Opinion

"India's Ministry of External Affairs is one of the best in South Asia"

Interview with Alexey Kupriyanov
Alexey Kupriyanov
PhD in History, Senior Research fellow, Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) of the Russian Academy of Sciences, RIAC Expert
In his exclusive interview for PICREADI
Alexey Kupriyanov, Russian expert on India, reveals some secrets of Indian soft power and states that India's External Affairs is one of the best in South Asia. But why?
Their world consists of three concentric zones: the immediate neighborhood, extended neighborhood zones and the rest of the world.
PICREADI: Is India the subject or the object of soft power? How does India see its soft power approach in the world and does it see it at all?

Alexey Kupriyanov (AK): India as any other country is at the same time both the object and the subject. With great importance attached to India by the great powers trying to ensure for themselves India's support, the country is the object. It is well proved by the US soft power programs targeted at India. Numerous meetings, promotion of dialogue with experts and Indian youth, and business trips invitations are used by the US.

At the same time India is the soft power subject. That is why we should apprehend its political worldview. Their world consists of three concentric zones: the immediate neighborhood, extended neighborhood zones and the rest of the world. The immediate neighborhood zone includes the Indian subcontinent and all the neighboring islands, the extended neighborhood zone includes Eastern Africa, Central Asia, the coastal areas of the Arabian sea, Middle East and South East Asia. That is the zone that is influenced upon by India's soft power. India is not able to use the hard power there due to the lack of resources, as well as necessity and will. So, the soft power develops.

Undoubtedly its influence spreads upon the rest of the world: it is enough to recall Indian films, Yoga days and the demonstration of its beautiful, old culture which dates back to 3000 B.C. Anyway, in the immediate neighborhood and extended neighborhood zones the Indian soft power programmes are much more extensive and detailed. The Indians organize military and police trainings, young politicians courses and etc., as a result a number of pro-Indian experts, officials and politicians emerge.

PICREADI: How is the system of public diplomacy structured in India? Does the government play significant role in this structure?

AK: India's system of public diplomacy works intensively through Indian Embassies, to which cultural, press and educational attaches are attached. Indian embassy maintains closest contacts with Indian, pro-Indian and India-linked circles, or at least tries to establish contacts with them. India will use everything that can be used to achieve the goals of public diplomacy. ISKCON represents a good example of this trend. In India itself they are regarded not so well, but abroad they represent Indian culture and so they are treated differently, because if you have something to do with ISKCON you will be pro India a priori.
1st special course for Tunisian diplomats held at the Foreign Service Institute of the MFA of India, 2018
PICREADI: The Raisina Dialogue, which has been held for some years, is a key expert event in the field of international relations and diplomacy. What is the aim of this events? To improve the image of the country? Or to organize international cooperation?

AK: In fact, it is not the only one such event in India, there is a lot of various events. Raisina Dialogue is the most well-known one. Schools of young politicians are held in India on the regular basis. This instrument is now intensively used by both the West ant the East. Generally, big forums and conferences invite foreign experts to establish relations with their Indian counterparts. Young politicians schools last for one month or month and a half, there are lectures and the participants communicate with each other.

I know those who participated in these programs, and they got quite impressed, because it was the first time they visited the country and lived in it. This people leave the country with absolutely different feelings, because they already know the country, they love it and leave the country being an advocate of the Russian-Indian friendship, for instance.

PICREADI: So, the government of India is willing to develop the country's positions in terms of soft power?

AK: That's true, Indian Foreign Ministry rigorously follows this sphere and successfully implements all the necessary programs. Indian Foreign Ministry is truly one of the best in South Asia.
PICREADI: In spite of the fact that the idea of non-violence is a traditional leitmotif of Indian policy, the most privileged strategic partnership with Russia develops not in the soft power, but in military-technical cooperation. What are the prospects of diversification of Russian-Indian partnership?

AK: In fact, it is already quite diversified. Our cultural and scientific center (Russian Center for Science and Culture in New Delhi - "CD") proactively works on strengthening of our culture ties and has already achieved considerable success. The ground is fertile there. Cultural links between Russia and India date back to the late 19th century, we should remember that Tolstoy's ideas shaped Gandhi's worldview. There are a lot of Soviet textbooks, printed in the Soviet Union in Indian languages, which were used by several generations. Russia's image in India is still very positive, mostly thanks to this background.

PICREADI: Does it influence the youth as well?

