At the recently concluded Times Now Summit, Samir Jain, the vice-chairman of this newspaper group said, "This is not the time of Mahabharat. Akhand Bharat is history. This is the time for a Maha Akhand Bharat."
His statement got me thinking. The term "Akhand Bharat” is often viewed as a saffron fantasy of bringing Pakistan and Bangladesh under Indian control, but this is a mistaken view. The term was propounded by Veer Savarkar at the 1937 session of the Hindu Mahasabha (a decade before Independence) and Savarkar was merely referring to the geographical expanse of an undivided India. Savarkar also made it abundantly clear that Akhand Bharat would embrace “all citizens who owe undivided loyalty and allegiance to the Indian nation… irrespective of caste, creed or religion."
Putting aside Savarkar’s definition, I have always imagined Akhand Bharat as something much older, a far wider area representing an ancient Vedic arc of influence. Just think about it. Mahabharat’s Gandhari was from Gandhar—now called Kandahar. Iran derives its name from the term “Airyanemvaeja” or “the land of the Aryans”. Angkor Wat, the world’s largest Vishnu temple, is not situated in India but in Cambodia. The two ancient kingdoms of the Hittites and the Mittani (approximating today’s Turkey and Syria) struck a peace treaty way back in 1380 BCE by invoking Vedic deities such as Mitra, Varuna and Indra. In fact, Varuna was even adopted by the Greeks as Uranus. Two Indian monks, Kashyapa Matanga and Dharmaraksha, carried the first Buddhist texts into China while Bodhidharma took martial arts to Shaolin. Indonesia’s 20,000 Rupiyah note prominently displays Ganeshji on it. In Thailand, the Chakri dynasty kings still assume the title of King Rama and their royal emblem is Garuda. In Malaysia, the Hikayat Seri Rama (the Malay adaptation of the Ramayana) is performed with shadow puppets even today. It is amply evident that ancient Bharat’s soft power was significant. So, is it unreasonable to work towards that today? In effect, wouldn’t that arc of influence be a Maha Akhand Bharat?
Harvard professor, Joseph Nye, coined the term “soft power” in the 1980s. He defined it as “the ability to obtain preferred outcomes through attraction rather than coercion”. According to Nye, the major characteristics of soft power are “culture (when it is pleasing to others), values (when they are attractive and consistently practiced) and policies (when they are seen as inclusive and legitimate)”. Soft power involves inspiring optimism and hope as distinct from hard power that requires commercial inducements or fear of economic sanctions or military action.
While India has the world’s fifth largest economy, it still ranks 127 in per capita GDP. So, can India enhance its soft power to punch above its weight internationally? Sure it can, but that would require a determined and well-coordinated effort. India is nowhere in the top ten countries in the various soft power rankings (these include the Portland Soft Power 30 Index 2019, the Monocle Soft Power Survey 2020, the Brand Finance Soft Power Index 2022 and India’s own ISSF World Soft Power Index 2022). Contrast India with South Korea which uses K-pop, Parasite and Squid Game to promote brand Korea. Or compare us with the UK that leverages the British Council, BBC World Service, the monarchy and English university education. Even consider Canada that uses its stance on landmines, ozone depletion, and nuclear weapons via agreements such as the Ottawa Treaty and the Montreal Protocol. What can India do to enhance its sphere of influence? Lots, actually.
- The effort of PM Narendra Modi to have an International Day of Yoga recognized by the UN was a step in that direction. But taking this further requires creative thinking and dogged execution. The most famous practitioner of yoga was BKS Iyengar. What if the Indian government could find a way to create Iyengar Awards that would be the Oscars of yoga? How about funding the Iyengar certification program so that yoga practitioners display it as a badge of authenticity globally?
- Around 535 million of the world’s population is Buddhist but many are unaware that the faith sprouted in India. Most of the significant Buddhist sites are in India and Nepal. These include Bodh Gaya, Rajgir, Nalanda, Kushinagar, Lumbini, Shravasti and Sarnath. The potential for Buddhist tourism is huge. While many initiatives have been taken, what is lacking is a nodal agency that ensures a coordinated approach to heritage site management, international connectivity, hotel development, local transport, infrastructure enhancement and overseas marketing. Be it the power of Hajj in Mecca or Kumbh in Prayag, religious tourism has massive revenue potential besides being an instant brand enhancer.
- Indian cinema produces 1600 films annually but what does the Indian government do to promote the best of them internationally? And do our movies get adequate recognition beyond the Indian diaspora? We spend resources on DFF, IFFI and NFDC and debate incessantly about India’s entry to the Oscars, whereas we could simply provide budgetary assistance for Indian films to be marketed abroad once they have tasted success in India.
- India has some of the finest alternative therapies in the world of medicine—Ayurveda, Pranayama, Panchkarma, and naturopathy. We also have a rich heritage of 579 herbal remedies (including haldi, neem, ashwagandha, tulsi, brahmi, ajwain, and mulaithi) listed in the Atharvaveda. Alternative therapies are effective in ailments such as asthma, eczema, migraine, sinusitis, sciatica, hypertension and insomnia. The practice of meditation is becoming mainstream in stress management. Why can’t the government work on a public-private partnership model to create a few world class alternative therapy centres abroad? Given that this is a booming market, the venture would be entirely self-sustaining.
- We should be worried that we are woefully behind in patents. India ranks 35 in the Global Innovation Index, a barometer of the number of patents granted. We should also be concerned that Sanskrit which is the key to our ancient wisdom will soon be appropriated by countries like Germany where tens of chairs in Sanskrit are being established. It is time to develop an Indian centre that can research and preserve Indic knowledge. Such a centre could also create powerful partnerships with other academic institutions internationally thus preserving India’s pre-eminence.
- While the greatest brand ambassador for India has been Chicken Tikka Masala, the world is also enthusiastically embracing turmeric lattes, masala tea, pure ghee, vegetarianism and veganism. Why don’t we have a travelling Indian food festival—curated by the best Indian chefs from around the world—that takes India’s cuisine around the planet? One could involve strategic partners like hotel chains and airlines. JRD Tata’s Air-India and Bobby Kooka’s maharaja promoted brand India well before the notion of soft power caught on. Think of Singapore and Dubai and you will realize that their airlines worked wonders for their national image.
- We have so much to celebrate and be proud of but we never seem to hit the right notes. We have 38 Indian Cultural Centres established by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. Can’t we rejuvenate, rebrand and reengineer them so that they play to our strengths? A performance by Pt. Ravi Shankar at the 1969 Woodstock did more for brand India than any PR exercise. We have so much to talk about: our vibrant democracy, Vedanta philosophy, Ahimsa, the spurt in Indian unicorns, Tagore’s literature, our diaspora, the IT boom, digital governance… the list is endless. Each of our centres should be headed by lateral hires from the world of marketing, advertising and PR, not babus or diplomats. Both the quality and quantity of centres must improve.
Around 2300 years ago, Chanakya talked of saama (gentle persuasion) being preferable to daana (economic reward), bheda (covert action) or danda (military force). It was probably this Kautilyan approach that permitted Bharat to eventually command a little over a quarter of the world’s GDP by 1000 CE. Can India replicate that successful model today? The answer is a resounding maybe.
The writer is an author of bestselling works of fiction