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

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

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.

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.

But, of course that’s not the only thing about India that’s spreading. You’ve got Bollywood. My attitude to Bollywood is best summarized in the tale of the two goats at a Bollywood garbage dump — Mr. Shekhar Kapur, forgive me — and they’re chewing away on cans of celluloid discarded by a Bollywood studio.

And the first goat, chewing away, says, “You know, this film is not bad.”

And the second goat says, “No, the book was better.”

I usually tend to think that the book is usually better. But, having said that, the fact is that Bollywood is now taking a certain aspect of Indian-ness and Indian culture around the globe, not just in the Indian diaspora in the U.S. and the U.K., but to the screens of Arabs and Africans, of Senegalese and Syrians.

I’ve met a young man in New York whose illiterate mother in a village in Senegal takes a bus once a month to the capital city of Dakar, just to watch a Bollywood movie. She can’t understand the dialogue. She’s illiterate, so she can’t read the French subtitles.

But these movies are made to be understood despite such handicaps, and she has a great time in the song and the dance and the action. She goes away with stars in her eyes about India, as a result. And this is happening more and more.

Afghanistan… we know what a serious security problem Afghanistan is for so many of us in the world. India doesn’t have a military mission there. You know what was India’s biggest asset in Afghanistan in the last seven years?

One simple fact: you couldn’t try to call an Afghan at 8:30 in the evening. Why? Because that was the moment when the Indian television soap opera, “Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi,” dubbed into Dari, was telecast on Tolo T.V. And it was the most popular television show in Afghan history.

Every Afghan family wanted to watch it. They had to suspend functions at 8:30. Weddings were reported to be interrupted so guests could cluster around the T.V. set, and then turn their attention back to the bride and groom.

Crime went up at 8:30. I have read a Reuters dispatch — so this is not Indian propaganda, a British news agency — about how robbers in the town of Mazār-e Sharīf stripped a vehicle of its windshield wipers, its hubcaps, its sideview mirrors, any moving part they could find, at 8:30, because the watchmen were busy watching the T.V. rather than minding the store.

And they scrawled on the windshield in a reference to the show’s heroine, “Tulsi Zindabad”: “Long live Tulsi.” That’s soft power. And that is what India is developing through the “E” part of TED: its own entertainment industry.

The same is true, of course — we don’t have time for too many more examples — but it’s true of our music, of our dance, of our art, yoga, Ayurveda, even Indian cuisine. I mean, the proliferation of Indian restaurants since I first went abroad as a student, in the mid ’70s, and what I see today, you can’t go to a mid-size town in Europe or North America and not find an Indian restaurant. It may not be a very good one.

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