The recent opening night of Fabric of India, a new exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, was a glittering affair. Londoners adorned in their finest pashminas, saris, and Nehru jackets sipped on cocktails and gushed about their last trips to Delhi and Mumbai, the latest crazes in Indian boutiques and the quirks of their favourite tailor near Connaught Place.

The exhibition is part of the V&A’s ongoing India Festival, a series of exhibitions and events on South Asian culture, marking the 25th anniversary of the opening of the museum’s Nehru Gallery. The show draws out the 6,000-year-old history of handmade textiles in South Asia. The exhibit brings together 3rd century textiles with modern Indian fashion and shows how fabrics have been the heart of the subcontinent’s artistic practice, religious ritual and economy for centuries.

There are many highlights: a poppy strewn carpet from Shah Jehan’s summer palace, Tipu Sultan’s tent – a portable palace covered in paradisal motifs, an intricately embroidered Mughal riding coat, a talismanic shirt inscribed with Quranic verses in gold paint and ink, and a turn-of-the-century handmade shamiana.

Notable omissions

The V&A has made every effort to clarify that the India of the exhibition’s title is a historical construct, referring to the unified, pre-Partition entity. Ajraks from Sindh and cotton saris from Bengal are clearly marked as hailing from places located in modern-day Pakistan and Bangladesh.

But there can be no doubt that the exhibition is a soft coup for contemporary India. This is most obvious in the section on fabric and freedom, where a gallery is devoted to Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru’s embrace of homespun khadi as a symbol of the self-rule movement. But there is no mention of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s switch from suit to sherwani, or of his iconic karakul cap.

Pakistan’s fashion designers will also be disappointed to learn that they do not merit even a passing glance in a gallery celebrating contemporary Indian fashion. The likes of Manish Arora, Rahul Mishra, Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla are framed as the keepers of the subcontinent’s textile heritage. We are also introduced to contemporary European designers who turn to India for inspiration – and more importantly to source fabric and other materials from the looms and artisanal workshops of various Indian states. But this is to be expected of a show with Indian sponsors, including a high-end real-estate developer, jeweller and home decor company.

Strong brand

My point here is not to begrudge the V&A or the exhibition, but to marvel at the display of Indian soft power at its finest. Academic Joseph Nye coined the term soft power – as opposed to hard power such as military might – to describe a foreign policy strategy that relies on enticement rather than intimidation. Soft power is implemented through civilian instruments such as diplomacy, investment, humanitarian work, strategic communication and artistic exchange.

India has no doubt mastered the art of co-opting rather than coercing, of appealing to rather than appalling – as anyone who has seen the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films will attest. The India brand is as strong as ever, and no number of Shiv Sena antics, human rights violations, communal incidents or poor development indicators will mar that – no doubt to the extreme frustration of the powers that be in Pakistan.

More censorship, less expression

Rather than resent India’s soft power successes, Pakistan should learn from them. Soft power goes a great way towards shaping the global image of a country. It drives foreign investment and trade as a country’s products begin to have more global appeal. It helps bridge socio-cultu­ral diff­er­ence by imp­r­­oving global under­st­anding of a people. And it bestows political power by gener­ating respect, which translate into support at international fora.

Pakistan has long struggled for its global image to extend beyond terrorism and nukes – particularly as the two together make for a decidedly deadly combination. But when presenting itself on the world stage, Pakistan appears either armed or victimised. Neither position holds much appeal.

While Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif travels the world trying to woo investment and win political support, his administration should think about how to better project Pakistan’s soft power. There is no shortage of options given the proliferation of world-class Pakistani writers, filmmakers, musicians, animators, actors, artists, fashion designers and more. Sadly, Pakistan’s government and military are more interested in censorship and control than encouraging expression.

Moreover, soft power is the work of diplomats and bureaucrats, not men in uniform. When implemented by soldiers, the same strategies are propaganda, not soft power. As the balance of power continues to tip toward Pindi, it seems the soft power Pakistan has exerted – primarily, it seems, in the form of actors Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan – will begin to dissipate too.

This article was originally published on