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Ram Nath Kao, who founded the Research and Analysis Wing of the Cabinet Secretariat passed away in 2002. On the fifth anniversary of his death in January 2007, Shashi Tharoor, then Under Secretary General of the United Nations, delivered the first Kao Memorial Lecture at the R&AW Headquarters. The talk, which the present Minister of State for Human Resources Development delivered with his customary elan, was on the subject, “Global Security and India - Leveraging Soft Power”.


It was Joseph Nye, Professor at Harvard, who coined the term ‘soft power’ in his 1990 book, ‘Born to Lead’. Soft power is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or financial inducements. Nye argued that America must rely more on its soft power by way of culture and trade rather than its military might to get things done in the international arena. In the post 9/11 years, there was a great deal of discussion in the intellectual circles about the strategy adopted by the Bush Administration to tackle terror, which was solely based on hard power. While many conceded that Bush was left with no option but to tackle terror with a hard fist in the post-9/11 scenario, there were several others who felt that such tactics were making America unpopular in the world and thus making it less powerful in the real sense. Suzanne Nossel (who had been Deputy to Richard Holbrooke, when he was the US Permanent Representative at the UN during the Clinton years) dealt with this issue in an article entitled ‘Smart Power: Reclaiming Liberal Internationalism’ that she wrote in the “Foreign Affairs” magazine in 2004. Her thesis was that the US needed to adopt a strategy combining its soft and hard power to achieve its geopolitical goals. She coined the term ‘Smart Power’ to describe the strategy she enunciated. Joseph Nye also used the term ‘Smart Power” in his 2004 book, ‘Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics”. Nye went on to set up a bipartisan Commission in the Washington think tank, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, along with Richard Armitage to further develop this concept. These two were called upon to testify before the Congressional Committee on National Security, where they proposed five focus areas for effective smart diplomacy: alliances, partnerships and institutions, global development, public diplomacy, economic integration and technology and innovation. 


The concept of Soft or Smart Power, which did not find favour with those who mattered in the Bush Administration (Dick Cheney said he did not understand the term), found a new lease of life with Hillary Clinton’s arrival on the scene as the Secretary of State in the US. In her senate confirmation hearings, she repeatedly referred to Smart Power. Clinton said,” investing in our common humanity through social development is not marginal to our foreign policy, but essential to the realization of our goals. The US has long believed in the importance of global development and the US will continue to diligently work with its partners abroad to bring improvement in the areas of healthcare, education and security to people throughout the world.”


China has in fact been ahead of the US in adapting itself to the soft power strategy. As Joshua Kurlantzick of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace points out, “Even as they saw that China could not match America’s military might, scholars like Wang Jisi of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences noted that as post-Cold War America retreated from the world, US’s long-term weakness could be its soft power, not its hard power.” While Kurlantzick is of the view that the year 1997 provides a convenient date to mark China’s soft power emergence, B. Raman, the doyen of India’s strategic analysis community who passed away recently would say that it was from 2004, that China’s adaptation to soft power came to be noticed, like the establishment of 150 Confucius Institutes in 50 countries to propagate Chinese language and culture. Significantly, at the National People’s Congress held in March, 2007 in Beijing, Joseph Nye and his concept of Soft Power came to be referred to by practically every speaker. The conscious decision taken then to resort to soft power in projecting China abroad resulted in an increase of 37.3% in the budget of the Foreign Ministry and 23.9% in that of the Cultural Development Department.


The Government of India has not been lagging behind in realizing the importance of soft power. The setting up of the Ministry of Overseas Indians was an early step to leverage India’s soft power. The Ministry of External Affairs has set up a Public Diplomacy Division which has rendered admirable work in the few years since its inception. Our initiatives in Afghanistan since 2001 are also classic examples of soft power strategy, where the Delaram-Zaranj road built by the Border Roads Organization and the initiatives of the Indian Army in the medical and educational fields show what the Defence Ministry, which is normally thought of as a purveyor of hard power can do in the field of soft power. However, there is perhaps need to think of out-of the-box solutions for fully exploiting India’s soft power, especially in the South Asian region, especially among our smaller neighbours who often complain about our big brotherly attitude.


