Even as India tries to work out how to emerge from the Covid-19 lockdown, it needs to shore up its international ties. This is necessary both to rebuild the country’s shattered economy and to participate in global health initiatives. In doing so, however, India must also deal with widespread international criticism of its domestic politics, including condemnation from its allies in the Gulf region and a scathing report from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom about the country’s treatment of minorities. These negative reactions matter because they directly affect India’s soft power.

Soft power, the appeal of a country’s culture, history, institutions, and values, is an important element of modern diplomacy. The Indian government knows this. Since 2014, it has invested substantial resources into building up India’s soft power, even developing a soft power measurement matrix. But its efforts are unraveling because of the country’s hardline politics at home.

More than any other Indian political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party has wooed Indian diaspora communities, particularly in the United States. Its efforts have included a vast network of social and religious organisations, all of which advocate pride in the homeland from a religious and nationalist vantage point. This outreach has persuaded the Indian diaspora community to extend vociferous support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Events like the Howdy Modi rally in Houston show the popularity that he enjoys among Americans of Indian origin.

Yoga Day effort

Modi has also gone to great lengths to court foreign governments through soft power. For example, he has built up India’s Look East Policy by emphasising India’s historical links with Buddhism. Another platform for projecting India’s soft power has been the adoption of an International Yoga Day by the United Nations. Modi described yoga as an “invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition”. Every year, on International Yoga Day, Modi leads large congregations in yoga practice. In addition, India has attempted to leverage Mohandas Gandhi’s worldwide image as an apostle of peace through carefully curated public relations gestures, such as op-eds, speeches, and foreign dignitary photo-ops.

These image-building efforts have certainly earned accolades for Modi. For example, in his first five-year term, he received numerous leadership awards, such as the Seoul Peace Prize, the Gates Foundation’s Global Goalkeeper Award, and the Kotler Presidential Awards. But, since 2019, these efforts have been overshadowed by the BJP’s hard-right agenda.

A yoga class in New York in 2016. Credit: Reuters

The Indian government’s brutal response to the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act has been met by shock in the international community. Several entities, including the United Nations, the Organisation of Islamic Countries, European countries, and prominent news outlets, have expressed concern about rising intolerance in India. While US President Trump has not criticised the BJP government; many others in the United States government have, including prominent members of Congress and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

In 2019, the US State Department’s annual report on international religious freedom noted the inflammatory speeches by BJP leaders and the complicity of law enforcement personnel in attacks on Muslims. Parts of the Indian diaspora in the United States have mobilised to oppose Modi, forcefully challenging the goodwill built up by events such the Howdy Modi rally.

To be clear, some key issues, such as defence and control over Kashmir, remain largely unaffected. Countries around the world continue to trade actively with India’s defense sector, as illustrated by the signing of $3.5 billion in defense deals during Trump’s recent visit to India. The international community has long accepted India’s de facto control over Kashmir and largely looked the other way from its human rights abuses there.

Anti-Muslim rhetoric

But the government’s fierce attacks on largely peaceful protestors and the virulence of anti-Muslim rhetoric from party leaders have cast a harsh light on the country’s teetering democratic culture and institutions. This isn’t just a public relations problem: it also has a significant economic impact. A global economic platform was the mainstay of Narendra Modi’s initial campaign promises, and his government has been aggressively courting foreign partners to bring direct investment into India.

The country’s stalling growth and the impact of Covid-19 have lent urgency to these efforts. However, India’s inability to articulate clear and consistent domestic policies, combined with brutal treatment of minorities, have muddled its economic message and dampened investor enthusiasm. The BJP government has even taken to suppressing and manipulating economic data, which further erodes confidence by destroying credibility and undermining transparency.

Now, other countries are openly questioning long-held Indian values, such as respect for minorities and religious freedom. This has grave implications for the country’s foreign policy agenda. External actors are not going find a belligerent and exclusionary Hindu nationalist agenda appealing. If Hindus in India become increasingly intolerant towards minority communities, which make up almost 20% of India’s population, the country will almost certainly careen into a state of perpetual instability and communal discontent. Continuing repression will only serve to undermine India’s stature as a strong, inclusive democracy.

Narendra Modi at a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in front of the Indian embassy in Washington on September 30, 2014. Credit: AFP

What about China?

Here, a comparison of India and China is instructive. China’s human rights abuses are well-documented and widely-known; yet the international community generally looks past them. India is not, however, accorded the same leeway. This is because the source of India’s soft power, and power overall, is fundamentally different from that of China. China’s power relies heavily on its hard power, such as economic coercion. India’s attraction depends on its cultural and political attributes –including a multi-hued civil society, robust political space, and inter-religious coexistence. These attributes are now being actively undermined by the Modi government.

The disconnect between India’s soft power outreach and domestic policies is disorienting – and it is causing countries to recoil. The country’s deteriorating political climate is sucking the oxygen out of Indian diplomacy and erasing any positive messaging resulting from its soft power projection.

Strategic autonomy is very important for India and it bristles at any criticism of its domestic policies. This is to be expected from a proud and powerful country. But, if India wants international respect, it must earn it by showing greater democratic commitment and accountability.

The Indian government would do well to revisit the work of Joseph Nye, who first coined the term “soft power” and described it as getting people to instinctively want to do something for you. Nye pointed out that, ultimately, a country’s soft power depends on its ability to provide a global public good. Buddhism, yoga, diaspora outreach, a history of nonviolent activism – all of these can, indeed, be public goods; but only if they are consistent with domestic policy.

Bidisha Biswas is a professor of political science at Western Washington University.

Anish Goel is senior fellow at New America International Security programme.