Similar is the case of the New Delhi-based Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI), which shows India’s dedication to the fight against climate change and disaster management.

India faces several natural disasters every year. Hence, it wishes to use the lessons acquired and share the best practices honed. G20 became an important platform for transmitting this knowledge to the rest of the world.[27] Another important invitee was the Asia Development Bank (ADB), in which India has a lot of stake. ADB, for India and countries of the Global South, is a symbol of belonging. Indian support for ADB indicates its opposition to the Washington Consensus. Even though India has taken support from Washington-based institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the conditionalities of getting their help have always been tough for countries from the Global South. All these measures affirm that India-based international organisations are being elevated to the world stage through this presidency.[28]

Even though India has taken support from Washington-based institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the conditionalities of getting their help have always been tough for countries from the Global South.

Despite the polarised environment and two heads of state skipping the Summit, a consensus was reached beyond expectations. Adopting the Delhi Declaration 2023 can be seen as an enormous success of India’s successful presidency and bridging the gap between G7 and other countries. Further, the induction of the African Union (AU) as a permanent member of G20 received widespread praise from several countries and organisations. This clearly shows the Indian urge to empower and engage the Global South. For the longest period, the voice of the South was not heard well in the various Eurocentric international bodies. The international institutions that came up during the Cold War are very much seen as favouring the Western ideas of democracy and neoliberalism, which puts developing countries at a disadvantage. The World Bank, IMF, WTO, and a few organs of the UN are seen as playgrounds of Western countries. The UNSC has been perceived as an elite club without any reform for 75 years, where countries of Asia and Africa are underrepresented. The only two institutions with adequate Global South representation were the G77 and NAM. In the absence of African member nations in G20, the African Union can be a collective voice for all the countries in the continent. This is indeed a diplomatic achievement for India and aiding India’s soft power. Moreover, India played a pivotal role in establishing two major milestone outcomes on the sidelines of the G20.

The India-Middle East- Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) is seen as an alternative to the PRC-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).[29] Unlike the BRI, India’s role in IMEC will be geo-strategically significant. IMEC will draw India closer to West Asia and Europe. Most of India’s exports are maritime in nature. India’s agricultural produce and seafood products are renowned across the world. Recently, Gulf countries have looked to India as a reliable trading partner.[30] Like BRI, IMEC lays a strong foundation for transport infrastructure covering road, rail and maritime routes.[31] The largest private port, Mundra Port, will be the focal point for India. More ports on the West Coast of India have the potential to be part of the corridor in the future.  The most significant part of IMEC would pass through the Middle East, benefiting locals and expatriates primarily from India.

For Europe, it is also an opportunity to decouple from both Beijing and Moscow and look elsewhere.[32] Europe’s energy diversity debate had taken centre stage to move away from Russia to other sources such as the Gulf. Unlike BRI, the corridor also has the backing of the U.S., making it more acceptable for Western countries to join. This corridor will also challenge China’s entry to the Gulf states at a time when alliances such as I2U2 (India, Israel, UAE, U.S.) are gaining prominence. With more challenges in the Gulf area, the U.S. is once again trying to anchor itself in the region.  The recent Hamas attack on Israel, Israel’s counter-offensive and attacks on the civilian ships in the Red Sea have exposed underlying faultlines and made this corridor indeed a challenging one to implement and bring to life. Despite the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, it would be harder for Israel and Arab countries to collaborate with each other amidst the hostilities. Hence, evaluating the success of the IMEC corridor will require a longer wait.

Europe’s energy diversity debate had taken centre stage to move away from Russia to other sources such as the Gulf.

The other significant outcome is the Global Biofuel Alliance (GBA), which aims to use sustainable fuels extracted from biomass as an alternative to fossil fuels.[33] Biofuels can be produced from Industrial bi-products and natural waste. The most well-known biofuel is ethanol, widely mixed with petrol and diesel to reduce greenhouse emissions. GBA ensures the promotion of the usage of biofuels in the upcoming years to fight climate change by achieving net zero emissions.[34] This alliance would be pivotal in environmental and energy security. 

Besides, in the larger geopolitical context, even as the PRC is getting closer to Russia and drifting away from the West, India remains in the good books of Western countries as a reliable partner. Despite pressure from G7 countries to condemn Russia, a traditional Indian partner, India was able to focus on bridging the divide and building a consensus. In this way, India was also able to accommodate Russia, implying strategic autonomy.