AK: Sure, it influences the youth less. First, our work in this aspect is not enough, second, back then we were a superpower and now we are not. It is clear that the youth incline towards the US, but with great influence of their families and social attitudes, the country has positive perception of Russia.

A lot of Indians visit Russian Center for Science and Culture in New Delhi leaded by Fiodor Rozovsky to learn the language, Russian culture and national dances. One of the central streets in New Delhi is called Tolstoy Marg, there are monuments to Tolstoy, Pushkin, in Nehru park there is a monument to Lenin, with floral breathes. For sure India is interested in Russia as well as Russia is interested in India. Cultural ties are okay, but economic ones are much more fragile.

China is far richer, but India holds all the nonfinancial actives and is able to carry out religious projects in South East Asia.
China is far richer, but India possess all the non-financial actives and may carry out religious diplomacy projects in South East Asia.
PICREADI: Russian-Indian partnership is developing against escalating Indian-Chinese confrontation on a great number of strategic issues (differences on the "One belt one road" initiative, etc.). There is a confrontation in cultural areas as well. May India take advantages of the drawbacks of Chinese model? In which countries it might do it?

AK: Firstly, we should clarify the terms. India isn't Chinese adversary, foe, it is Chinese rival in some infrastructural and political influence projects in South East Asia and border areas. India doesn't strongly oppose the Belt and Road project. It is against China using disputed territories, as the China - Pakistan Economic Corridor goes through the lands over which India claims its sovereignty. China didn't asked permission of India to do so. It represents an acute political issue, but there is no existential confrontation. If this issue is resolved, the problem will cease to exist.

Generally speaking, culturally India and China have been closely linked for a long period of time. It is enough to recall the evolution that underwent the image of bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara after it had negotiated the Himalayas, had feminised and had turned into the Godness of the hearth Guanyin.

Their economic ties are of the same importance. China is a major exporter of goods in India and one of the major investors into Indian economy. Despite all the differences, the countries continue to trade and the turnover is rapidly rising. So, we should discuss China-India rapprochement, as the Doklam confrontation was set aside in the context of prime minister's Modi visit to Wuhan and rising cooperation.

Indian – Chinese confrontation in the soft power sphere can hardly be discussed, as the countries offer fundamentally different product. There are countries oriented towards China, there are countries oriented towards India, some countries manage to successfully combine these directions. China is far richer, but India possess all the non-financial actives and may carry out religious diplomacy projects in South East Asia. Small countries try to get on with both countries, for example in some infrastructural project they rent a port for reconstruction to China and the nearby airport to India.
PICREADI: One of the largest elements of soft power is the higher education. What about Indian soft power implementation through education?

AK: It is all right. India invites foreign students, and there is nothing difficult in going to India to study, as they have a lot of educational programmes. Jawaharlal Nehru University, the University of Delhi and all the major universities exercise programs for foreign students. They are backed by the government.

PICREADI: There is an opinion that India could promote its own model (including the global governance model), which is different from the liberal Western one and the Chinese authoritarian one, through education. Is that true?

AK: To do so, India should first make up such model. I would argue that the Chinese model is an authoritarian model. On the contrary, China undertakes attempts to create "a community of shared future for mankind" and accuses Western countries of authoritarianism and neocolonialism. Nowadays China is proactively inviting students from the Third World countries to train them as pro-Chinese, but on the other hand China isn't interested in these students building specific African socialism under the auspices of a local Communist Party. It is mainly aimed at developing communication with Chinese people and promoting cooperation of China and their country of origin. India is doing something similar, it trains pro-Indian personnel, which transmits Indian influence and advocates friendly relations with India.
PICREADI: In case of India, Indian diaspora's potential is of particular interest (It is one of the largest in the world). External policy of Indian prime minister Modi features direct appeal to Indian diaspora overseas. How does the diaspora influence Indian image abroad?

AK: Firstly, as the Indian diaspora is so numerous, the appeal to it is a permanent feature of Indian policy. It has been shaping since Indians were settling down in the Indian ocean region, exercising their soft and not-so-soft power in South East Asia, establishing Indian and Buddhist kingdoms, settling down in Eastern Africa before the European reached the region. Under the British Empire it scaled up with British hiring Indians and sending them to the most remote corners of the vast empire. This is how Indian colonies were established in Barbados, Fiji, developed in Eastern Africa and in the Gulf countries.

The diaspora's potential is quite a difficult question. Diaspora is one of the major sources of money, particularly the diasporas in rich countries, such as the Gulf countries. Indians go there to earn money, but they have no civil rights there and barely integrate into local communities: Indians can't be granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia and so they live in the country as workers. They send money to India.

