Why Nations Should Pursue “Soft” Power: Shashi Tharoor (Transcript)

Shashi Tharoor – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT

As an Indian, and now as a politician and a government minister, I’ve become rather concerned about the hype we’re hearing about our own country, all this talk about India becoming a world leader, even the next superpower.

In fact, the American publishers of my book, “The Elephant, The Tiger and the Cell Phone,” added a gratuitous subtitle saying, “India: The next 21st-century power.”

And I just don’t think that’s what India’s all about, or should be all about. Indeed, what worries me is the entire notion of world leadership seems to me terribly archaic. It’s redolent of James Bond movies and Kipling ballads.

After all, what constitutes a world leader? If it’s population, we’re on course to top the charts. We will overtake China by 2034. Is it military strength? Well, we have the world’s fourth largest army. Is it nuclear capacity? We know we have that.

The Americans have even recognized it, in an agreement. Is it the economy? Well, we have now the fifth-largest economy in the world in purchasing power parity terms. And we continue to grow. When the rest of the world took a beating last year, we grew at 6.7%.

But, somehow, none of that adds up to me, to what I think India really can aim to contribute in the world, in this part of the 21st century.

And so I wondered, could what the future beckons for India to be all about be a combination of these things allied to something else, the power of example, the attraction of India’s culture, what, in other words, people like to call “soft power.”

Soft power is a concept invented by a Harvard academic, Joseph Nye, a friend of mine. And, very simply, and I’m really cutting it short because of the time limits here, it’s essentially the ability of a country to attract others because of its culture, its political values, its foreign policies.

And, you know, lots of countries do this. He was writing initially about the States, but we know the Alliance Francaise is all about French soft power, the British Council.

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The Beijing Olympics were an exercise in Chinese soft power. Americans have the Voice of America and the Fulbright scholarships. But, the fact is, in fact, that probably Hollywood and MTV and McDonalds have done more for American soft power around the world than any specifically government activity.

So soft power is something that really emerges partly because of governments, but partly despite governments. And in the information era we all live in today, what we might call the TED age, I’d say that countries are increasingly being judged by a global public that’s been fed on an incessant diet of Internet news, of televised images, of cellphone videos, of email gossip.

In other words, all sorts of communication devices are telling us the stories of countries, whether or not the countries concerned want people to hear those stories.

Now, in this age, again, countries with access to multiple channels of communication and information have a particular advantage. And of course, they have more influence, sometimes, about how they’re seen.

India has more all-news TV channels than any country in the world, in fact in most of the countries in this part of the world put together. But the fact still is that it’s not just that. In order to have soft power, you have to be connected.

One might argue that India has become an astonishingly connected country. I think you’ve already heard the figures. We’ve been selling 15 million cellphones a month. Currently there are 509 million cellphones in Indian hands, in India. And that makes us larger than the U.S. as a telephone market.

In fact, those 15 million cellphones are the most connections that any country, including the U.S. and China, has ever established in the history of telecommunications.

But what perhaps some of you don’t realize is how far we’ve come to get there. You know, when I grew up in India, telephones were a rarity. In fact, they were so rare that elected members of Parliament had the right to allocate 15 telephone lines as a favor to those they deemed worthy.

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If you were lucky enough to be a wealthy businessman or an influential journalist, or a doctor or something, you might have a telephone. But sometimes it just sat there. I went to high school in Calcutta. And we would look at this instrument sitting in the front foyer.

But half the time we would pick it up with an expectant look on our faces, there would be no dial tone. If there was a dial tone and you dialed a number, the odds were two in three you wouldn’t get the number you were intending to reach.

In fact, the words “wrong number” were more popular than the word “Hello.” If you then wanted to connect to another city, let’s say from Calcutta you wanted to call Delhi, you’d have to book something called a trunk call, and then sit by the phone all day, waiting for it to come through. Or you could pay eight times the going rate for something called a lightning call.

But, lightning struck rather slowly in our country in those days. So, it was like about a half an hour for a lightning call to come through. In fact, so woeful was our telephone service that a Member of Parliament stood up in 1984 and complained about this.

And the Then-Communications Minister replied in a lordly manner that in a developing country communications are a luxury, not a right, that the government had no obligation to provide better service, and if the honorable Member wasn’t satisfied with his telephone, could he please return it, since there was an eight-year-long waiting list for telephones in India.

Now, fast-forward to today and this is what you see: the 15 million cell phones a month. But what is most striking is who is carrying those cell phones.

You know, if you visit friends in the suburbs of Delhi, on the side streets you will find a fellow with a cart that looks like it was designed in the 16th century, wielding a coal-fired steam iron that might have been invented in the 18th century. He’s called an isthri wala. But he’s carrying a 21st-century instrument.

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He’s carrying a cell phone because most incoming calls are free, and that’s how he gets orders from the neighborhood, to know where to collect clothes to get them ironed.

The other day I was in Kerala, my home state, at the country farm of a friend, about 20 kilometers away from any place you’d consider urban. And it was a hot day and he said, “Hey, would you like some fresh coconut water?”

And it’s the best thing and the most nutritious and refreshing thing you can drink on a hot day in the tropics, so I said sure. And he whipped out his cellphone, dialed the number, and a voice said, “I’m up here.”

And right on top of the nearest coconut tree, with a hatchet in one hand and a cell phone in the other, was a local toddy tapper, who proceeded to bring down the coconuts for us to drink.

Fishermen are going out to sea and carrying their cell phones. When they catch the fish they call all the market towns along the coast to find out where they get the best possible prices.

Farmers now, who used to have to spend half a day of backbreaking labor to find out if the market town was open, if the market was on, whether the product they’d harvested could be sold, what price they’d fetch. They’d often send an eight year old boy all the way on this trudge to the market town to get that information and come back, then they’d load the cart.

Today they’re saving half a day’s labor with a two-minute phone call. So this empowerment of the underclass is the real result of India being connected. And that transformation is part of where India is heading today.

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