India Today and Tomorrow

Forbes editor Robyn Meredith interviews Shashi Tharoor in Hong Kong on June 21, 2010.

HONG KONG, June 21, 2010 - Soft power is no substitute for foreign policy or national security, says Shashi Tharoor, former Under Secretary-General of the United Nations and current Indian Member of Parliament. He told the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, "There is a tendency to confuse soft power with cultural diplomacy and public relations. A country's soft power is evoked. Hard power is exercised. Soft power happens despite what the government wants you to think about it."

The longtime diplomat observed that the US has succeeded in this respect. "Even at times when US foreign policy was unpopular, people were still wearing jeans and drinking Coke. China hasn't got there yet, perhaps it will. The Olympics was a very impressive exercise in conveying soft power. In India, our soft power has almost nothing to do with the government and the way India's image has changed over the past 60 years. For example, Bollywood is among our most prized cultural assets."

Developing that idea, Tharoor explained how Bollywood productions continue to wield great influence on Pakistan. "[Bollywood] already has conquered the public. During the worst enmity between the two states, smuggled Indian movies and music were staples. To my own astonishment, when I went to the US as a graduate student in the mid-'70s, I kept meeting Pakistani students who talked about Indian movies."

Tharoor maintained that the India-US relationship would continue to remain close, due in part to the rise of the Indian American community. "In the 1960s Indian students went to the US and many of them stayed on. Many went on to financial success and political influence. Indian Americans became heard at a high level. There is the existence of a strong powerful ethnicity within the US, and it is why the Indo-US relationship will be a driver irrespective of China and other countries."

He categorically dismissed the possibility of armed conflict between India and China, despite 13 rounds of border talks following the 1962 war. "If anybody in China or the future China is irresponsible enough to think that some of China's claims on India could be attained by military means, the Indian defenses will simply not allow it. It's a question of finding the political will on both sides."

On economic reforms which began in the 1990s, he stated, "The pace of reforms is sometimes slower than many wished. This is a reflection of our democracy and our bureaucratic system. Things tend to work slowly. In our democracy, our present government is a coalition of six parties. The previous government had 20 parties in it. You can't assume that a party with a majority can get things done. Also, there are bureaucratic vested interests and entrenched programs."

Tharoor underscored that reforms were irreversible and concluded on an upbeat note. "India is now a far more globalized society and economy than ever before. People are aware that others eat, speak, and do things differently."

Reported by Penny Tang, Asia Society Hong Kong Center