India as a Host – Infrastructure, Culture, and Hospitality

The story of India’s democracy and cultural objects dominated at the venue of the World Leaders Summit in Delhi. Statutes of Yoga postures welcome the guests to the venue inside. Yoga is one of India’s biggest contributions to the world regarding fitness, not just physically but mentally and spiritually. A prime example of this is International Yoga Day, which is celebrated every year on June 21. G20 shows the acceptability of India’s contribution to Yoga and its being an integral part of India’s soft power.[35] Including millet-based dishes is part of the UN’s celebration of the International Year of Millets. India, the world’s largest producer of the same, made an effort to promote millet on the world stage. Unlike other grains, millets consume less water and prevent soil fertility loss. As a more nutritious and cheaper alternative, it would help reduce world hunger, with India playing a pivotal role. This can help achieve the first and second goals of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030. No poverty and Zero hunger. 

The story of India’s democracy and cultural objects dominated at the venue of the World Leaders Summit in Delhi.

Indian Achievements

Amrit-Kaal, or the Age of Eternity, has been the administration’s most highlighted aspect since the 75th Independence Day 2022. It signifies the rise of India in global stature. The biggest achievement of the presidency was India’s ability to spread the word of G20 to every corner of the country. Different cities across multiple states hosted multiple meetings throughout the tenure, symbolising India’s unique socio-cultural projection and cooperative federalism. The G20 website was an elaborate collection of what India stands for, showcasing the country’s accomplishments in the recent past. The visiting leaders and delegates could get first-hand experience of India and its unique culture, which is not restricted to just one region.

G20 focused on the recent policies and achievements of the current Government. The G20 website had a section on the present government’s latest policy successes, such as the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) revolution, Smart City, and Digital India, among others. The UPI is one of the biggest payment systems in the world and the cornerstone of the Modi government. Digital India has successfully ensured various government schemes reach citizens efficiently and without haste. This move was an indirect invitation for countries worldwide to invest in India and see it as an attractive country. Many countries have shown interest in adopting and implementing India’s payment technology in their respective countries.

Two booklets, one on India as the “Mother of Democracy” and the other on “Elections in India”, which is the largest democratic elections in the world, were distributed as gifts for the guest delegates.[36] India’s democratic credentials are well-known. Being a stable democracy with a robust economy is an attractive point for countries globally. Unlike the PRC’s closed system, which has very little democracy, India can also counter China in this sphere. On the second day of the summit, the Heads of State visited the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi at Rajghat before attending the closing ceremony. Mahatma Gandhi is a world-renowned leader and a freedom fighter. He is respected for his contributions to non-violence, brotherhood, and perseverance. Including this visit as part of the summit has reopened the discussion of Indian values and leaders who have contributed to the same at the international level. Rajghat is an important historic monument to visit in Delhi that reminds the world of Gandhian contributions to the Indian Freedom Struggle and inspiring decolonisation movements globally. The world leaders visiting the monument is a symbolic gesture of the world’s acceptance of Gandhian values not restricted to the boundaries of individual countries.

G20 Media Coverage and Its Effect on India’s Soft Power

Media has always been an important part of soft power discourse in international relations. The ability of international media to influence politics at a global scale. Thus, the role of global media and its coverage is significant in enhancing a country’s soft power. The more attention a country gets, the higher its soft power will be. Historically, many in India believe that global media has always portrayed the country negatively. They are branded as propaganda by political parties in India across the spectrum and are instead termed as Western elite media. Undoubtedly, the fame and influence of public opinion are very important to a country’s image. With one of the largest populations of internet users who are literate in English, Indians are at the forefront, reacting to news stories published by various news outlets.

The role of global media and its coverage is significant in enhancing a country’s soft power.

G20 was widely covered by domestic and foreign media, showing public interest in the summit and its outcomes. Media from other G20 member states and invitee nations have extensively covered the welcoming of their respective heads. Over 2,000 journalists from around the world were present to report on the summit.[37] India expected a very warm response through media coverage for its great hospitality and diplomatic successes. International media coverage of the summit was a mixed bag. One of the outlets indicated Putin’s and Xi’s absence at the World Leader’s Summit was a success. At the same time, Politico went harsh on the West for going easy on Russia as the summit refrained from condemning Russia. The New York Times criticised the Delhi Declaration 2023 for taking a step back from the Bali Declaration 2022 and condemned the Russian aggression in the context of Ukraine. BBC was critical about the choice of words in the G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration and the fact that the war was not higher up on the agenda.[38] Conversely, the Washington Post praised India for several pro-Western steps like countering the PRC and partnering in the IMEC corridor. Meanwhile, NBC News talked about how India is extending its global clout through G20 but raised concerns about India’s dropping press freedom.[39]  

Overall, the coverage of the G20 summits by International Media has undoubtedly amplified the reach of India’s successful hosting of the G20 summit and enhanced India’s soft power. The role of the current government’s strategies in investing time and money into event management and public relations cannot be understated. Thereby, the increasing role of domestic and international media will have a larger role at the global level.

