The ‘Soft Power’ Dynamics: India’s interest in Afghanistan 3.67/5 (3)


Anand Gupta (Research Scholar),

Centre for Inner Asian Studies,

 Jawaharlal Nehru University


The perception into the minds of the people of any country about any nation can affect the real potential of the ‘power’ of that nation. A positive perception about any nation serves as an important asset that can add to the ‘power’ of that nation which results in positive outcomes for that nation.

In the light of this idea, this paper is focusing on India – Afghanistan relations through the prism of ‘Soft Power’ (Nye 1990). The dynamics of this relation is a good example where India is using its ‘soft power’ potential to create and maintain a positive perception about its engagement in Afghanistan. This paper would try to examine why India has chosen a ‘soft power’ approach towards Afghanistan.

Democracy and development are important factors in India’s foreign policy to promote peace and stability in Afghanistan. According to Government of India-

“The principal objective of India’s partnership with Afghanistan is to assist in building indigenous Afghan capacity and institutions and to ensure that development touches all the regions of Afghanistan and encompasses all the sectors of development” (GOI 2012).

India and Afghanistan relation has gone through centuries of interaction and reached various levels of engagements. After independence, India followed a close but limited relations with Afghanistan which D’ Souza (2014) terms as “sympathetic but detached Afghan policy” which remained similar throughout cold war which according to Kapur (2009) was “normatively non-aligned and nominally pro-soviet”. India’s policy failed to address Soviet invasion in Afghanistan which ultimately cost its image there. Due to this, India’s engagement with Afghanistan was severely hampered during Taliban regime. It is during the post-Taliban regime after 2001, India again got engaged with Afghanistan through its ‘soft power’ approach focusing on Afghanistan’s state building, reconstruction and humanitarian assistance. Afghanistan is engaged in a gigantic process of reconstruction and development and India is playing an important role as its assistance commitment exceeds USD 2 billion. This assistance covers some of the crucial areas of Afghanistan’s infrastructure, electricity, education, health water, roads, school, agriculture etc.

However, power is no longer remained as monolithic or unidimensional phenomena in contemporary politics. Power has now become a multidimensional concept with wide scope of factors affecting it. It can be said that all politics is about power and is the ability to influence the behaviour of others based on the capacity to reward or punish (Heywood 1994: 150) and brings about compliance through persuasion, pressure, threats, coercion or violence. Therefore on the basis of how the power is asserted (through threats and coercion or attraction and co-option) two forms of power have been recognised: hard power and soft power. Hard power is the ability to coerce, because of its military or economic might, while on the other hand, ‘Soft Power’ is the persuasive (as opposed to the military might) dimension of power, and is a key factor today in the regulation of cordial relations amongst nations.

The term ‘soft power’ has been coined by Joseph S. Nye Jr. in his work Bound to Lead: The Changing nature of American Power in 1990. Nye has discussed about this idea of ‘soft power’ of USA, in the context of its decline as a major power of the world as it was after Second World War. He discussed about ‘soft power’ as a tool which can help America in increasing its influence during the post-cold war world (Nye 2004: 11).

Now coming back to India’s engagement of its ‘soft power’ in Afghanistan, one can say that India has gained a positive image in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is an important region for India because of its geopolitical location as well as its cultural closeness with South Asia, particularly India. India has several stakes in the stability and security of Afghanistan. For instance, the presence of peace and stability in Afghanistan is very important for the stability in South Asia, because any political instability in Afghanistan provides a safe haven to the terrorist organisations active in India. Moreover, India is also involved in the reconstruction of Afghanistan and the security of the people involved in these projects is also a major concern for India and any security threat to these people affect the efficiency of these development projects (Haidari 2014).

However, an unstable and volatile Afghanistan is an obstacle for the commercial connection of South Asia and Central Asia which is an important factor not only for the growth of Indian economy but also for the region (Bhatnagar 2014:1)

India has chosen a ‘soft power’ approach towards Afghanistan and deliberately refused to send any military mission to Afghanistan. India’s commitment towards Afghan economic and logistical development has increased from about USD 100 million to USD 2 billion in 2012 (MEA 2012: 2). India is focusing on the reconstruction and capacity building of Afghanistan after its re engagement in 2001. It can be said that India’s perception among the ordinary Afghans has become very positive which remained and maintained throughout its long historical ties (Price 2013:2).

