Over the course of last two decades, India has presented itself as a major player in Afghanistan in the realm of soft power. Through strategically investing in multi-sectorial social-economic activities, India has not just presented an alternative to the hard power tactics that Afghanistan has witnessed from Pakistan, it has also won the ‘hearts and minds’ with the ideas of nation building and cultural influence through art, culture, music, education opportunities and economic investments. This should conclude in the verdict that India holds a key position in any engagement that focuses on Afghanistan’s future and that India can affect the course of developments keeping in view its own national interests. However, this seems far from reality as it can be argued that today India is being limited by the barriers to its soft power and thus, the fears of losing relevance in Afghanistan might be becoming a reality.
What is ‘Soft power’ and ‘Hard power ‘?
Joseph Nye defines soft power as the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment, and that a country’s soft power rests on its resources – culture, political values and foreign policies. In contrast, hard power involves the ‘ability to use the carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will’. When we look at the Indian soft power context in Afghanistan, two contrasting phenomena can be observed at play today. On one hand, where India’s soft power in Afghanistan is seen as paramount by most scholars and is expected to make India a major actor in the region and thus a participant in the ongoing Afghan peace process, India found itself somehow sidelined in a process where actors like Pakistan, China, and Turkey are playing a major role who base themselves on a foundation of hard power in Afghanistan.
India’s Soft Power in Afghanistan
“Two international surveys in Afghanistan indicated that India is the most popular foreign country there- all of this without much Indian hard power on display”, noted Rani Mullen in 2015. She highlights that India in 2012-13 allocated over 2000 study and training fellowships to Afghanistan, trained a generation of civil servants and potential key-makers and the fact that Hamid Karzai, former Afghanistan president studied in India undoubtedly enabled India to secure a close relationship with Afghanistan and an official strategic partnership, without having to flex a hard power muscle. Further taking in account the recent Indian record, it can be said that India has been a key development partner in Afghanistan, having achieved 400 projects in 34 provinces, built over 200 schools, sponsored thousands of scholarships and supplied wheat, medical facilities and more recently, COVID aid. The construction of Afghan parliament building and the Salma dam (also revered as Afghan-India Friendship Dam), stands testimony to the Indian support towards Afghanistan’s development. It has often been highlighted that unlike other actors, India’s endeavor to help Afghanistan has no other agenda than thestability and development of Afghanistan. However, today, India finds itself restricted in leveraging its soft power in Afghanistan, due to several reasons.
The 21st Century Race for Soft Power in Afghanistan
In sphere of aid and economic assistance, which Mullen notes is one of the key soft power tools, India has found a tough competitor in China, who has deep pockets and ambitions to overshadow Indian efforts. India and China both have major geopolitical interests in Afghanistan who see Afghanistan as the gateway to an oil and resource rich Central Asia and to European markets besides the factors related to own national security due to growing extremism in the region. Both nations are now pushing hard to be the bigger stakeholder in the infrastructure and development of Afghan economy. However, where India is finding it increasingly hard to have access to Afghanistan, and have also been ‘Dropped’ recently from Chabahar rail project (which India see as the connectivity link to Afghanistan) by Iran due to lack of active engagement from India, China has been successful in making inroads, exemplified in the recent project of ‘Sino-Afghan Special Railway Transportation’ which links Afghanistan to China, via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, thus, integrating Afghanistan into the USD 62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Moving to the sphere of culture and media, India is now facing off against a rising Turkey. In his article in 2008, Shashi Tharoor had noted that the television mega-serial “ Kyu ki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi” had become India’s biggest asset in Afghanistan where it was watched by 94 percent of Afghans. Today, this space is dominated by Turkish media. “ Turkey’s efforts in terms of humanitarian efforts and education across the Muslim world have contributed to its rising influence on a social and cultural level, namely the global success of its soap operas”, notes Tanya Goudsouzian, a Canadian journalist covering Afghanistan for over 15 years. She emphasizes on the phenomenon that “War-weary Afghans have tuned in to Turkish dramas, which have proven to be culturally appropriate alternatives to Bollywood’s song-and-dance escapism and Hollywood’s ‘America saves the world’ propaganda.” In other opinions too, Tukey enjoys an increasingly privileged position in Afghanistan society whose troops on the group as part of NATO forces have been seen in a different light than troops from other countries and have not been seen as foreign invaders. In sphere of education, Turkish education is again becoming popular among Afghan families. The ethnic linkages with minorities like Uzbek minority serves as an added advantage for deepening the ties. Further, a growing closeness with Pakistan, has helped Turkey to gain inroads and insights and thus become a major internal stakeholder in Afghanistan rather than just a friendly nation 1700 miles away.
It can be argued that gains from India’s soft power in Afghanistan remains a case of unrealized potential due to the absence of credible hard power. Kabir Taneja, fellow at the Observer Research Foundation notes that India’s position of goodwill in Afghanistan, gained due to a non-interventionist approach also limits India’s aspirations of becoming a superpower, as there is little point to soft power if one cannot back it with hard power to protect their interests . In the era of peace process, Indian soft power is now pitted against the hard power elements of Pakistan which is pro-Taliban, and China, who uses soft power as a direct extension of its hard power, then there is Turkey, who might be on its way to replace India in the realm of media content through its rising popularity among the Muslim world. In this situation, Indian policymakers have their work cut-out which is to think about the relevance of Indian soft power without a support of hard power tools to decide both short-term and long-term plans in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan. It will be imperative to not only recalculate the tools used for deploying soft power, but also to figure out India’s own rule in regional geopolitics if it wants to continue a soft power approach sans hard power credibility on ground.