India has long seemed unable or unwilling to become a major player on the world stage. But the country’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, is looking to change all that. In order to compensate for a small and weak foreign service, he is tapping into India’s considerable soft power: its emigrants, intellectuals, and yogis.

Modi began his premiership last year with a dramatic spurt of diplomatic activity. He has ratcheted up India’s engagement with its neighbors. His first overseas trip was to Bhutan; he visited Nepal twice in four months; and he worked to resolve territorial disputes with Bangladesh. He has courted China, Japan, and the United States through a series of high-profile bilateral visits. And he has energetically represented India at multilateral forums, most notably the BRICS meetings, the G-20, and the United Nations General Assembly.

But there are limits to what conventional diplomacy can achieve, especially given its weak institutional underpinnings in India. The Indian Foreign Service (IFS), the bureaucracy that staffs India’s top diplomatic institutions, is tiny for a country with global ambitions: a mere 900 people. Indeed, representing India’s 1.2 billion people is a foreign service that is roughly the same size as that of New Zealand (population 4.4 million) or Singapore (5.3 million). By comparison, the United States’ is around 15,000 and China’s around 5,000.

There are plans in the works for a modest expansion of the IFS. The previous government pledged to double its size, but vacillated over the time it would take to do so. Either way, the expansion will take years to come to fruition and will leave India’s diplomatic corps still significantly smaller than those of its global peers. Meanwhile, the IFS is famously conservative in approach, prone to highly individualized decision-making, and often resistant to new ideas, all of which have the potential to limit the effects of the proposed expansion.

What India lacks in diplomatic muscle, however, it makes up in soft power. It boasts Bollywood, Yoga, Buddhism, and a rich philosophical tradition. It has a world-class cadre of global public intellectuals from Amartya Sen to Salman Rushdie. It also has an extensive, wealthy, and increasingly politically engaged diaspora spread across the political and economic capitals of the world.

For years, though, the country’s soft power potential has remained largely untapped. Previous administrations have taken incremental steps to make better use of it, including by establishing a small public diplomacy division within the Ministry of External Affairs in 2006 and expanding the Indian Council for Cultural Relations worldwide. These efforts, however, pale in comparison with the British Council, Germany’s Goethe Institutes, or China’s overseas network of Confucius Institutes and language scholarship programs. What’s more, India has had trouble bringing the disparate elements of the country’s appeal together in the service of its foreign policy. Its soft power resources have not been able to translate into the levels of foreign investment the country would like to see, it has benefitted little from the global Yoga boom, and it attracts far fewer foreign tourists than China or other comparable countries.


To address these problems, Modi has several tools at his disposal. First, he has made outreach to the 25-million-strong Indian diaspora a set-piece in major overseas visits. Many among the diaspora are relatively wealthy, well connected, and—unlike overseas Chinese—increasingly politically engaged. Indeed, there are active India caucuses in the U.S. Congress and Senate, and Indian Americans play an increasingly prominent role in campaign finance. Speaking in Hindi, Modi recently called on a rally of 18,000 overseas Indians in Madison Square Garden to “join hands and serve mother India.” He asked them to help boost India’s international image and encourage foreign direct investment. Modi has delivered similar messages to overseas Indians in Japan and in Australia. It is too early to tell whether these initiatives will succeed, but the rockstar greeting tens of thousands of overseas Indians have given Modi on these trips suggests that he has at least succeeded in capturing the diaspora’s imagination.

Modi is also using digital diplomacy to boost his country’s image. His platform of choice is Twitter, on which he boasts 9.5 million followers. He has used the service to showcase his close relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in both English and Japanese, welcome foreign companies to invest in India, and, most dramatically, to issue a public invitation for U.S. President Barack Obama to attend India’s Republic Day celebrations. World leaders have been quick to embrace Modi’s online engagement. The U.S. National Security Council tweeted its acceptance of Modi’s invitation; Modi and his Minister of Home Affairs, Rajnath Singh, are two of the four individuals Shinzo Abe follows on Twitter; other leaders, including Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, have posted photos of themselves with Modi and used the platform to restate the importance of ties with India.

Modi is also active on Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and StumbleUpon; in November, he shared his first photo on Instagram (it was from the 25thASEAN Summit in Myanmar and generated 32,000 “likes”). In July, India’s Ministry of External Affairs launched a smartphone app that integrates consular services, information on Indian foreign policy, and a “Follow your PM” feature that allows users to track Modi’s overseas visits. These channels are designed to complement India’s conventional diplomacy, communicating directly with political elites and publics around the world.

