India should leverage its soft power as a trade multiplier

India should make concerted efforts to corner a bigger role in the governance of global multilateral bodies and should get involved in resolving global conflicts and issues. It should take its success to the world, contributing to capacity building wherever required, especially in Africa. 

Manavendra Prasad May 26, 2023
India soft power (Representational Photo)

All nations would want, at their command, the ability to get other nations to want the outcome that it wants – an ability to shape the preferences of others, without the use of any coercion or any financial inducement. This power over minds, feelings, values, and ideas, according to American political scientist Joseph Nye, is called ‘soft power’. This positive global influence has the ability to catalyze economic multipliers especially those linked with international trade.

As with things Indians, on paper India has the potential for immense soft power. That it chose to call itself India and not Hindustan is a lead indicator of its soft power promise.

In recent years, India seems to have woken up to the potential of soft power with some vehemence.

While regularly engaging and leveraging the Indian diaspora in almost every part of the world, India has not only showcased its and the diaspora’s achievement it has also strengthened the Indian community's standing in the host nation. People of Indian origin all over the world are largely good citizens who integrate well with the local communities and make a strong positive contribution to the host nation. This impression makes India a more likable nation.

During the COVID pandemic, India supplied through its ‘Vaccine Maitri’ initiative vaccines and medicines to all corners of the world sharply in contrast with rich nations that hoarded supplies. This contribution raised India’s stock significantly, especially amongst the countries in the developing world. 

The nature of India’s aid and support to LDCs (least developed countries) has been determined by recipient nations. It does not compromise the autonomy of these nations nor does it lead to any debt trap. India’s support to Sri Lanka during its financial crisis last year has buttressed this image and India is seen as a friend and a partner.

India’s leadership in creating the International Day of Yoga has given yoga a clear Indian identity. Its partnership with Nigeria to showcase traditional agriculture and support marginal farmers through the UN Year of Millets is adding to its soft power.

Shedding image stereotypes

India is using its presidency of G20 to showcase its heritage and culture to all visitors with the hope that they take back a little bit of India along with them. These efforts and the achievements at home have helped India change its image to a large extent.

India’s technology consultants are found all over the world and now with robust digital public goods, it has surely and truly shed its stereotyped snake-charmer image. India’s ancient culture and heritage are now more visible across the world, and its civilizational wisdom and philosophy such as ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbkam’ (the world is one family) have been evidenced by the world. This has also encouraged Indians to take greater pride in their heritage and identity.

As a democracy, India follows rules and can be trusted with sensitive technologies. India is now seen as the voice of the global south and a benign global power. It is viewed as a peace-loving power and as a force of good for the world. Many small nations especially those in the Caribbean and Indo-Pacific have publically lauded India’s support and have acknowledged its leadership.

What are key advantages?

The role of a country’s image influences several aspects of international relations including exports, and foreign direct investments. There is enough evidence to show that perceptions about a country affect the behavior of firms. Sometimes firms change their behavior in response to people’s perceptions and political attitudes. [1]

Research has taken advantage of quantitative measures of soft power to show that a country sells more exports to other countries which perceive it to be a force for good, holding other factors constant. The estimation is that a 1 per cent net increase in soft power raises exports by around 0.8 per cent, ceteris paribus. Countries like Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan are maligned as mostly negative influences in the world and suffer lower exports than they otherwise would. This positive correlation confirms that winning minds and hearts also helps win in international trade.[2]

Many other research papers have also established an empirical linkage between soft power and international trade relations. Based on the BBC-GlobeScan survey results, it has been demonstrated that a country’s exports are greater if it is perceived by the importer to be exerting more positive world influence. Scholars have found that trading partners whose leadership is approved abroad lead to an increase in bilateral exports due to the favorable image of the country allowing attracting foreigners and exchanging more.[3]

In the case of China, as the state’s cultural soft power strengthened so did its share of international trade. Researchers indirectly showed that the worsening attitudes between the US and France reduced bilateral trade from 2002-2003 even without the implementation of trade barriers. This situation had a negative impact on business transactions and affected the behavior of companies. [4],[5]

India needs to build on recent efforts while leveraging its culture and heritage to build its soft power. India’s culture advocates universal brotherhood, inclusiveness, peace, harmony, and benevolence, and this is practiced in the daily lives of most Indians. As India’s national strength grows, being seen as a responsible emerging power will catalyze its peaceful rise.

India should make concerted efforts to corner a bigger role in the governance of global multilateral bodies and should get involved in resolving global conflicts and issues. It should take its success to the world, contributing to capacity building wherever required, especially in Africa. It should share its development experience with partners across the global south.

Linkage between culture and trade 

Another area of focus should be to attract international students to its universities. Improvement in the quality of India’s academic institutions besides creating a robust body of work focused on India’s ancient wisdom is much required. A high-quality education system not only attracts students but also scholars and researchers leading to R&D and the creation of top-class intellectual property. Global recognition of Indian degrees and certifications will enhance the export of services and enable the international mobility of talent.

Additionally, the skilling of India’s youth will not only help its industry it will also make them suitable to find employment in numerous countries running out of manpower.

Further, several papers that studied linkages between culture and bilateral trade have noted that common language and cultural familiarity enhance trust and reduce transaction costs between trading partners. Research has shown that cultural institutes such as the Confucius Institute and Goethe Institute significantly improve bilateral trade and FDI, serving as a political and economic tool for a foreign country in the host country. Hence it is important that India takes its cultural properties, besides yoga, abroad. It should infuse some vigor into Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR).[6],[7]

Membership and role played in multilateral and regional fora and the presence of the diplomatic network - embassy, cultural center, and diplomatic exchanges - has a strong positive impact on trade. Investigating the impact of official state visits on bilateral trade showed that this tool of foreign policy significantly improves trade for hosting countries. It also shows that diplomatic representations have a positive effect on trade due to trade facilitation mechanisms that allow for a reduction in trade transactions. Needless to say that India should ramp up its diplomatic presence, especially in economic drivers of the future – Latin America and Africa. [8]

Some of these simple and economical measures to enhance India’s soft power will have a disproportionately higher output for multiple facets of India’s power projection. 

(The author is a public policy advisor. Views are personal. He can be contacted at or )

Post a Comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.