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In partnership with the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at the George Washington University
Communicating India’s Soft Power: Buddha to Bollywood
An Asia Pacific Seminar and book talk featuring:
Dr. Daya Thussu
Professor of International Communication and Co-Director of India Media Centre Westminster University, London
Dr. Ellen Frost (Moderator)
Adjunct Senior Fellow, East-West Center
Visiting Distinguished Research Fellow, National Defense University
The notion of Soft Power, associated with the work of Joseph Nye, is defined, simply, as “the ability to attract people to our side without coercion.” Though Nye’s focus remains primarily on the United States, the concept has been adopted or adapted by countries around the world as an increasingly visible component of foreign policy strategy. The capacity of nations to make themselves attractive in a globalizing marketplace for ideas and images has become an important aspect of contemporary international relations, as has been the primacy of communicating a favorable image of a country in an era of digital global flows.
Focusing on the Indian case, Dr. Daya Thussu reviewed the contribution that an old civilization like India can have on the discourse of soft power. In his talk at the East-West Center on his new book, Communicating India’s Soft Power: Buddha to Bollywood, he examined how the country has made itself attractive, drawing on its democratic, demographic and diasporic resources. It was his intent with the talk to do a tour of history of India's presence and influence outside of India, but also look ahead to where it fits in a globalized, digitized world.
Dr. Thussu explained how the influence of India, as a civilization power, has a complicated history that does not easily fit into the typical definition of soft power. He began by looking back at the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia from its origin in India and its mark on societies and cultures far from the subcontinent. While this spread of ideas was not Hollywood or MTV, it endures as a link between cultures and countries. This ideational influence can be found at other points in India's history from Nalanda, the worlds first residential university and important seat of learning beginning in the 5th century, to Mahatma Gandhi, who influenced the civil rights movements in the United States and South Africa. Between these philosophical influences and the popular image of India as a place of "celebrative religiosity," there is a perception that India exports "spirituality" and not power.
The Indian government has been attempting to promote India through festivals that showcase traditional dance and other exhibitions of high culture. However, it has been through popular entertainment, particularly "Bollywood," that India's soft power has been spread worldwide since the 1930s. An important component of this diffusion of Bollywood has been India's extensive diaspora, which Dr. Thussu highlights as an often unsung element of soft power (to which he devoted an entire chapter in his book). As the world's largest English-speaking diaspora, and second largest overall, overseas Indians are engaging societies across the world and many levels; from oil workers in the Middle East, to highly educated professional elite in North America and Europe. Each of these communities raise the awareness, and in some cases cache, of India abroad in ways one-off India festivals cannot.
In returning to the idea of what is considered "soft power," Dr. Thussu granted that to some extent, it is always underpinned by "hard power." If India's image is that of only spirituality and poverty, "why would people follow India?" he asked. India has real issues in poverty, hunger, pervasive suicide and others that point to something being fundamentally wrong in the system and/or society. Until this is sorted out, it cannot be taken seriously as a model by the developing or developed world. However, as India continues to grow and develop, and works to solve these issues, its influence may appear in some unexpected places. Among these areas of comparative advantage, Dr. Thussu pointed to the global image of Islam, which largely fits harmoniously in the country's multicultural, multireligious, society, the nature of the Internet and digital media as millions more Indians get online in the comming decade, and discourse on new development models appropriate to the realities of sustainability. These areas and more expand the narrow definition of soft power, and may more accurate replect India's influence beyond Bollywood.
Dr. Daya Thussu is professor of International Communication and founder Co-Director of India Media Centre at the University of Westminster. Author or editor of 16 books, the most recent include Communicating India’s Soft Power: Buddha to Bollywood (Palgrave, 2013); Media and Terrorism: Global Perspectives (co-edited with Des Freedman, Sage, 2012); and Internationalizing Media Studies (Routledge, 2009). He is currently finishing the third edition of International Communication: Continuity and Change, to be published in September 2014. He is the founder and Managing Editor of the Sage journal Global Media and Communication. Dr. Thussu received his PhD in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.