Using Bollywood for regime change

Why Tarun Khanna is wrong about Burma and confused about geopolitical power

The India-China hyphenation is doubly dangerous: one the one hand, the conflation of China and India (and its unspeakable, dreadful portmanteau) ignores the differences in the outlook, policies and global impact of these two countries. On the other, stretching the differentiation indiscriminately can lead to some very flawed policy prescriptions.

Like Tarun Khanna’s. In Mint, he argues that India should not try to match China in embracing the junta but rather extend “unstinting support” for democracy. Because because “India is congenitally incapable of deploying hard power” and because “India’s true strength lies in projecting soft power”, and because “trying to play China’s game against China is folly, not to mention unprincipled”.

Mr Khanna’s analysis, unfortunately, is drowned in cliches and unfortunate generalisations. On the face of it, it sounds reasonable that trying to beat China in its own game might not be a good idea. But what if it is not really China’s game, and that China is a player in a game that has its own age-old rules. Like the balance of power game, for instance. It certainly doesn’t make sense to suggest that India should not play the game just because China is playing it better. Does this mean that India should cuddle the junta? Not quite, as this blog has argued, but for very different reasons. [See this op-ed and this post]

There is something disturbing in Mr Khanna’s assertion that India is congenitally incapable of deploying hard power. He seems to have forgotten Hyderabad 1948, Goa 1961, Bangladesh 1971, Maldives 1988 and Sri Lanka 1987-1991. The claim that India is structurally incapable of deploying hard power does not hold water. Moreover, Mr Khanna misses a very important point: projecting “hard” power is not quite the same as using military force. Nuclear weapons, ballistic and cruise missiles and a blue water navy project hard power. None of this means that India must even threaten their use, much less use them.

Whenever commentators call for the “projection of soft power”, one listens to see how exactly they propose this could be done. In Mr Khanna’s case, India would do this by an unstinting support for democracy and you-can’t-be-serious-ly through Bollywood. Here he is incredibly mixed up. Now unless India is willing to support democratic forces with financial and military support (“hard power”) they can’t conceivably overthrow the junta, not least because it will turn to China for support. And at this juncture, the fact that there are Bollywood lovers in Burma isn’t going to matter much. In other words, talk about moral support for democracy is certainly about softness, but won’t work without real power.

Moreover, it is naive to believe that turning Burma into a democracy will necessarily transform it into a pro-India country. Democratic governments can play one power against another, just as well as dictatorships can.

Mr Khanna begins his essay by pointing out how Chinese influence has supplanted Indian influence in Burma. This is not as much because of politics as it is because of economics. China’s economic growth has given it the clout it has. India can regain the clout at the ground level in the same manner. Like geopolitics and balance of power, the trade and investment game is also not “China’s game”.

There is a case for India to support democracy in Burma but not on the grounds Mr Khanna has laid out. And as a foreign policy prescription, it is dangerous to propose that all that is needed towards this end is “a projection of soft power”.

6 thoughts on “Using Bollywood for regime change”

  1. Soft power is second-rate power, and is at its best when there is hard power (economic, military) to back it up, not to forget basic economic logic. When India becomes mighty enough, there would automatically be more people watching Bollywood, eating Indian cuisine and watching Indian Idol (just kidding about that last one). The government should, therefore, keep its involvement in the soft power to the minimum.

    I am always amused when people talk about soft power being *superior* to hard power (or being India’s strength). In India’s case, it sounds like making a virtue out of a necessity and getting wedded to dogma. As listed in the post, India hasn’t missed too many chances of projecting hard power when there was a possibility of doing so.

    My problem with people who talk too much about the superiority of soft power and cultural diplomacy is that these people are essentially brainwashing themselves (and anyone willing to listen). It makes sense for India to hype the cultural diplomacy now (though much less sense than 1970s, say, when India had even less hard power). The India of tomorrow, though, would be better served by developing hard power capabilities.

    If the cultural diplomacy apparatchiks are allowed to have their way, we’ll have a clique of brainwashed zombies arguing for sending dance troupes in place of men-in-boots around the world (wherever we have interests to protect) in 2020. This is almost exactly how we ended up with an entire generation of NAM-believing policymakers. Not again!

    PS: Sorry for going off on a bit of a tangent (and minor exaggeration). This issue has been on my mind for a while.

  2. BOK,

    In fact, this is exactly the reason why I flagged Tarun Khanna’s article. I think this “soft power” thing is become yet another abused word in our lexicon. Cultural diplomacy, dance troops and Bollywood are all part of the way India presents itself to the world. But to argue that these will somehow achieve outcomes risks lulling people (and worse, policymakers) into a dangerous complacency.

  3. Add the absorption of Sikkim in 1975 and the Air Force strafing of Mizoram in 1966. And Rao’s handling of Punjab terrorism in the early nineties. No soft state this…

  4. Hard power is what can make the difference be it in burma or anywhere else………soft power and stuff is not really very effective………… we should be looking at building hard power……… rather that projecting our softness………..

  5. For all the promoting of soft power, can its backers point to an instance where soft power yielded anything? After all, Chinese food and kung-fu movies are extremely popular in the U.S., but that does not improve the standing the standing of China’s government in the eyes of most Americans.

    Similarly, Japanese pop culture is very popular in South Korea, yet that is a nation that is extremely sensitive to any discussion of when Japan colonized Korea.

    Dealing with Burma is going to prove a challenge for any Indian government, just don’t expect Indian films to have much impact.

    A quote often attributed to Al Capone is, “You can go a lot farther in the world with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word.”

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