India is often described by foreign policy and strategic thinkers in disparaging terms as a “soft state”. The main reason for this criticism is the prevailing view that India is pushed around and challenged across its entire neighbourhood because of its aversion to use its “hard power,” made up by its economic and military strength, to ensure its interests are not disregarded by others. This view is refuted on the grounds that in today’s multipolar world, economic pressures can be overcome and no country can be ruled, or dominated, by the military strength of others. The primary means that India, therefore, uses to influence others is “soft power”. India finances the studies of thousands from its neighbourhood to enable them to obtain education and proficiency in areas ranging from medicine, engineering, agriculture, information technology and humanities, to hotel management, military training and development administration. Moreover, substantial credits are being extended to countries ranging from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan to Ethiopia, to build roads, dams, electrical power and transmission networks, railways and industrial projects. Involvement in such areas have substantially enhanced India’s influence across its extended neighbourhood and even in distant Caribbean countries.
While studies of India’s cultural and spiritual heritage abroad have been facilitated and encouraged, there have been no concerted efforts to link cultural diplomacy to our economic development. Economic and strategic cooperation with our ASEAN neighbours was the focus of attention at the recent India-ASEAN Summit. The most important “soft power” that India has in these countries— the shared Buddhist heritage—was, however, virtually ignored. There are between 170-190 million Buddhists in South East Asia, with an estimated 134 million Theravada Buddhists in Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. There are 44 million Buddhists in Vietnam, practising Mahayana Buddhism and an estimated 7 million, mainly of Chinese origin, in Indonesia, Singapore and Philippines, who practice a synthesis Mahayana Buddhism with Confucianism and Daoism. There are an estimated 90 million Buddhist believers in Japan, who also profess adherence to Shinto. There are 11 million Buddhists linked to 26 Buddhist sects in South Korea.
Why is Buddhism factor so important? When I drew the attention of a Myanmar general to China’s growing influence in his country, he responded saying that we should not worry. While his country may go to China for arms, his people knew that as devout Buddhists, they to go to Bodh Gaya for salvation! China is becoming increasingly jingoistic and nationalistic primarily because its Communist rulers fear they are losing legitimacy and find jingoism a useful means to divert their people’s attention from the absence of political and religious freedoms. Revival of religious and democratic freedoms in China could transform its aggressive international behaviour. China’s nervousness at the prospect of such a development is evident from its offer to spend billions of dollars made to Nepal’s Maoists to develop the Buddha’s birthplace, Lumbini.
India has been unable to exploit its Buddhist heritage because the facilities for tourists, like road communications, hotels and international airports at sites like Sanchi and Bodh Gaya are primitive. Moreover, academic institutions of Buddhist studies like the recently conceptualised International University for Buddhist-Indic Studies being set up in Sanchi are yet to be fully developed. The Public Diplomacy Wing of the external affairs ministry can play a key role in encouraging academic exchanges between Buddhist scholars and institutions in India and its neighbourhood. Proper development of heritage sites with hotels and tourist rest houses linked by six-lane highways would set the stage for a major role for India in religious tourism. India can expect foreign investments and interest, especially from countries like Japan, once it draws up a comprehensive plan to develop Buddhist sites as religious tourism destinations and promotes institutions of Buddhist studies across the country. firstname.lastname@example.org
Parthasarathy is a former diplomat