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Let India unleash its soft power

120203- soft power -illustration for Prem Shankar Jha -- revised

120203- soft power -illustration for Prem Shankar Jha -- revised   | Photo Credit: keshav

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The economic and moral decline of the West has created a hegemonic vacuum that presents both a challenge and an opportunity to emerging powers.

Wars kill in more ways than one, and the longer they go on the more do the ways multiply. The first war that proved this dictum was the Thirty Years' War of 1618-48 in Europe. Through rape, murder, pillage, disease and famine, it reduced the civilian population of southern Germany and the Lowlands by 25- 40 per cent. The economic devastation it wrought took a hundred years to repair. The American Civil war may have been the second for it killed 600,000 people (out of a population of 32 million) and so devastated the South that it took a hundred years to recover. And had it not been for the Marshall Plan, a similar fate would almost certainly have befallen Western Europe after the Second World War.

Tragedy in Libya

A similar tragedy is unfolding in and around Libya. Unsurprisingly, it has been hidden behind a veil of media inattention. But nothing stays hidden forever. The shroud of silence was torn momentarily on January 18 by a BBC World News telecast which reported that after three consecutive droughts, Niger was being tipped over into famine by the return of 100,000 of its nationals as refugees from Libya.

If help did not come soon, people would begin to die. The commentator grossly underestimated the impending tragedy, for on September 28, The New York Times reported that 200,000 Nigerois, earning $600 a month or more in Libya, had fled through the harsh Sahara to seek shelter in their home country.

Niger is only one of a ring of perennially drought-prone countries that had come to depend on the remittances from more than a million foreign workers, who had found work in Libya. The other main beneficiaries were Chad, Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia. Very few of these workers left voluntarily: in fact ‘pro-democracy peaceful protesters' “induced” them to go, by accusing hundreds of their fellow countrymen of being African mercenaries, recruited by Muammar Qadhafi to kill civilians, and hanging, burning or shooting them in full view of YouTube's enthusiastic cineastes.

Today there are no jobs to return to, for Libya's economy lies in ruins. The bulk of its urban infrastructure is damaged or destroyed; its oil production is under half of the pre-war level. Since oil accounted for 75 per cent of the state's revenue, the new government is no longer able to fund the massive social security and subsidised food schemes that kept inflation below one per cent in Qadhafi's Libya. Inflation, destitution, starvation and a possible failed state stare many Libyans in the face.

The appeal from Niger is not the first of its kind. Other appeals have been made in the past on behalf of Darfur, South Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea. India has so far believed that its responsibility ends with making modest contributions to the World Food Programme. But as the already fragile Saharan and sub-Saharan world disintegrates, it will be shirking its duty to humanity if it does not do more — a lot more.

Need to do more

India needs to do more not only because with the former hegemonic powers turning into predators a vacuum is developing from Pakistan to the Maghreb. It has a duty to do more also because it can do more. India is sitting on a food mountain, a part of which is rotting even as I write. At the beginning of this month, the Food Corporation of India held 54.8 million tonnes of food grains, This is 30 million tonnes more than its buffer-plus-strategic reserve requires it to hold. With a second year of bumper harvests in the offing, this can only rise further.

A single tonne of wheat will fully meet the needs of three families of five for an entire year. A tonne of rotted wheat donated as cattle feed will keep their cattle alive for the same length of time. Are we so mean-spirited that we cannot spare a hundred thousand tonnes of wheat to save the people of Niger? And why only Niger? Can India not set up a permanent, half-million tonne wheat bank to be drawn upon by any sub-Saharan country in distress?

And why stop at food grains? In drought-struck regions, contaminated water kills much faster than hunger and takes the very young and the very old first. The Indian pharmaceuticals industry is the envy of the world, because it produces and sells medicines at a tenth to a thirtieth of the retail prices abroad. Can Delhi not buttress its food aid with medicines and vitamins? This will give an entirely new meaning to the concept of Soft Power for, unlike the West in its present incarnation, it would be seeking to build influence by protecting and preserving, not destroying; by expanding peoples' futures instead of ending them in darkness.

We have been relatively slow to realise our full potential for the exercise of soft power. This could be because of our too-ready acceptance of a concept that was created by an American to address American foreign policy concerns. In Joseph Nye's original definition, soft power originated in the capacity to attract others to your country's culture, values and institutions. Indian policymakers have taken this to heart and relied mainly upon India's open society, democratic institutions, lack of aggressive intent and willingness to share the burden of U.N. peacekeeping and policing the global commons, to garner respect and support in the international community.

It is only in the last half-decade, as the Westphalian international order crumbled and India's neighbourhood became increasingly unstable, that New Delhi has begun to explore the economic dimensions of ‘soft power' seriously. Afghanistan has been the focus of its initial efforts, and its success is attested to by the threat (irrational though it is) that Pakistan feels from it.

Since then, India has reached out with increasing confidence to Bangladesh, Nepal and Africa. In January 2010, India created a line of credit for Bangladesh of $1 billion, giving it valuable leeway for managing its external account. Later in the year, Pranab Mukherjee announced a doubling of aid to Nepal from Rs.1,600 crore to Rs. 3,200 crore. At Addis Ababa in May last year, India added $5 billion to the $5.4 billion dollar line of credit it extended to African countries in 2008 to “help them reach their development goals.” All in all, India is soon going to be disbursing more than $3 billion in aid every year. This is around the same amount as Brazil.

These are significant initiatives. If they have not been sufficiently appreciated so far it could be because soft power is far more difficult to exercise than ‘hard' military power. Its success depends less on the amounts of assistance that a country is willing to render than on its timing, the attention it is able to capture, and its palpable effectiveness. On all three counts, India still has a good deal to learn.

India was the first to help Bangladesh after the 1997 cyclone that claimed 150,000 lives, but so poor was the projection of its aid that western and U.N. aid captured the world headlines. India's contribution to the post-tsunami rescue in Sri Lanka and Indonesia got a little more notice, but only a little.

In Sierra Leone in 1999, an undermanned Indian contingent of troops did the initial peacekeeping under constraints imposed for reasons of political correctness that no army commander would, or should, have accepted. But all it received were jeers, while the credit for subjugating the rebels went to a British contingent despatched in May 2000 that made its own rules of combat.

Contrast with China

The contrast with China's methods of exercising soft power is instructive. Beijing is frequently criticised, and occasionally resented, for insisting on using its own enterprises, managers and workers, and “transfer(ring) nothing to the country by way of knowhow.” But Chinese aid is more effective than any that the world has seen so far. Projects get completed in record time, at record low costs and, most of the time, to stringent specifications. The locals may earn little directly, but no local politician, crony contractor, or middleman gets a bite of the cherry. Some of the results are mind-boggling: In Kenya, for instance, China has completed 1000 km of motorways and 500 km of regular roads in three years to European standards and transformed the lives and the economy of its people.

Brazil seems to have taken a leaf from China's book. It has the largest official programme of aid to Haiti, amounting to $3.3 billion. And the private charity that brought by far the most aid to Haiti after the earthquake was a Libyan Trust run by Seif-ul-Islam-al-Gaddafi!

The economic and moral decline of the West has created a hegemonic vacuum that presents both a challenge and an opportunity to emerging powers. China and Brazil are already beginning to fill some of it. India cannot afford to be left behind.

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 10:32:35 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Let-India-unleash-its-soft-power/article13292272.ece

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