In the US Indians integrate into society and step-by-step become more Americans than Indians. There was a wide spread opinion that Indian diaspora is exceptionally large and powerful in the US. Indeed, it is huge and some of the representatives of the diaspora occupy quite high positions in the Senate and the Congress. But the US Indians are americanised.

The result of this phenomenon is evident in the outcome of the attempts to exempt India from US sanctions, which would have been introduced, if India had bought the S-400 missile system. And all of a sudden Indian diaspora proved to be totally useless in solving the issue. A great number of articles by distinguished americanised Indians calling to stop putting pressure on India were published in Indian and US top media resources, in The Diplomat, NYT and others, but it produced no results. It became clear that Indian diaspora on which so many hopes were placed turned out to be useless in solving conflicts of interest.

Indians that are engaged in public affairs in the United States put the US interests over Indian and consider the US-India rapprochement through the lens of US interests. So, India managed to suspend the sanctions without diaspora's help, but thanks to the highly important geopolitical interest of containing China secured by Pentagon and the Department of State, which needed India to be friendly neutral. This impotence of the diaspora should be reflected on.

In other countries the character of diaspora's influence is much more specific. The inability of diaspora to get along with the local population of Fiji constitutes continuous problem for Indian government. Indians living in the Middle Eastern countries become a financial source for the country, but once a war starts India evacuates its citizens spending a great deal of money, as it happened in Yemen.

What is more Indians left some colonial heritage, which is particularly evident in Eastern Africa. When the British colonised Eastern Africa, Indians were much more loyal to the British and so they became merchants, policemen, minor officials, that is why when the liberation movements started, they were sometimes treated even worse than the British. For instance, Indian diaspora failed to survive in Zimbabwe; in the South African Republic, vice versa, the diaspora is thriving and is engaged in political affairs. Somewhere the diaspora is economically powerful, but totally passive from the political point of view, somewhere it is all around.
Photo: Preston Merchant
Photo: Flickr
Photo: Flickr
PICREADI: In Russia Indian diaspora is not so large. Could it be used as a soft power instrument in Russia?

AK: There are Indians who settled in the Soviet Union, who studied here, got married, born children, and got russiafied. They have a significant role in the Russia-India rapprochement. These are businessmen, journalists.

There are several reasons why the diaspora in Russia is not so large. Firstly, language barrier, secondly, the climate. Indians suffer from the lack of sunny days in winter more than from cold. Finally, we have a state dominated by a major nation unlike in the US, for example. In the Los Angeles you'll see an American nation shaping in real time by Afro-Americans, Koreans, Chinese, Latin Americans and other peoples, so Indians will have this sense of belonging. In Russia the vast majority speaks Russian, there is a tiny minority of migrants from the non-CIS countries. There is an Indian diaspora in Russia and it is living quite good, but politically it has no influence. Their main role is to establish relations. It helps others, maintains relations with the motherland.
PICREADI: In terms of soft power, private media in India is of particular interest. One of the recent examples is the so called "modimania". From your point of view, why this phenomenon has emerged?

AK: First of all Modi is well received by the diaspora. When he visits a country, he is cheered as national leader, under whose governance the country is transforming into a great power.

Modi as a politician is quite interesting personality. He is as powerful, as those who made new Indian history: Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi. Under the last prime minister Manmohan Singh, characterized by Indians as a weak leader, some issues were talked down, he wasn't able to act strongly. He should take into account interests of numerous small groups, particular personalities. That resulted in stalemate. He was quite predictable, the country has been developing economically, but he wasn't able to undertake sharp policies.

Modi is so different from him. He is perceived as "a miracle worker": he launched the "India cleaning programme" (creating a system of public lavatories and street cleaning) in 2004, which his precedents weren't able to realize. Taking into account the scale of the problem, it seemed to be impossible, but in 5 years he managed to put it in practice. Nowadays India differentiates from the India of the past. Modi promises to provide everyone with gas, water, and electricity before his term ends. Modi is criticized, but his achievements should be acknowledged.

Modi's charisma is evident in his speeches. He feels the audience quite well, which is so rare. He is able to seize the interests of the audience, its attention and speaks about the issues it is interested in, changing the line of the speech as soon as he needs it. Other public politicians aren't able to do so. Modi is not only a public politician; he is also the head of the state.

