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India stretched its soft power on International Yoga Day, but the real work begins now

AP Photo/Saurabh Das
So, how will this grand-scale exercise enhance India’s global image?
  • Vishakha N. Desai
By Vishakha N. Desai

Professor, Columbia University

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

It was exciting to see hundreds of thousands of yoga enthusiasts stretched across their mats in New York’s Times Square, by London’s Thames and under Paris’ Eiffel Tower, along with Delhi’s Rajpath, on the longest day of the year, celebrating the International Yoga Day, so declared by the United Nations (UN) at the recommendation of India’s prime minister Narendra Modi.

The Guinness Book of World Records has declared that India has established two new records, for holding the largest yoga class in one day (35,985 people), and for the participation of the largest number of nationalities in a single yoga event (84).

By all accounts, this initiative of Modi seems to have been a great global success, at least in terms of promoting yoga.

The more significant question to ask is whether it serves as an important tool for India’s aspirations as a global power. Many have written that yoga is one of the best “soft power” tools in India’s global tool kit. In the US alone, it claims to be a heavy-duty industry worth more than $30 billion. Most people who practice yoga know that it emerged in India almost 5,000 years ago, and recognise its holistic attributes.

So, how will this grand-scale exercise enhance India’s global image?

It’s worth remembering that Joseph Nye, an American political scientist, coined the term “soft power” in contrast to “hard power” of nations, exercised militarily and economically. As he explained it, if power is the capacity of a nation “to affect others to get the outcomes it wants,” then soft power is the form that is manifested in the country’s attractive qualities and indirect powers of persuasion. It needs to be seen and understood in the overall context of a country’s power.

In this context, one could argue that the International Yoga Day served India relatively well by enhancing its attractiveness as a country that has contributed a special philosophy of the harmony of body and mind, much admired and increasingly accepted throughout the world.

AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
Yoga at Times Square.

But such elements of soft power need to be developed strategically and on a consistent basis to make a long-term impact on the global perceptions of the country. They also need to be seen as authentic forms of cultural expression without much political baggage. Thus, while many people, including UN secretary general Ban-Ki-Moon have appreciated Modi’s leadership on the subject, it has not stopped some others from questioning his political motives behind the initiative: Is this a way to promote the Hindutva ideals that have been part of Modi’s political past? Is this his way of declaring India as a Hindu country and privileging its Hindu legacy? I do believe that the prime minster is sincere when he says that this is a unique Indian legacy, worthy of a global celebration because it makes a difference for all citizens of the world. However, his own political history and that of his party, give us pause. They also risk taking away the very potential of yoga that is supposed to establish the cultural influence of India in the world.

More importantly, such efforts need to be managed consistently and in close concert with other “hard power” efforts in the economic, political and military arena. Over the last four decades of active participation in various cultural efforts of projecting India’s millennial strengths on a global stage, I have often been frustrated that such efforts are usually ad hoc, and have no real staying power over a longer time horizon.

So, let’s hope that this International Yoga Day is part of a comprehensive strategy of the government to establish India’s genuine bona fides as a major global force with a unique vision, one that celebrates mind-body unity as practiced in yoga, and one that equally celebrates diversity of creed and faith as cherished by India’s great constitution. When these cultural attributes are joined with India’s democratic commitment and its growing economic might, then and only then, will India have the opportunity to take its place in the community of global leaders.

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