According to a survey conducted by ABC News, BBC and Afghan Center for Socio Economic and Opinion Research (ACSEOR) based in Kabul, India’s soft approach towards Afghanistan has contributed positively to its image among the Afghans. The survey shows that 74% of Afghans have a positive and favourable image of India while in contrast; it has 91% of unfavourable opinions about Pakistan. Moreover, this survey also shows that 36 % of people have positive opinion about India’s contribution in Afghanistan while only 5% of people have positive opinion about Pakistan for its contribution in Afghanistan (ABC, BBC Survey 2009: 22-23). This shows how India has achieved a positive place in the minds of common Afghans and left behind its rivals like Pakistan on this front through its ‘soft power’ approach.

Why ‘soft power’ in Afghanistan?

Now, it can be argued that why India being the fourth largest military power in the world, has chosen ‘soft power’ over its ‘hard power’ to achieve its interests in Afghanistan. If we see the last four decades in the history of South Asia, we can get several examples like the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 and India’s peace keeping force to Sri Lanka, which show its tilt towards the traditional notion of power manifestation in its policy (Dutt 2007).

But, during the 1990s, India shifted its policy options from the use of ‘hard power’ to ‘soft power’. In the context of South Asia, India is the most powerful and capable nation in comparison with its South Asian neighbours. This is because of its huge population, territory, economy and military. However, there are countries like Pakistan which also possess a huge population and military but the location of India proves very crucial for its relations with other South Asian countries. The location of India in South Asia is unique as it is the only country which shares borders with all South Asian states except Afghanistan, while the others have common borders only with India except Pakistan which shares border with both Afghanistan and India. Unfortunately, India’s location has not proved to be an asset for its growth as a regional power. India’s ambition of becoming a regional leader is not only resisted by Pakistan but also from its other smaller neighbours (Dixit 2001).

India’s huge size and unmatched economic and military potential has been a constant reason behind making of a perception of India being a hegemon in the region which resulted in the creation of a sense of distrust among other South Asian states. India’s policy tilt towards the use of its ‘hard power’ potentials also increased such sense of distrust. For example, the interventions in the East Pakistan crisis in 1971 and Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict during 1983–1990 as well as the closure of trade and transit points with Nepal in 1989 are some example that resulted in reduction of its positive perception among the South Asian States (Kugiel 2012: 352).

Therefore, during the post-cold war period, Indian policy strategists started thinking about a policy shift which contributes positively to its image. This policy shift was required because the earlier policy has not proved effective in making India truly acceptable leader in the region. Therefore, during the last two decades, India has started using its ‘soft power’ strategies towards its neighbours to extract cooperation by increasing its own attractiveness at the regional and global level (Jegannathan 2012). However, Kugiel also sees India’s ‘soft power’ engagement in the South Asian region as a positive attempt. He believes that in the last two decades, India has indeed introduced more ‘soft power’ strategies, which have brought about some positive outcomes in its regional policy and if India continues this approach in the future and addresses the deficiencies in its policy, it can soon gain the image of a legitimate and accepted regional leader (Kugiel 2012: 353).

Moreover, the post-cold war era is also the era of globalization and technological advancement. The developments in the field of information, communications and transport after 1991 have had a ground-breaking effect on economic interdependence among the countries of the world especially the Asian countries. This was the era of libralisation, globalisation and privatization in the Indian economy. All these factors contributed in the emergence of multinational corporations and a communication and market based economy. For instance, Indian companies like Oil and Natural Gas Corporation- Videsh (ONGC-Videsh), Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) and Telecommunication Consultants India Limited (TCIL) are some companies that are working in projects outside India in countries like Vietnam, Sudan and Afghanistan. Moreover, the project like Pan African e- network launched in Africa during 2009, conducted by TCIL with the help of Government of India has proved to be a successful example for India’s positive image by providing Tele-medicine and Tele- education services to 47 African countries including Sudan, Angola and other backward countries of Africa (Buisness Standard 2013).

Moreover, the increase of cross border economic activities also connected the economic interests of different nations. The process of globalisation, urbanization and better communication facilities in developing nations has increased political and economic awareness among weak states because now they are better connected to the World around which influences their policy making (Moore 2011:1771). Such developments reduced the scope of applying traditional military power as a policy tool to achieve national interests, unviable. In the light of such developments, India has also adopted the new approach of ‘soft power’ (Such as projects like Pan Africa e-network) to increase its influence and chose Afghanistan for its engagement.