Shashi Tharoor noted in his Kao memorial lecture that India’s soft power was there for all to see and all that was needed was to leverage it to good effect. One of the major areas in which Indian soft power got exported was through the emigrant population of Indian teachers especially from Kerala, whose capital city is represented in the Parliament by Tharoor. One of the striking examples of this phenomenon is Peter Verghese, Australia’s Foreign Secretary, who was till recently that country’s High Commissioner in India and had earlier headed the influential Office of Net Assessments in the Australian Prime Minister’s Secretariat. His parents left Kerala in the fifties to take up teaching assignments in Kenya, before migrating to Australia. The former King of Bhutan was fond of recounting how, while visiting a remote and inaccessible village in Eastern Bhutan in the early years of his reign, he was surprised to discover that the lone teacher in the village school was from Kerala! Santaseelan Kadirgamar has written evocatively about the teachers from Kerala who gave a boost to education in Jaffna as early as the 1920’s which ensured that the  Jaffna  Tamil community came to  be admired all over the world for its academic and professional achievements. The Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai, till recently Nepal’s Prime Minister, has no hesitation in acknowledging his debt to his Malayali teacher in the village school in Gorkha for the guidance he received early in his brilliant academic career. At least a few teachers from Kerala were among those who died when the tsunami struck the far-flung Maldivian atolls in December 2004. These simple souls were the flag-bearers of India’s soft power.


Tharoor, after explaining how India had extended its soft power through means such as its music, dance and movies went on to point out that soft power had its limitations. It was indeed Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru himself, who propagated India’s soft power in the initial years of our independence, through means such as the Non-aligned Movement. However, when the debacle in the China war happened in 1962, he as well as the country realized the limits of soft power. We then realized that we needed to be smart, through a combination of soft and hard power. In recent years, India has been paying due attention to building up resources for its defence. The nuclear tests, the  missile development programme and the steady up-gradation of the capabilities of its armed forces are all being viewed by the world at large as part of India’s efforts to build up hard power. While the importance of hard power cannot be ignored, it would perhaps be prudent on India’s part to be low key in displaying it in our neighbourhood. When our Defence Minister went to the Maldives in October 2009, there was criticism in the Indian media that he chose to keep his visit low key. But it was actually a calculated, wise decision, because around that time, press reports that Indian Navy had offered to patrol the Indian Ocean around the Maldivian atolls, to station naval helicopters in the Maldives and to install radars at chosen locations had led to adverse comments from certain quarters in that country, who perceived these as infringement of their country’s sovereignty.  Our national security interests can be better guaranteed in this context through soft, rather than hard power initiatives in our neighbourhood.


One example of how and where Indian soft power could be efficiently used to further its security interests is indeed the Maldives. Let us take a closer look at that country. In recent years, there has been a rise in religious conservatism in this island nation, where, for centuries, a tolerant form of Islam had been practised. The Maldives witnessed its first terrorist bombing at the Sultan Park in Male in September 2007, in which twelve foreign tourists were injured.  There was an embarrassing display of fundamentalist intolerance during the SAARC summit held in Male in November 2011 when Islamist protestors damaged or forced the removal of monuments gifted to the Maldives by SAARC member countries, including Pakistan, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. Several liberal and reform-minded intellectuals and activists have been attacked in recent times. These attacks point to a worsening environment for liberal minded individuals and a narrowing of vision at least among a section of the Maldivian population which is beginning to cause worries to the Maldivian leadership.


