India’s Soft Power Challenge in the West

The West has long courted India as a democratic counterweight to China and India has long resisted any change to its non-aligned stance. But in the aftermath of its recent border standoff with Beijing, New Delhi could start rethinking that policy. A closer alliance with the West could help India square its power disparity with China and help deter future standoffs.

There is, however, a brewing challenge.

India’s broad-based appeal in the West stems from the fact that it is a democracy, at a time when the West is locked in a battle of values with China on the world stage. In February this year, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo undertook a tour of Europe and Central Asia, during which he spoke at length about China’s distortionary trade practices and human rights violations. The West, he said, should ensure that the next century is governed by democratic principles. Months later, Washington levied sanctions on Chinese officials over repressive actions in Xinjiang.

The European Union – which has long prioritized its economic ties to Beijing – has also begun stirring: In June this year, the EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that Europe’s relationship with China is one of its most challenging to handle. A year earlier, the EU Commission published a Strategic Outlook report that called China a “systemic rival” promoting alternative models of governance.

By contrast, the West believes that New Delhi will uphold its ideals of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law as India takes up global decision-making positions. This confidence owes in large part to similarities in the systems of governance between India and the West.

That conviction has resulted in much enthusiasm over the years. A 2019 Pew Survey asked respondents whether India had become more important or less important in world affairs as compared to a decade ago. Opinions in the West and its allied countries were far more optimistic and favorable than opinions from the developing world. Across France, Sweden, Japan, and South Korea, almost 50 percent said that India was now more important. But in Russia, Indonesia, and Brazil, only about 20 percent did.

Yet, in recent times, India has had to deal with increased skepticism in the West – much of it driven by the crackdown in Kashmir, the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the arrests of journalists, and so on. The 2020 Freedom in the World report, published by Freedom House, ranked India near the bottom of the pile for countries marked “free.” India also fell 10 places in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index early this year.

Across the democratic West, all this has taken its toll on public opinion, which has for years been extremely charitable to New Delhi.

Take Australia, for example: A recent Lowy Institute poll in that country showed that only 45 percent of the Australian public trusted India to behave responsibly, compared with 59 percent in 2018. Shortly afterward, Prime Minister Scott Morrison hailed Australia’s shared values with India in a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and leading Australian commentators hit back. In a particularly scathing piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, columnist Brian Toohey wrote that Morrison should “drop [his] pretence that India shares the same human rights values as we do.”

In the European Union, the CAA and the crackdown in Kashmir almost inspired a spate of counter-resolutions in the European parliament. In March, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson denounced the CAA and the Delhi riots in the British parliament.

Meanwhile, in Washington, bipartisan support for stronger ties with New Delhi has also been somewhat diluted. The Democrats – illustrated by Bernie Sanders – joined in global criticism of the Modi government after the CAA and the Delhi riots. Modi hit back with an unprecedented public endorsement of U.S. President Donald Trump, a Republican, which only served to further alienate the progressive constituency in the United States.

In all these countries, India’s recent soft power problems have been compounded by New Delhi’s handling of the diaspora. India’s diaspora has been an unparalleled lobby of support for New Delhi’s foreign policy interests over the years. In his early years as prime minister, Modi used the diaspora very effectively to demonstrate his popularity among Indian-origin voters in those countries.

But in recent times, even the diaspora has become increasingly polarized. In the aftermath of the CAA, thousands of diaspora protestors gathered in front of Indian diplomatic missions across the West – from New York to Brussels. Meanwhile, the Modi government has further fed that polarization by relying heavily on partisan forums to reach out to the diaspora. According to one report in The Intercept, for instance, the Texas India Forum – which organized Modi’s grand Houston event last year – has strong ties to Hindu nationalist groups affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Modi himself has not eschewed partisanship in his speeches to the diaspora – often taking jibes at the opposition and criticizing previous governments.

None of these problems are yet serious enough to derail closer alignment between India and the West. The West’s distaste for Beijing’s own human rights record – and more importantly, China’s aggressive approach to international norms – will significantly offset qualms over recent events in India.

But New Delhi should still seek to rebuild its soft power in the West, given that soft power is India’s strongest long-term foreign policy asset across the West. To start with, the Modi government should depoliticize its outreach to the diaspora – seeking to build loyalty to Indian interests instead of to the prime minister personally. It should also seriously address concerns in the West regarding its own commitment to democracy and human rights, both in India and around the world. That could include periodic public dialogue, for instance, on global human rights issues. So far, India has not joined the United States, the European Union, or other Western allies in speaking out on China’s actions in Xinjiang, for example.

Geopolitical factors apart, the West needs to know that India is a reliable long-term ideological ally, whose security and development is worth investing in. And New Delhi would be well served by trying to convince it.

(c) 2020, The Diplomat