What is more, he is the same as the majority of Indians: he is a Hindu, and he doesn't show off his secularism. In Russia we usually make jokes of the elements of national identity, but for Indians Modi embodies Indian national identity. In spite of a great number of different groups in Indian population, the majority of Indians are rural Hindu, who speak Hindi and other similar languages. They respect Hinduism, respect the elderly and cherish traditions. Modi perfectly matches the image of Indian leader. On the one hand he is quite experienced, on the other, he is energetic, ascetic in everyday life, single as he wants to devote his life to the country. He creates for himself an image of an ideal Golden Age leader and at the same time a 21st century leader who respects traditions and uses an iPhone.
Photo: Flickr
PICREADI: Where does the most well-known element of Indian mass culture – the cinema stand? There are any prospects for it in Russia?

AK: The elderly grew up with Roger Kapur's films. They were extremely popular. Surprisingly enough it may sound but our young population watch Indian films and TV series ("Baahubali", for example). In comparison with Hollywood films, the Bollywood ones are still quite popular. What's more there is not only Bollywood films, but also films of other Indian productions.

Nevertheless, these films are much more popular in the immediate neighborhood and extended neighborhood zones: in Afghanistan, in the Middle East and in South East Asia. A great deal of Bollywood films is made in Hindustani. It is a kind of lingua franca for Hindi and Urdu speakers, it uses basic vocabulary, which is familiar to both Pakistani, and Indians. Afghani and Arabs use these films to master the language, as they usually watch these films and TV series.
PICREADI: Where does the most well-known element of Indian mass culture – the cinema stand? There are any prospects for it in Russia?

AK: The elderly grew up with Roger Kapur's films. They were extremely popular. Surprisingly enough it may sound but our young population watch Indian films and TV series ("Baahubali", for example). In comparison with Hollywood films, the Bollywood ones are still quite popular. What's more there is not only Bollywood films, but also films of other Indian productions.

Nevertheless, these films are much more popular in the immediate neighborhood and extended neighborhood zones: in Afghanistan, in the Middle East and in South East Asia. A great deal of Bollywood films is made in Hindustani. It is a kind of lingua franca for Hindi and Urdu speakers, it uses basic vocabulary, which is familiar to both Pakistani, and Indians. Afghani and Arabs use these films to master the language, as they usually watch these films and TV series.
PICREADI: How does India manage to combine so acute social problems (poverty, terrorism, etc.) and development of cutting-edge and military technologies? How a country can be so attractive abroad with such domestic problems?

AK: Frankly, it fails to combine it. No one is happy with the poverty. On the other hand, a sound economic reform is underway, the middle class is expanding, poverty, dirt on the streets, lack of electricity and astonishing customs are disappearing.

India reminds me of the China of 1980s, the country is still poor, but its economy is ready to skyrocket. The population is becoming richer and the old problems are being gradually resolved. There is a sparkling difference when you see Gurugram, Hyderabad and Bengaluru business centers in the midst of suburbs or jungles where illiterate peasants live. This difference will vanish. The Indians take it for granted as they can't do anything about it. They try to conceal its domestic problems to preserve its image abroad, as any other country does, I believe. India is a developing, densely populated country, that avoids rapid decisions.
Photo: Unsplash
In conclusion, I would like to mention Indian religious soft power, in particular Modi's religious diplomacy which is one of a kind. In different times India developed the idea of hindusphere, a Great India. Earlier, in Chola times Indians transferred Hinduism and Buddhism through the whole region, conducting a cultural expansion in the direction of South East Asia.

Under the British Empire another phenomenon came to existence. This is a so called "Indian subempire", when the vice-king ruled the country and tried to expand its influence. So, Eastern Africa and the Middle East become influenced and controlled by India. After the First world war India seriously considered the plans to annex Iraq and former German part of Eastern Africa, which is Tanzania nowadays. India's current approaches to the Asian West and the Asian East result from these two epochs of Indian history.

In terms of soft power India took advantages of these two epochs. It is far more active on the East, Modi reminds the country about the Golden Age, periods before the Muslim conquest, and in those times, India was much more active on the East. Today's idea of the Indian-Pacific region perfectly matches this notion, as it says that India should develop its ties with countries, with which it had ties before the Muslims and the British. These are the Malay Archipelago and the whole South East Asia. But as India also proclaims itself to be the major force in the Indian ocean, it should balance its activities and pay attention to the West. Ties with the countries to the West should be also maintained, India should carry out projects in Africa, buy oil from the Gulf countries. So volens nolens it should cooperate with the countries to the West.
Interviewed by Daria Bozhko, PICREADI special correspondent