How To Restore India’s Soft Power With Solar Power
Workers inspect the reflector panels of a parabolic trough at a solar-thermal power plant, near Nokh, Rajasthan. (Photographer: Kuni Takahashi/Bloomberg)

How To Restore India’s Soft Power With Solar Power


Every day, for the past many weeks, someone barely one degree of separation away has lost a family member or close friend or has otherwise been severely affected by Covid-19. It has been hard to apply one's mind to issues other than oxygen, hospital beds, drugs, and other essential medical issues. The manner and scale of the deaths of people close and distant are hard to bear and my heart goes out to everyone affected.

How To Restore India’s Soft Power With Solar Power

Bruised Global Reputation

In addition to the havoc that Covid has caused to the life and limb of millions of Indians, it has also exposed the sheer lack of capacity of the Indian state in dealing with the pandemic. As a consequence, India's global reputation has taken a severe blow. Sushant Singh lays bare, in this scathing piece, how India’s aspirations to become more of a global force have been dealt a body blow thanks to its handling of the crisis. A few months ago, India’s was attempting to raise its global standing through a form of vaccine diplomacy, but its inability to provide enough hospital beds or even oxygen to its citizens has severely damaged its claims to a seat at the highest echelons of global power.

Independent of the deadly second wave of Covid-19, India had been recovering from the effects of the first lockdown and the severe disruption caused by activity shutting down in large swathes of the economy. India was also dealing with the strategic fallout of a more muscularly aggressive China and its incursions into Ladakh. The strategic and economic challenge before the country is formidable.

Soft Power In The 21st Century

The priority today is to try and keep people alive. But once the immediate medical and health issues are taken care of, India will have to find as many ways as possible to regain and enhance its global stature.

This will be a difficult task. India has neither the financial depth nor the strategic clout of China, our main rival in this space, to embark on anything even remotely resembling, for example, the Belt and Road initiative. And since our stumbling attempt at trying to supply vaccines to the world earlier this year, China has even stolen a march on India in terms of vaccine diplomacy, having exported 240 million doses as of last week, more than all other nations taken together.

The term soft power was coined by the American political scientist Joseph Nye in the late 1980s, in the context of the end of the Cold War. He defined it as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals, and policies.”

Nye identified three main pillars of soft power: political values, culture, and foreign policy.

Historically, India’s soft power image has been helped somewhat by sharing political values such as democracy, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, etc. with some of the key members of the international community. The Government of India’s global cultural efforts are channelled largely through the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, which attempts to increase awareness about India’s culture and heritage abroad and provides scholarships to foreign students. Indian cultural motifs like yoga, Ayurveda, Bollywood, and IPL cricket have made something of a mark globally. In 2018, it was reported that the Ministry of External Affairs was developing a soft power matrix, but little is known about how these efforts have progressed.

Also read: How Wind and Solar Power Got the Best of the Pandemic

Bollywood And Yoga Are All Very Well But…

Beyond the (perhaps dwindling) status of being a democracy and the growing popularity of some of our cultural exports, lies the area of diplomacy, where there is significant margin for improvement. To develop a wider strategy of global engagement, India will have to try and find innovative ways to build up its soft power, which it could do by doubling down on issues of concern to the international community, such as climate change. In this context, I give you the International Solar Alliance.

India and France were the main champions of the ISA, established in 2018 as a partnership amongst mostly solar-rich developing countries that lie between the tropics, and which require technological and financial support to achieve large-scale solar deployment. It is the first intergovernmental organisation to be headquartered in India.

India’s leadership role in the ISA gave it the singular opportunity and a multilateral platform, to leverage its soft power and shape global initiatives in solar deployment.

Some creative diplomacy could be attempted here. India has already contributed $27 million to build the ISA campus in Gurugram and is meeting the ISA Secretariat’s expenses for its initial five years. In addition, the MEA has set aside $2 billion for solar projects in Africa out of the Indian government’s $10 billion concessional line of credit for Africa.

Also read: South Australia Is a Time Machine Into the Solar-Powered Future

Upscaling The ISA

Much more could be done, and the R&D and technology-related mandates of the ISA are key here. The ISA runs various training programmes and sends expert missions to member countries. To take this further, the Government of India could develop a panel of Indian technical, financial, and regulatory experts together with the ISA to advise members who do not have sufficient capacity to institute measures to build their solar energy sectors.

And here’s how the stakes could be raised further. What if the Government of India were to promote a modern, technologically advanced R&D institution, to work on cutting-edge solar energy technologies, jointly with the ISA? This could be developed as an independent institution, with professional management, ideally as a public-private partnership. A recent Indian example of a successful public-private technological collaboration is in the joint development of the Covaxin vaccine, by the Indian Council for Medical Research, the National Institute of Virology and Bharat Biotech. A similar arrangement, if well designed and institutionalised, could transform research in solar and allied technology in India. The partnership models used by the National Energy Laboratories in the United States are interesting: some of these world-leading research facilities operate under what is called the GOCO model - government-owned, (private) contractor-operated.

Multiple benefits could flow from such an institution. New technologies it develops could be shared with or licensed inexpensively to ISA members. In addition to helping such members develop their own solar energy industries, this would enhance India’s soft power status with them. In my last column, I had suggested that one of the reasons why India had failed to build a domestic manufacturing industry of note was for a lack of investment in R&D. A quality anchoring research institution, with close ties to industry, could accelerate the growth of new high-tech businesses in a virtuous concentric circle radiating out from it.

After three years of bureaucratic leadership, the ISA recently appointed Ajay Mathur, the former head of TERI, as its new Director-General. This was an excellent choice. With experience in research institutions, regulation and industry, he has the ability to bring in innovative measures that would not only benefit the members of the ISA but also enhance India’s soft power, kick-start top-quality R&D in India and help to build a robust domestic solar manufacturing sector. Let’s hope the Government of India supports him in this.

Akshay Jaitly is President, 262 Advisors; and co-founder of Trilegal.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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