"How Yoga Expands India's Soft Power" by Koan Partner, Vivan Sharan (Businessworld, June 21)
Today the world will awaken to the ‘International Day of Yoga’, perhaps with a Surya Namaskar. While some would dismiss this labelling as an attempt by the new government to refine India’s ‘snake charmers and elephant herders’ image on the international stage; others may think of this as an attempt to ‘saffronise’ the global events calendar. A few may think of it as a brilliant marketing gimmick. PM Modi may not have given it any more serious thought than this. However, it stands to reason that since it is already instituted, the international day of yoga must now be neatly placed within India’s soft power projection as well as its larger economic and political aspirations.
The origin of India’s soft power narrative is closely tied to the Non Aligned Movement (NAM), of which most former colonies were a part in the early nineteen fifties. Jawaharlal Nehru championed the NAM, the influence of which isstill seen in India’s foreign policy. The country went on to become a leader within the Group of 77 (G-77) in the mid-sixties and spearheaded the development agenda in various important debates ranging from climate change to global trade. On account of its large population and growing economic footprint, the India’s participation still holds key to G-77 contributions to the global governance discourse.
For many who see India as a poor developing country, like the rest of the G-77, India’s yogic traditions are likely perceived through orientalist lens. That is, yoga is assumed to be a practice developed by scantily clad men, living Spartan lives, isolated in forests. There is a sort of temporal dissonance in seeing yoga as such.
On the other hand, for many,India has also come to be associated with rapid economic growth fuelled by a highly skilled workforce. While the specific drivers of this economic growth narrative remain nebulous to a majority, information technology is seen as India’s ‘x factor’. Silicon Valley is arguably India’s soft power nerve centre, even as it is not physically situated within. And there is no shortage of yoga instructors in the San Francisco Bay Area.
For those who see India as a rapidly developing emerging economy, yogic traditions represent an opportunity to achieve nirvana in a capitalist dystopia – as the IT entrepreneurs likely have done with the return of high IT valuations in the financial markets! The rigours of the typical sedentary white collar job, staring at computer and phone screens, transiting between airports and hotel rooms, have given birth to a ‘wellness’ industry that attempts to save modern man from the pitfalls modern life. And yoga takes centre stage in the plethora of wellness solutions that help rejuvenate, resuscitate and reflect on the present, even as attention spans attenuate.
Increasingly India is also seen to be moving from its role in the ‘global opposition’ as part of the G-77 to a new role on the global high table, as part of groupings such as the G-20 and BRICS. This transition to become an agenda setter from being an agenda taker has been accelerated by the financial crisis originating in the transatlantic economies. Although India’s capacities to set the rules for the road in terms of redesigning the global financial architecture or standard setting in the global value chains of trade remain strained; inclusion in such elite economic groupings has sharpened its ‘brand value’ abroad.
Meanwhile the 21st century India is increasingly choosing to describe itself as both an emerging and developing economy. At least Indian diplomats and policymakers seem to be fairly comfortable with this sometimes amorphous identity. To the extent that this allows the country flexibility in global negotiations, it is hard to debate. Where it needs to be assertive it can emphasise its emerging country image, and where it seeks to be defensive, it can rely on its developing country image. For those who have begun to understand this India, yoga likely represents a convenient bridge between the known and the unknown.
Complexity is widely considered to be an Indian characteristic. And complexity is enmeshed in every aspect of life in India. It permeates family structures, social groups, class hierarchies and of course decision making at all levels including executive, judicial and legislative. For foreign investors, the country has come to represent a group of economies that offer unparalleled investment returns. Simultaneously, it has the dubious distinction of being a risky investment destination where political support remainscritical to business activity. Such boundless commercial opportunities and intractable ground level challenges co-exist seamlessly.
PM Modi’s hope should be that somewhere within the scope of its complex self-identity, this branding exercise serves to enhance its projection as a regional and global power. From a purely realist point of view, it is irrelevant whether the true depth of the yogic practice is understood, whether India spends a minimal proportion of its budget on healthcare and wellness or indeed whether yoga continues to be largely associated with difficult postures and better physique.
Vivan Sharan is a Partner at the Koan Advisory Group and a Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation
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