India's soft power at Jaipur

Anjan Roy | Updated on March 12, 2018

Pakistani writer, Ms Fatima Bhutto (left); TV personality, Mr Karan Thapar; and historian, Ms Ayesha Jalal…The Rushdie episode apart, the Jaipur Lit Fest showcased ‘track two’ diplomacy.

By allowing space for literary dissent, India underscored its democratic credentials vis-à-vis China.

The contretemps over Salman Rushdie at the Jaipur Literary Festival exposed the soft underbelly of the Indian state. By playing into the hands of extreme fringe elements, the cancellation of Rushdie's video conference has also stigmatised communities.

The government's move presupposes the Muslim community's disposition towards violence. What is more dangerous, it could be interpreted as an attitude of cowering before the slightest threat.

All that apart, the Jaipur Lit Fest brings out another aspect of India: its soft power. The LitFest brought together writers, poets, journalists, photographers, academicians from all over, more so from West Asia. It was a festival of writers in exile — those protesting against dictatorial regimes. It was an intellectual harvest of the Arab Spring.

Ironically enough, while some Muslims were protesting against admitting Salman Rushdie, the Jaipur Literary Festival celebrated Muslim writing against atrocities in Lebanon, muzzling of free speech in Iran, or the present-day clamp-down by the military in Egypt. They had come to India to express their angst, to meet with like-minded people and to talk of their experiences, without having to worry about the presence of informers.


None of the countries in the region could have held such a festival embodying free exchange of opinion. The festival proved that what India could do, many others cannot. China was represented at the Lit Fest. But despite China's military might and financial firepower, it cannot hold such a literary festival of dissent.

There were discussions on super-powers of the twenty-first century and their hegemonic capabilities. Surely, economic muscle and military might are the primary determinants of a superpower's hegemonic clout.

But in the twenty-first century that kind of authority is increasingly being resented and rejected. You cannot possibly spread your point of view or reach through either tied aid or military presence.

It is soft power that will to a large extent make or unmake superpowers of the future. China and India are the obvious candidates to be considered as the future superpowers. India will have to pit itself against the might of the Chinese economic machine.

That has given China the leverage to impose its point of view on global issues, as was demonstrated in course of the European crisis, when Greece and Italy were hoping to be bailed out by Chinese munificence.

India does not have that kind of financial or military power. However, India can influence the global discourse through other means. By offering platforms to the global intelligentsia, India can subtly influence global thinking on issues of the day. The Jaipur festival, in fact, had a session on twenty-first century superpowers, where

China was a key participant. Rising Myanmarese politician Thant Myint U, grandson of the legendary secretary general of United Nations, U Thant, joined the deliberations.

His observations regarding the current race for influence in Myanmar were pointers to the importance of soft power. As Myanmar opens up and moves from an insulated military-ruled country to a democracy, the world will start jockeying for a foothold in that country.

Myanmar is critical in geo-politics as it has mineral resources, natural gas, and it is at the southern end of China's borders. Through Myanmar, China can get access to the seas.

Mr Thant Myint U underlined Myanmar's special link with India: their shared history, and the Indian experience of running a democratic polity.

He underlined that India may not have to compete with China for building roads or bridges or ports, where China is more advanced.

But the softer links were more valuable, particularly because strong Burmese nationalism can revolt against an overbearing military-economic superpower.


Once again, at Jaipur, the internal issues of Pakistan were discussed in ways that could not be done in first track diplomatic platforms. Even citizen participants from Pakistan raised points in the course of question-answer sessions which would otherwise have been impossible to do officially.

A lady participant voiced some strident criticism over practices against women in the neighbouring country, as frankly as one would about India's shortcomings in India.

Governments have to take note of these exchanges and their diplomatic implications. It was perhaps in recognition of this reality that the Pakistani High Commissioner was present at the session on Pakistan. He, of course, emphasised the non-official nature of his presence, saying that he was a diplomat only between Monday and Friday.

Yes, literary festivals like the one at Jaipur can work as a platform for second-track diplomacy, if handled carefully.

(The author is a Delhi-based commentator.)

Published on January 29, 2012

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