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India's Diwali as a tool of soft power in US

The White House's recognition of the pan-Indian festival suits Narendra Modi's regime
India's Diwali as a tool of soft power in US

People watch a laser show on the banks of the River Sarayu during Deepotsav celebrations on the eve of the Hindu festival of Diwali in Ayodhya on Nov. 3. (Photo: AFP)

Published: November 08, 2021 07:13 AM GMT
Updated: November 08, 2021 07:27 AM GMT

The most successful ambassador of India’s soft power image has been Mahatma Gandhi, who led India’s non-violent struggle against the British colonial masters.

Yoga and meditation emerged as soft powers in the sixties and seventies when Westerners disillusioned with their materialistic lifestyle began thronging India.

After yoga received the United Nations stamp of recognition in 2014 with the proclamation of June 21 as the International Day of Yoga, it’s now Diwali — the pan-Indian popular Hindu festival — emerging as a symbol of India’s growing soft power.

Indian governments of the past did promote arts, culture, philosophy, sports and even cuisine as a means of global soft power, but in a more subtle manner. British playwright and screenwriter Peter Brook’s production of the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata in the 1980s made it more popular in the far corners of the world than any government effort.

But Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have a different take. “We [Indians] can make a contribution [of India’s soft power] only when we ourselves feel proud of our culture. But if we continue to curse ourselves, then how will the world look towards us? The world is not only united by concerns of economic growth but also by human values and India can play a vital role in it,” he said in 2016.

The UN recognition of yoga came after the Modi government pressed for a resolution to that effect at the UN General Assembly. The UN Postal Administration (UNPA) also issued 10 stamps on Yoga Asanas on a single sheet to mark the International Day of Yoga in 2017.

The Indian diaspora's growing clout in the US corridors of power has led to it being wooed by successive presidents

One reason for the rising importance of a Hindu-majority India, its culture and its philosophies is geopolitics. In a fast-emerging multipolar world, the largest democracy of the world is bound to be a major player.

India has moved closer to key global players such as the US, Israel, France, Japan and Australia. It is on friendly terms with Russia and Brazil, and along with them is part of BRICS with China and South Africa as the other partners, hoping for greater economic cooperation in the decades to come.

The Indian diaspora's growing clout in the US corridors of power has led to it being wooed by successive presidents from Barack Obama and Donald Trump to Joe Biden.

It was Obama who first started the tradition of lighting the White House for the Diwali festival way back in 2009. But the then Congress-led coalition government helmed by Dr. Manmohan Singh did not give much importance to religiosity. There was no media hype back home in India.

Modi’s regime is a great believer in the power of the macho-Hindu nation. The recognition of yoga and the latest move by US lawmakers to declare Diwali a federal holiday also suits him politically back home.

Diwali symbolizes the victory of good over evil, light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance. It celebrates the return of Lord Ram to his kingdom in Ayodhya, which now serves as a political symbol for the BJP and allied forces’ Hindu revival campaign, from a 14-year exile and victory over the demon king Ravan.

The latest gesture by President Biden, though, brings in some more responsibilities while holding a crucial line of caution for the incumbent political dispensation in Delhi.

Soft power by itself cannot achieve major foreign policy goals. It will be effective provided India’s political leadership behaves more responsibly.

“Acceptance of Diwali in the West or in the Middle East makes it mandatory now to ensure that Christians and Muslims do not feel aggrieved in India,” said political observer Vidyarthi Kumar while pointing out that “the country’s goals cannot be opposed to the interests of its minorities or the national interests of some of these countries.”

Christian leader A.C. Michael agreed with him. “As an Indian, I have been celebrating Diwali since my childhood. The US declaring a holiday for Diwali is a great decision. This reflects the liberal attitude of that country’s politicians unlike our own who chose to declare Christmas as a good governance day,” he told UCA News.

Michael was referring to the Modi government’s decision soon after assuming power in 2014 to observe Dec. 25, which happened to be the birthday of former BJP prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as a working day under the guise of fostering awareness among Indian people of accountability in national governance.

India is home to all major religions of the world. Four of them, namely Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, are homegrown, while Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam came from overseas and flourished.

People do charity work at orphanages and old age homes which became more relevant in a post-Covid world

Virendra Sachdeva of the BJP’s good governance cell felt Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney and her colleagues’ mission to declare Diwali as a federal holiday in the US had “discounted” what he called “the motive of building a predefined narrative against Hindu festivals and rituals.”

“Diwali has made a mark globally as a festival of sharing and caring. People do charity work at orphanages and old age homes which became more relevant in a post-Covid world,” he said.

Others saw merits in the practice of Hindu rituals. “Bursting of firecrackers is a matter of concern when it’s overdone. But the timing of the Diwali festival between autumn and winter is not something to be lost. The light and sound [from bursting crackers] kill some of the seasonal bacteria in the air. People see merit in it,” said Varanasi-based Tushar Bhadra.

As if to justify his contention, he referred to the problem posed by dengue fever until its decline with the onset of winter in the post-Diwali season.

For Biden, the Republican Hindu coalition’s slogan "Abki Baar, Trump Sarkar" appealing to voters to return Trump to power may still be ringing loud and clear. It had greatly helped the Republicans win the votes of Indian Americans who have traditionally voted for Democrats.

He already has appointed Neera Tanden as the White House staff secretary and Dr. Vivek Murthy as surgeon general.

Lighting Diwali lamps along with his wife Jill may help Biden inch closer to Indian Americans.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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