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We’ve got the (soft) power

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 23, 2018

Lessons to learn: Sri Lanka is taking an active interest in the three-language formula of education followed by India. Here, Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena .

Prime Minister Modi’s travel itinerary suggests a certain subtlety about India’s authority, but strategic insecurities continue to trump soft power

Mugil is a very real character, though identified by a false name, in Rohini Mohan’s intimately observed account of ordinary lives caught in the brutality of Sri Lanka’s quarter century of civil war ( The Seasons of Trouble, Harper Collins India, 2014). Once a fighter for a Tamil homeland, she is, for several months after the war, lodged in the giant Manik Farms camp for the internally displaced. As she lines up one day for rations, her mother shouts out a warning to refuse any of the fetid stuff sent as relief supplies from India.

Following their release from the camp and a hard slog trying to regain a life, Mugil, her husband and children decide to travel to India to start afresh. There are worries over the uncertainties ahead, but Mugil sees India as a large, if not always hospitable, space where opportunity could be created even if it did not already exist, where she could lose herself in the multitude and not be the continual focus of suspicion.

Mugil did not make it to Indian shores. She was picked up on the testimony of a brother, who, under torture, revealed her one-time allegiance to the Tamil Tigers. Her life’s subsequent course remains to be documented.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Sri Lanka mid-March, in the third leg of a tour that took him to two other island republics of the Indian Ocean, the Seychelles and Mauritius. It was the first visit by an Indian prime minister in 28 years, since Rajiv Gandhi was given a shockingly unceremonious send-off by a rogue honour guard whose sense of national pride was offended by what he saw as a neighbour’s intrusive attentions. Modi also became the first Indian prime minister to visit Jaffna, capital of the Northern Province and the focus of the country’s beleaguered Tamil culture.

Leaders of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the broad coalition of forces that retains representative legitimacy despite efforts by Sinhalese ruling cliques to foist puppets, were mixed in their attitude. India’s support is needed for their political ends, but an extra-territorial agenda could compromise the case for a fair deal. The system of provincial councils itself emerged out of India’s moral pressure, but the Northern Province remains a poor relative within the map of political devolution, with a governor appointed by Colombo retaining decisive powers.

At Jaffna, Modi oversaw the handover of a housing project as part of India’s aid for post-war reconstruction. He met with the local TNA leadership and heard complaints about predatory excursions by Indian boats into the waters off Jaffna, which endanger the livelihoods of scores of Tamil fishermen.

Modi’s travel itinerary since assuming office suggests a certain subtlety about projecting India’s authority. An effort to seek a niche within dominant power cliques is evident in visits to the US, Japan and the Asia-Pacific summit in Australia. So too is a focus on South Asia, in a fresh bid for the pre-eminence that has always been an aspirational state. There has also been an effort to draw in the loyalty of countries with long-settled populations of Indian origin, like Mauritius and Fiji.

“Soft power” is the term of art that describes some aspects of these diplomatic initiatives. As conceived by its author, the Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, soft power is an amalgam of a nation’s culture, political values and foreign policies. And the strongest prop for India’s soft power perhaps lies in the overlapping domains of culture and political values.

Though the UNDP Human Development Report (HDR) is generally not a document India looks forward to, the 2004 edition with its focus on “cultural liberty” had a number of honourable mentions of the country. India was described as a “champion of cultural accommodation” where citizens remained “deeply committed to the country and to democracy, despite the country’s diverse and highly stratified society”.

Among the practices meriting special mention were: the three-language formula of education that India has long been following; the pluralist choice of national holidays, which recognised all faiths while foregrounding the republican commitment to a non-denominational polity; and the effective use of affirmative action to remedy the historical injustices suffered by certain cultural groups.

These experiences offer ample learning possibilities for countries within the near neighbourhood and beyond. Sri Lanka is believed to have taken an active interest in the three-language formula since the civil war. And Nepal is seeking to assimilate key lessons from India’s experiments in devolution of power across a vast and varied land.

Nepal’s efforts to write a republican constitution have repeatedly come up against the roadblocks of ethnic rivalry. The competing demands on the character of the national polity — between secularism and a denominational state — have proved difficult to reconcile. The constitutional process now appears to have run aground on account of one side’s insistence on a federal polity and the other’s fear that this would be the first step towards disintegration.

Potential soft power applications by India have been complicated by strategic calculations. Rivalry with China has perhaps been the main spoiler, creating in Sri Lanka an incentive for undue appeasement of the Sinhalese elite in the south. Similar strategic calculations led in Nepal to the “buffer within a buffer” policy that has deeply alienated the people of the plains from the hills and not won India friends in either place.

Through all this, relations with the two most populous neighbours — Pakistan and Bangladesh — remain contentious. Half-hearted overtures are made, but soon withdrawn. Political constituencies have been created on maintaining a tough posture and there is too much riding on that stance. Aside from the stop-and-go career of the dialogue with Pakistan, the compulsions of nurturing this constituency were evident in Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s bizarre exhortation recently to the Border Security Force to redouble the vigil against cross-border cattle movements, so that rising prices would compel Bangladeshis to give up their dietary beef habit.

(Sukumar Muralidharan is a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla)

Published on April 10, 2015

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