In a recent seminar (May 2013) organized by the US Bureau of Diplomatic Security, aimed at training senior police officers in counter-terrorism at Kurumba, Maldives, the Chief of Maldivian Defence Force, Maj.Gen. Ahmed Shiyam  and Attorney General Aishath Bisham referred to confirmed reports that some Maldivian youths had joined foreign terrorist groups and several of them were untraceable.  Much earlier,  the then President Mohammad Nasheed , during his visit to Delhi in December 2008, expressed his concerns  about the fact that a large number of Maldivians were studying in Pakistani seminaries controlled by jihadist groups and called for greater Indian educational assistance.  He had good reason to link the growth of terrorist tendencies with the poor educational facilities in his country.  In Maldives, the low density in population and extended dispersion has made infrastructure development in education unviable due to poor economies of scale. This has resulted in poor accessibility and availability of secondary and tertiary education to the population. Despite this, the country has a literacy rate at around 98%. The country has a young demographic profile with around 60% below the age group of 25 years. Though the island nation has made considerable progress in primary and lower secondary education,  significant gaps still exist in the higher secondary and tertiary education.


Maldives follows the British General Education Certification, where the lower and the higher secondary education is certified as ‘O’ and ‘A’ level respectively. Though a large number of students study for their ’O’ levels every year, there is also a large drop-out rate at this level. Pass rates are also low for those who opt to take the examinations. Around 35% of the students pass out with ‘O’ level certification. Only around 21% of the students are able to transition from the lower secondary ‘O’ level into the higher secondary ‘A’ level stream, largely due to inadequate infrastructure to cater to this demand. . As pointed out in the World Bank report “Human Capital for a Modern Society: General Education in the Maldives” (2012), “The main reason for the sharp fall in participation at the higher secondary level is the limited number of schools offering education in grades 11-12. For instance, out of the 225 schools in the country only 38 schools provide higher secondary education: 4 schools in Male’ and 34 schools in the atolls.”


There are also some other highly relevant findings in the World Bank Report. One of them is that unemployment in the Maldives is high compared to other small island countries. The unemployment rate for the Maldives is over 14 percent, which is the second highest unemployment rate among small island countries. Similarly, the proportion of youth who are neither attending school nor working are high. Twenty-five per cent of youth in the age range 15-19 years and 32 percent of youth aged 20-24 years are neither participating in education nor working. As the Report rightly observes, “This is a high level of waste of valuable human resources in the Maldivian economy. “ This also provides an incendiary backdrop in which terrorism can grow.


Against this background, the World Bank Report goes on to say:


“Policy action to expand higher secondary education is now needed urgently. There are two strategies for policy makers to expand the network of higher secondary schools. The first strategy is the promotion of private sector investment in higher secondary schools through scholarships and loans to students enrolling in these schools. This is a promising policy development for a large population center such as Male’. The second strategy to expand higher secondary education is to allow state schools that have adequate class sizes for grades 11 and 12, but an insufficient mass to attract private investment, to establish higher secondary classes. This strategy is needed in the outer atolls where the private sector is unable to invest profitably. In such atolls it is necessary for the government to expand higher secondary education in strategically selected schools and ensure equity of access across the country.”  


The poor access to and lack of availability of higher levels of education have created social and economic tensions in the country. These will need to be immediately addressed. It would make a great deal of sense for Government of India to help the Government of Maldives  address these problems by providing the infrastructure required, which could then attract Indian educational institutions to move in to provide the services required by students including those from distant atolls. India, which has considerable soft power by way of expertise in ICT, must also take note of the fact that ICT-based teacher professional development has been strongly recommended by the World Bank, given the geography of the Maldives with multiple and scattered islands, for promoting teaching and learning development in a cost-effective manner. Such an approach may be of extremely high value for India in preventing the kind of chaos that we see in Pakistan today from extending to other parts of our neighbourhood. Hard power is certainly required for us to be smart and to be respected in the comity of nations. However, what may be of greater importance to India than displaying her hard power, is to focus on the extension of our soft power, if our priority is to emerge victorious in the battle for winning the hearts and minds of those in our neighbourhood.


 Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.