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
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