Finally, in seeking to overcome the limitations of the Delhi bureaucracy, Modi has also set about decentralizing elements of India’s foreign policy. At the BRICS Summit last July, Modi used his address to “champion engagement between our states, cities, and other local bodies.” He has consulted Indian states ahead of overseas outreach and is making strong use of sister city arrangements. For example, to help modernize his parliamentary district of Varanasi, he used a visit to Japan to initiate a sister city agreement with Kyoto. He similarly used Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Ahmedabad to strike up a partnership with China’s manufacturing powerhouse of Guangzhou. As part of his visit to Australia for the G-20 Summit, Modi proposed a sister city agreement between Hyderabad and Brisbane and argued that relationships between countries can prosper fully “only if we bring our states and cities together.”


As well as seeking to boost India’s international status by revamping the tools used to communicate with the world, Modi has set about updating the country’s messaging. He aspires to make India a global thought leader, a vishwa guru, or guru of the world. In a recent address at Banaras Hindu University, Modi told a group of teachers that, “In the present era, which can be considered an era of knowledge, our roles and responsibilities have increased. We have to emerge as a vishwa guru, not only to give new direction to the world, but also to protect our own heritage.” The idea is to highlight how India straddles ancient history and modernity. As he argued during his visit to New York, “India is the world’s youngest country and its most ancient.” As such, Modi is relying on both India’s ancient and modern cultures to revitalize its international image.

Looking to the past, Modi has attempted to enlist India’s philosophical and religious traditions in the service of its foreign policy. Yoga has been at the forefront of his efforts. Speaking at the UN General Assembly in September, Modi described yoga as “India’s gift to the world” and successfully lobbied the forum to declare June 21 as World Yoga Day. All in all, 177 nations supported the proposal, including the United States and China. Modi has also made similar arguments about traditional Indian medicine, Ayurveda, which he aims to establish on par with traditional Chinese medicine. In a briefing with Foreign Service officers in June, Modi expounded the importance of packaging and presenting Ayurveda to the world more effectively. He has experimented too with using India’s Buddhist history to strengthen ties with China, Japan, Myanmar (also called Burma), and Nepal by stressing India’s spiritual and philosophical links with the rest of Asia. As such, he made Buddhism a major talking point in his September meetings with Xi, stressed its importance in his trip to Nepal, and visited Buddhist temples in Japan. India’s culture and tourism ministry is also teaming up with the World Bank to develop a Buddhist tourist circuit for the country.

India’s contemporary culture has also featured­—although less prominently—in Modi’s soft power diplomacy. On the cultural front, the obvious starting point has been Bollywood. During Xi’s visit to India, China and India signed a memorandum of understanding to co-produce films, the first of which looks set to be the recently announced Kung Fu Yoga, starring Jackie Chan. India has also signed an agreement with Vietnam on broadcasting cooperation between India’s “Prasar Bharti” and the “Voice of Vietnam.” Politically, Modi has built on his predecessors’ efforts to highlight India’s democratic identity, including it as a talking point in his outreach to India’s neighbors, Bhutan and Nepal, as well as to Australia, Japan, and the United States.

Modi hopes that these efforts will provide India with a seat at the top table of international politics, winning it security, friends, and much-needed foreign investment and technology. These efforts have domestic political goals, too. Speaking in Hindi to foreign audiences makes India’s diplomacy accessible to Indians who might not otherwise take note. Using social media to promote trips abroad allows Modi to paint himself as an international statesman who is reviving pride in Brand India and ushering in investment.

There’s also a danger, however. In celebrating India’s cultural and historical achievements, Modi and right-wingers in his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) risk stretching the limits of credibility. Hindu nationalists have long claimed that many of modern science’s achievements were known in ancient India. Modi himself made global headlines last October by repeating his claim that a Hindu god, Ganesh—who sports an elephant’s head on a human body—was evidence that ancient Indians practiced plastic surgery. Others, including BJP parliamentarians, have endorsed this argument and added to it accounts of nuclear tests in the 2nd century BC and ancient Indian airplanes. Modi and his party need to be careful that they don’t let efforts to promote Indian soft power degenerate into farce.   

So far, however, Modi’s new and energetic brand of diplomacy has succeeded in catching the attention of world leaders. It is premature to pass judgment on whether these initiatives will succeed in shifting the views of global publics, opinion leaders, and investors for long enough to translate into higher growth and greater political clout for India. To a great extent, these moves are born out of necessity. Creative ways of projecting India’s influence abroad are necessary as the new government seeks to build up India’s economy and its traditional diplomatic resources. What is clear, however, is that the Modi government has raised the bar on the relationship between India’s soft power potential and its foreign policy. For the first time, the Indian state is beginning to make systematic use of the rich cultural and human resources that have previously developed quite independently of its policies.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now