Hooray for Bollywood: India's 'soft power'

India is winning the world's admiration with its captivating culture and extraordinary ability to tell stories

By Shashi Tharoor  / 

Mon, Jan 07, 2008 - Page 9

The world has heard much about India's extraordinary transformation in recent years, and even of its claims to a share of "world leadership." Some of that is hyperbole, but in one respect, India's strength may be understated.

What makes a country a world leader? Is it population, military strength or economic development? By all of these measures, India has made extraordinary strides. It is on course to overtake China as the world's most populous country by 2034, it has the world's fourth-largest army and nuclear weapon arsenal and it is already the world's fifth-largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity and continues to climb, though too many of its people remain destitute.

All of these indicators are commonly used to judge a country's global status. However, something much less tangible -- but a good deal more valuable in the 21st century -- may be more important than any of them: India's "soft power."

Take Afghanistan, for instance -- a major security concern for India, as it is for the world. But India's greatest asset there doesn't come out of a military mission: It doesn't have one. It comes from one simple fact: Don't try to telephone an Afghan at 8:30 in the evening. That's when the Indian TV soap opera "Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi," dubbed into Dari, is telecast on Tolo TV, and no one wants to miss it.

"Saas" is the most popular TV show in Afghan history, with a 90 percent audience penetration. It's considered directly responsible for a spike in the sale of generator sets and even for absences from religious functions which clash with its broadcast times.

"Saas" has so thoroughly captured the public imagination in Afghanistan that, in this deeply conservative Islamic country where family problems are often literally hidden behind the veil, it's an Indian TV show that has come to dominate (and sometimes to justify) public discussion of family issues.

That's soft power, and its particular strength is that it has nothing to do with government propaganda.

The movies of Bollywood, which is bringing its glitzy entertainment far beyond the Indian diaspora in the US and the United Kingdom, offer another example. A Senegalese friend told about his illiterate mother who takes a bus to Dakar every month to watch a Bollywood film. She doesn't understand the Hindi dialogue and can't read the French subtitles, but she can still catch the spirit of the films and understand the story, and people like her look at India with stars in their eyes as a result.

An Indian diplomat in Damascus a few years ago told me that the only publicly displayed portraits as big as those of then president Hafez al-Assad were of the Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan.

Indian art, classical music and dance have the same effect. So does the work of Indian fashion designers, now striding across the world's runways.

Indian cuisine, spreading around the world, raises Indian culture higher in people's reckoning; the way to foreigners' hearts is through their palates. In England today, Indian curry houses employ more people than the iron and steel, coal and shipbuilding industries combined.

When a bhangra beat is infused into a Western pop record or an Indian choreographer invents a fusion of kathak and ballet; when Indian women sweep the Miss World and Miss Universe contests; when "Monsoon Wedding" wows the critics and "Lagaan" claims an Oscar nomination; when Indian writers win the Booker or Pulitzer Prizes, India's soft power is enhanced. Likewise, when Americans speak of the IITs, India's technology institutes, with the same reverence they accord to MIT, and the "Indianness" of engineers and software developers is taken as synonymous with mathematical and scientific excellence, India gains in respect.

In the information age, as Joseph Nye, the guru of software, argues, it is not the side with the bigger army, but the side with the better story, that wins. India is already the "land of the better story." As a pluralist society with a free and thriving mass media, creative energies that express themselves in a variety of appealing ways, and a democratic system that promotes and protects diversity, India has an extraordinary ability to tell stories that are more persuasive and attractive than those of its rivals.

And there's the international spin-off of India just being itself.

India's remarkable pluralism was on display after national elections in May 2004, when a leader with a Roman Catholic background (Sonia Gandhi) made way for a Sikh (Manmohan Singh) to be sworn in as prime minister by a Muslim (then Indian president Abdul Kalam) -- in a country that is 81 percent Hindu.

No strutting nationalist chauvinism could ever have accomplished for India's standing in the world what that one moment did -- all the more so since it was not directed at the world.

There's still much for India to do to ensure that its people are healthy, well fed, and secure. Progress is being made: The battle against poverty is slowly (too slowly) being won. But India's greatest prospects for winning admiration in the 21st century may lie not in what it does, but simply in what it is.

Shashi Tharoor is the author of The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone: Reflections on India in the 21st Century.

Copyright: Project Syndicate