India’s Collaboration with Japan’s G7 Presidency

India was an invitee to the G7 Meeting held in Japan this year. Japan has always seen India as a trusted partner in various aspects. Both have been strategic partners since 2011. Japan is a significant investor in several infrastructure projects and startups. India and Japan are an integral part of the Quad initiative, along with the U.S. and Australia, to contain and counter the PRC in the Indo-Pacific region. Like India, Japan is going the extra mile to engage with the Global South. Hence, India values its relationship with Japan extensively.

India was an invitee to the G7 Meeting held in Japan this year. Japan has always seen India as a trusted partner in various aspects.

The collaboration between the Presidencies of both countries was a success. LiFE (Lifestyle for Environment) has been the major area for collaboration between both countries during the tenures of their respective presidencies.[40] PM Modi was among the most important guest invitees for the Hiroshima 2023 G7 Summit. Participating in matters of global importance has strategically added to India’s soft-power discourse.

G20 and India’s Soft Power- Challenges and Opportunities

The people’s participation and India under Modi successfully portrayed pride and enthusiasm to the global community. In PM Modi’s era, the role of the Indian diaspora increased by leaps and bounds as a facet of Indian foreign policy. G20 might seem too academic and diplomatic to the rest of the world, but it was a buzz among the public in India. An average Indian would believe that the G20 Presidency of India is an extraordinary achievement. The world is waking up to an India actively playing a big role on the world stage. Undoubtedly, people in India are aware of what is happening in the world and are trying their best to be part of India’s soft power story. Besides, India has projected the summit as a victory of the Global South through the agendas, discussion, and the inclusion of the African Union (AU) as a permanent member. Compared to other regional organisations, AU’s role in international politics is seldom discussed.

India has projected the summit as a victory of the Global South through the agendas, discussion, and the inclusion of the African Union as a permanent member.

Even when the Delhi Summit has been successful, the G20’s lack of an execution mechanism makes it a questionable framework. Despite its progress, the G20 is still a Western-centric institution. As a large group, achieving a consensus for decision-making is quite difficult. Thus, the extent to which the G20 is a platform for India to further its national interests is questionable. This is also where India’s soft power will face roadblocks and challenges.

India’s claim of being ‘Vishwaguru’ (A leader/teacher to the world) is impossible to achieve if the country is unable to solve its own problems. India needs to focus on its immediate neighbourhood. China is undermining its relations with India and refuses to acknowledge the importance of G20 and India’s Presidency. This world is not just made up of allies but also adversaries. Even when the host collaborates with trusted allies, its inability to bring two important world leaders’ Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, to New Delhi must be examined.

Beyond debate, Indian soft power has set a record with exquisite hosting and effective diplomacy. In addition to organising an event with record participation, it succeeded in taking Indian culture to the rest of the world beyond Yoga and Bollywood. Indian art forms, heritage, democracy, food, policies initiated to attract investments, and India’s economic success have also become part of the Indian soft power discourse.

The G20 presidency, offending just months before India’s national elections, has added to marketing and publicity both within and outside the country. A good blend of soft and hard power is what India can exploit to get recognition in the global community. After a successful BRICS Summit, the Chandrayaan 3’s soft-landing on the moon, and now G20, 2023 will go down in history as one of the most important years in Indian Foreign Policy, adding to Indian soft power.

Jairam R Prabhu is a freelance writer and an independent researcher on politics, international relations and technology. He completed his Masters in International Relations from Christ University, Bangalore, and has published articles on various digital media outlets. He has recently co-authored a book chapter on Cooperative Federalism in South Asia and Europe by Routledge. The views contained in this article are the author’s own.

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[32] Euronews, “From India to Europe: What Opportunities and Challenges Will New Corridor Bring?,” Euronews, December 15, 2023, www.euronews.com/business/2023/12/15/from-india-to-europe-economic-corridor-to-offer-new-trade-opportunities.

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[40] PIB, “Collaboration between India’s G20 Presidency and Japan’s G7 Presidency, a Unique Opportunity for Both Countries to Shape the Future of the World towards ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’,” January 2023, https://pib.gov.in/PressReleaseIframePage.aspx?PRID=1890701#:~:text=Speaking%20on%20this%20occasion%20Shri,world%20towards%20%E2%80%9CVasudhaiva%20Kutumbakam%E2%80%9D%20or.

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