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‘Every faith known to mankind has found a home in India’

Dr Shashi Tharoor gives lecture on India’s “soft power” at City

The use of "soft power" will playnull a key role in India achieving its goals for domestic and international development, according to leading politician Dr Shashi Tharoor.

The former UN Under-Secretary-General explained that a strategy of promoting India's positive assets - including a history of openness to different faiths - would be more effective than an aggressive military policy. He offered his vision of his country's future during a guest lecture at City University London, entitled Pax Indica: India in the World of the Twenty-First Century.

Dr Tharoor, a successful author and Indian government MP, argued his country will best exert its influence by combining "soft power" with economic strength, backed up by a competitive military. Part of this international image, he argued, was a culture of accommodating "every faith known to mankind" - a poignant message in a world facing significant ideological tensions.

He said: "In the twenty-first century, what matters is not who has the biggest army but who tells the best story."

The politician, who was a senior adviser to former Secretary-General Kofi Annan during a 29-year UN career, covered a wide range of issues affecting his country since its independence from Britain in 1947. He explained foreign policy was an important tool - alongside domestic measures - in helping to improve prosperity for the people of India, a country in which a third of the population is in poverty.

You can't be a superpower when you are still super-poor.
Dr Shashi Tharoor

Dr Tharoor described how the nation had changed its stance of self-reliance following the end of the Cold War in 1991 and was now "well plugged into the economy of the world". In the modern "information age", the politician argued India should pursue a "multi-alignment" foreign policy, describing contemporary international relations as "networked" and "interlinked", rather than being "specific to one alliance".

He also dismissed the notion that India could become a superpower, saying he did not think it was possible or necessary for India to gain "anything approaching global domination". "I would always be extremely reluctant to accept such notions of power," he said. "You can't be a superpower when you are still super-poor."

The politician stressed the world had moved on from historic periods of polarisation with international allegiances, such as during the Cold War. "It's a very archaic idea," he said. "I don't really think we're in a world in which domination by only one power is going to be possible."

Dr Tharoor explained international relationships are now more complex than in previous years and said India was now interacting with different nations for different purposes.

Every faith known to mankind has found a home in India... That has been what Indian democracy has been built upon.
Dr Shashi Tharoor

While outlining India's prospects for the future, he cited the country's population growth, which will take its total past China between 2026 and 2034, and the fact its economy overtook Japan's in 2014. He also referenced the standing of India's military - one of the largest in the world - and said its nuclear capability still affected the nation's global position.

However, in his opinion the country should continue focussing on enhancing its global reputation, which was built on an openness to religions and backgrounds of all types. "Every faith known to mankind has found a home in India," he said. "That has been what Indian democracy has been built upon."

According to the politician, other aspects of the country's culture will also be important in promoting a positive image of the nation, both in nearby regions as well as on other continents. These include its Bollywood entertainment industry, its workforce skilled in field such as IT, medicine and engineering, its world-renowned food and the aid it sends abroad.

India, he said, must also continue to take an active role in global organisations, such as the UN's G77 body, which represents the interests of developing countries, and the G20 forum of the world's top economies. This engagement follows "200 years of exclusion" from international politics, he added.

The prospect of a 'special relationship' has actually gone down, it seems to me… I'm sorry to say that.
Dr Shashi Tharoor

On China, he argued his country should "encourage far, far greater Chinese investment in India" and claimed the nations had "very similar interests". He explained this rising investment would benefit India's economy and would decrease any possibility of future military action between the countries.

The politician conceded relations with Pakistan "remain difficult" but said it was in India's interest to aim for peace and not conflict. He admitted having a "more rosy view" than others but maintained that a non-aggressive foreign policy was key to the country's aims. Dr Tharoor cited Russia's recent annexation of Crimea and consequent international sanctions against it as how military action can have detrimental economic effects.

Britain's ties with India were highlighted by a member of the audience, who asked if it was likely that the nations could form a "special relationship" akin to the links the UK and US claim to enjoy. However, the politician argued the chances of this happening were "fading" due to various factors, including the relative ease with which Indian students can obtain a visa to study in America, compared with the UK, which rejects applications for "obscure reasons".

"The prospect of a 'special relationship' has actually gone down, it seems to me… I'm sorry to say that," he said.

The lecture took place on Friday 20th February at the Centre of International Political Studies (CIPS) at City University London.

Listen to an audio recording of the lecture.

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