By M. Patel
The month long Indian election was an ideal place to observe the soft power appeal of American cultural institutions, and the invidious repulsion to emerging populism in American officialdom.
For American cultural appeal, one just needed to turn on any radio or television station. The audience was a 600 million strong electorate and the stage set for two major political parties trying to win with allies, who represented about 300 political parties. And, it was A. R. Rahman’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire score, ‘Jai-Ho’ (victory cheer) that seemed to animate the whole production.
The recognition bestowed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was responsible for the Jai-Ho catch-phrase this election season in India. The ruling Congress party paid an unheard amount of $200,000 for exclusive rights – it was only after the Oscar that the song rights were sought. The principal opposition party, BJP, has come out with a spoof ‘Bhay-Ho’ campaign (‘fear [galore] yet cheer’) sticking to the Jai-Ho melody.*
The tangible effect of soft power recognition embedded in an Oscar was evident at a truck stop where drivers hum the song, and graffiti the Jai-Ho phrase below the ubiquitous ‘Horn-OK-Please’ signs that don Indian lorries. After all, ‘Gane ko Oscar mila hai bhai’ (‘The song received an Oscar, brother’). What if there was no Oscar? ‘Mil gaya na, khalas’ ([We] got it, [story] finished’).
The story repeated itself in villages and cities, in homes and offices. I guess, in the past decade, the only thing that came close to invoking such national pride was India’s successful nuclear tests.
The point’s not so much that the Congress party, or the UPA multiparty coalition it led, gained considerable seats - defying all pre-polling punditry - in the Indian Parliament and emerged strong enough to form a government, because of exclusive rights to an Oscar-winning tune. The remarkable aspect of the whole Jai-Ho-charged campaign was that an Oscar that made all the difference.
That’s soft power in action. Perhaps Mr. Rumsfeld, who questioned what soft power meant, may have benefited from a visit to India during elections. Hollywood may not have legions, but it sure does exercise powerful influence.
The question for American officials is how can the government emulate the soft power appeal of Hollywood and other institutions – higher education being another prime example – to help advance American interests in a globalized world? Why is official public diplomacy lagging in terms of gaining traction internationally? The State Department has had to cancel a popular magazine it launched on the Middle East, and numerous audits of official public diplomacy from the Government Accountability Office have repeatedly questioned its efficacy.
Perhaps the answer lies in American policy itself. For example, President Obama's speech calling for an end to tax cuts that reward companies to create jobs in Bangalore rather than in Buffalo, provides an instance of why American officialdom has not been able to replicate the soft power success of Hollywood.
While the alliterative power of Bangalore-Buffalo made for good rhetoric, the fact remains that outsourcing is beneficial to the US economy as a whole. Mr. Obama may have placated some at home, such as those who are experiencing the worst effects of the economic downturn (and their plight is cause for concern). But he may have ended up alienating millions in India. Major political parties in India vowed to respond in kind if elected. Thankfully, Dr. Manmohan Singh, the prime minister who has been voted in for a second term, is a sensible economist and has not succumbed to the pressures of Indian populism.
After all, it's no fault of the Indian call-center worker that her efficiency benefits the American consumer. If Mr. Obama wants to help displaced workers at home, he needs much more than rhetoric. Job-retraining, vocation education programs and a complete overhaul of the failing public education system would be much better alternatives.
At two political rallies in Gujarat, featuring the prime-minister (Manmohan Singh) and opposition leader (L K Advani), I had asked some college students what they thought of America. They loved pop culture, vied to get into American universities, were excited about Mr. Obama – seemed like the message was ‘Yankee, you’re welcome in my home.’
Yet, after Mr. Obama’s speech when I talked with some of the same students they cited his pronouncements as an instance of US duplicity, since it appeared to prove the point that America is only worried about its own affairs. If Mr. Obama’s pledge was to provide dignity for all, why the double standards between American and non-American workers, they asked.
Growing populist sentiment in America has repulsed many in India. And, the message for America seems to be the same that greeted President Clinton during his state visit, ‘Yankee go home, but take me with you’.
The hypocrisy embedded in American policies - essentially laying out double standards when it comes to issues like free trade (we'll use free trade as long as it helps us, but not when it hurts some powerful groups) - repulses Indians, but the soft power appeal of American culture and opportunities available there are too attractive to miss out on. It's ironic indeed that if American policy-makers want to replicate the soft power success of Hollywood - a mecca of hypocrisy - they may have to ensure less hypocrisy in American policy.
Of course, this may be an isolated and temporary instance of disaffection with US policy in one country. But if Mr. Obama is not careful in his approach to trade policy and commitment to free trade, like Misters Singh and Advani, both of whom had shoe-throw attempts (‘weapons of mass distraction’ as these incidents are termed here – a soft-power legacy of sorts of Mr. Bush) at their political rallies, his administration may soon find itself ducking a boot from the world and its largest democracy.
*For YouTube entries of some Jai-Ho and Bhay-Ho political ads, refer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOlcGruEZ44 ; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4Nodf1aetA
M. Patel is an editor/analyst for the Center for International Relations and a freelance writer.
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