The lawn at the United Nations Headquarters echoed with slogans of ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’, as the much-anticipated Yoga event was held on the occasion of International Yoga Day on June 21. The Indian Prime Minister is on a four-day trip to the United States, and the journey begins with leading the Yoga event at the UN headquarters in New York. Ahead of the event, the Prime Minister paid tribute to the statue of Mahatma Gandhi at the venue. Commemorating the event, PM Modi said that Yoga is free from patents, royalty payments and copyrights. The event was registered in the Guinness Book of world record for witnessing the participation of most nationalities in a Yoga session.
The world is celebrating 9th International Yoga Day and the Indian Prime Minister is leading the event at the UN Headquarters, the venue speaks for India’s rising global clout. And the impressive participation around the world on the occasion stands in depositions to India’s immense reservoir of soft power. Soft Power, as suggested by Joseph Nye is the ability to shape preferences of others through appeal and attraction, or may be through aides. The classic example of implementation of soft power is America’s use of the Marshall Plan. After the end of the second world war, the US pumped billions of dollars into Europe, in order to prevent it from falling to the influence of Communist Soviet Union. Be it educational exchange programmes with countries like China, India or exporting soft-drink and fast food culture. All this has led to an exponential rise in America’s influence in the world.
India has long been an advocate of cultural diplomacy, that is putting soft power to use to propel the nation on the global stage. The event at the UN Headquarters turned global with the participation of over 180 countries, alongside the presence of President of the 77th UN General Assembly Casaba Korosi, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, actor Richard Gere, Grammy award winner Rickey Kej among others. Bringing 180 countries together is a difficult task, given the current political climate. There is visible ghettoisation in the global forums over the Russia-Ukraine crisis. At this juncture, India is proving its ability to bring nations together and bridge gaps through its Yoga Diplomacy, enhancing its soft power.
The importance of cultural diplomacy was first realised by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru along with Education Minister Abul Kalam Azad had set up the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, as early as, in 1950. The ICCR was entrusted with the responsibility to showcase India’s rich civilisational history. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, further, added momentum to the cause by launching Indian festivals around the world. With the LPG reforms, the 1990s saw a growing interest in India’s culture around the world- ranging from Yoga, idea of peace and non-violence, Indian cuisine, Bollywood films and handicraft.
However, with leaders having their credit, the cultural diplomacy could not propel India on to the global stage and complemented with contemporary factors failed to convert India into a major player. The efforts like the expansion of ICCR or establishing a small public diplomacy division within the Ministry of External Affairs (2006) remained pale in comparison with the efforts of the West or China.
For turning India’s cultural diplomacy into its soft power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi relied on two aspects, first mother-language and second Yoga. The first method adopted by the Indian Prime Minister for an outreach to the 25-million strong diaspora overseas, was delivering his addresses in Hindi. PM Modi had directly asked the overseas Indians to join hands and serve Mother India, help him boost India’s international image and bring in foreign direct investments. While Hindi speeches helped him gain traction, Yoga proved to be his bet.
First practised by Hindu sages, in the pre-Vedic and Vedic era, Yoga has now become India’s most popular cultural export. With Prime Minister Modi energetically promoting it, it was his government’s way of stretching India’s influence on the global stage when PM Modi himself persuaded the United Nations to designate 21st June as International Yoga Day during his first address. The resolution was passed unanimously at the UN conference, with countries like China, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, the Russian Federation, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and other OIC countries co-sponsoring the proposal. Another testimony to India’s influence was that before the United Nations General Assembly adopted the resolution, it already had 177 co-sponsors. In 2015, the entire world celebrated the first International Yoga Day. Fast forward to 2023, the world is celebrating its 9th International Yoga Day with the Indian Prime Minister leading the UN event.
As Joseph Nye suggested, there are three pillars of soft power- political values, culture and foreign policy. In today’s era, the countries cannot function in the binary of political values. If a country like America- the preacher of democracy- decided to only align with governments upholding democratic values, NATO would become a thing of the past. With this, India has two ways for attaining global clout, first asserting its cultural heritage-one of them being Yoga and practising independent foreign policy.
Influence in international relations is understood in two contexts, military and economic might. India has already attained the status of fifth-largest economy in the world, and is currently the fastest-growing one. As far as the military is concerned, the Global Firepower Index, 2022 suggests that India is the fourth most powerful military nation in the world. However, Nye argues that successful states need both hard and soft power as hard power (military and economic might) helps the nation exert influence, soft power helps shape long term attitudes and preferences, thus, promising a long-term alliance.
Propagating Yoga- as an Indian contribution to the world for attaining a healthy lifestyle- helps New Delhi achieve the same. PM Modi is strengthening India’s global clout, not by amassing weapons or launching a military operation but by offering a life-changing Indian product called Yoga. In the 21st century, the mode of battle has probably changed- today, battles are waged with soft power which helps countries forge financial and security alliances. Yoga, in the same manner, has helped India capture the minds and hearts of the entire world. While the Indian diaspora participates at the Yoga event at the UN headquarters, they must have swelled with pride.
Any country with only hard or soft power alone cannot achieve a goal it wants to. Like China can flex hard power but enjoys little to no soft power despite its much popularised Panda-diplomacy. On the other hand, Tibet has only soft power and no hard power. India is moving towards achieving a sweet spot in which a mix of both hard and soft power will be used to achieve the ideal goals for the nation. With the world in dire need of a way towards spiritualism- India has placed its bet. The bet to be the vishwaguru- leader of the world paving the way for the future.