However, during the last two decades India has emerged as a fast growing economy with more than 6% of annual growth in Gross domestic product (GDP). India being an emerging economy needs constant supply of both raw materials and markets which can consume its products. Moreover, there is also high demand of energy to sustain such fast growth and the regular supply of fuel and gas is indispensable for India’s further development. Therefore, due to such scenario India cannot afford use only a ‘hard power’ tool which may hamper the image of its peaceful emergence as a regional power. India has been trying to use Afghanistan as a medium to reach the oil and gas rich Central Asian Republics which can be fruitful for its economic growth and development. India has announced its ‘Connect Central Asia Policy’ in 2012 which has aimed at increasing and strengthening its economic and energy relations with Central Asia and accepts Afghanistan as a key medium for India’s transit to Central Asia Republics (Das 2012).

Moreover, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India (TAPI) gas pipeline is also one initiative which requires India’s presence and influence in Afghanistan. This project is still under implementation phase because of Pakistan.

India’s use of ‘soft power’ in Afghanistan is also crucial because India needs to counter and restrain Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s policy of ‘strategic depth’ and its support to Taliban has raised security concerns for India. Therefore, India has represented itself as a serious contributor in Afghanistan’s reconstruction through its ‘soft power’ engagement by focusing on Afghan capacity building in different sectors which is contributing to its positive image (MEA 2012).

India’s approach towards Afghanistan in late 1990s

Rajamohan believes that India’s neighbourhood policy had reached a dead end by the turn of 1990s and this resulted in the development of new policy doctrine “Gujral Doctrine” (Raja Mohan 2012: 5-6). This doctrine was the initiative of Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral. This policy articulated the case for positive unilateralism towards neighbours and the importance of shared prosperity in the subcontinent. This made genuine  efforts  to  resolve long­standing  political  problems  with  the neighbours,  offering economic  concessions  without  seeking any reciprocity  (Raja Mohan 2012:6). This policy remained in force during the later governments and proved to be foundation of India’s ‘Soft Power’ approach in the next decade. However, in the context of India’s approach towards Afghanistan during this period, the effect of this policy had been significant. India has been involved in Afghan reconstruction by providing assistance in many sectors.

The increasing opium production and increasing narcotics trade also appeared as a security concern for India because it was contributing to the finance mechanisms of the terrorist organisations. However, India was clear that there can be no military solution to the Afghan problem and Afghanistan’s independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity must be preserved (MEA 2000: 1). Due to the diplomatic break, India was not able to provide any help at the bilateral level but India was contributing its assistance through United Nations (UN). For example, India has provided medicines worth 33.5 lakhs to the conflict prone regions through UN in 2000 (MEA 2000: 1). This is an example that shows that India was committed towards Afghanistan’s peace and stability which can be seen as the precursor of its ‘soft power’ approach which started later after November 2001.

India’s relations with Afghanistan got revived after the ouster of Taliban in November 2001. India had to close its Embassy at Kabul with its consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad during 1996-2001 (Basu 2007: 84). India reopened its Embassy of Kabul, earlier two consulate and two new consulates in Heart and Mazar-e-Sharif (Basu 2007: 84). A diplomatic mission was sent under S. K. Lambah to Kabul on 21 November 2001, which made a Liaison Office of India’s Ministry of External Affairs to conduct their operations. This Office subsequently upgraded to an Embassy on 22 December 2001 (MEA 2001-02:1).

Concluding this it can be argued that the post 1991 phase of Indian politics and economy was dominated by the ideas of liberalization and globalization. Indian policy makers had started to realize the potential of its ‘soft power’ resources in the context of international relations in order to achieve their National interests. The Gujral Doctrine of 1997 can be seen as an important base for India’s ‘soft power’ approach. The major ingredient of Gujral Doctrine was the idea of ‘non-reciprocity’ in the relations with the neighbours. This doctrine has paved the way for one sided development assistance programmes focusing directly on people’s development in the neighbouring countries.


India-Afghanistan relation was also affected by this shift in India’s foreign policy. The post 1990 phase was also very crucial in the context of India’s relation with Afghanistan. This was a difficult phase for India’s policy makers because this period was marked with political instability in Afghanistan and had to maintain its relation with changing regimes. But during 1996 when Taliban came into power in Afghanistan India’s diplomatic relations with Afghanistan got severely hampered because of Taliban’s extreme political ideology.


However, on one hand, India has to maintain its presence in Afghanistan to ensure its reach to the energy rich Central Asian Republics and on the other hand, it has to restrain and counter Pakistan’s and Taliban’s increasing influence in Afghanistan. Both these reasons have forced India to adopt a people-centric approach in Afghanistan and this resulted in India’s ‘soft power’ approach towards Afghanistan after the ouster of Taliban in 2001.


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