India’s soft power: how it blunted our narrative -Express Tribune

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While Pakistan’s civil and military bureaucracy kept scapegoating its own failures and shortcomings by looking for the enemy abroad i.e. India, it visibly failed in noticing the gradual rise of the Indian diaspora and its role in the UK and the US in particular. Tall claims of countering ‘fifth generation warfare’ ring hollow when little is done to identify, counter and disrupt the Indian-origin narrative emerging in the political spheres of the most powerful democracies of the world.

Consequence: Pakistan’s image in Washington and most European capital cities remains wrapped in negativity. Latest evidence – even an international banker from an embattled African country was asked: why are you going to Pakistan, it is not safe?

This is not surprising at all. As far back as 2000, a leading CNN anchor had all sorts of fears when he landed at the Lahore airport, not really sure of his safety. Another friend that led the South Asia bureau of an international news agency was – in his own words – stumped when he traveled from Karachi to Lahore and Islamabad.

“The image I had of Pakistan was one that equated it to Afghanistan,” the anchor told me in Islamabad after over a week of tour through the country.

What does it suggest? That we have had an image problem and that is our own doing. But most civilian and military stakeholders within the system seemed to be content with offloading their failings as the “doing of external actors”. They had little empirical evidence to classify and counter the social engineering campaigns, misinformation lobbies, and cyberattack industries that have multiplied in the last decade.

There is little doubt that after the Kargil conflict in May-July 1999 and the Kandahar hijacking episode in December of the same year, New Delhi mounted a global campaign against Pakistan – beginning with the strategic anti-terrorism dialogue with the US in January 2000. This campaign intensified dramatically after the creation of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in December 2007, and the 26/11 attacks in India in 2008.

The obvious purpose of the campaign was to defame and isolate Pakistan geopolitically, especially in the immediate region, and undermine any support for Pakistan from major powers such as the US and the UK. The simplest way to test this is the anti-Pakistan vitriol poured by the Western and Indian media cauldrons in both India and Afghanistan. But Islamabad and Rawalpindi did little to notice and disrupt, except for crying foul.  

India’s humongous size as a commercial magnate notwithstanding, its soft power i.e. the Indian diaspora has certainly reinforced New Delhi’s narrative on Pakistan.

Take, for example, the US. At the moment, at least 43 Indo-Americans are either members of the US House of Representatives and Senate or serving as ministers or advisers in various capacities in the US legislature, various state departments and individual states across the US. President Biden has at least 50 Indo-Americans in key positions around him. Kamala Harris tops the list which includes prominent names such as Tulsi Gabbard, and Nikki Hailey, a former envoy to the United Nations.

Canada boasts the largest number of Indian-Canadians in cabinet and parliament – a whopping 36 – and hence is potentially a major source of propagation and promotion of narratives that originate in New Delhi.

About 20 Indo-British MPs, including cabinet members Rishi Sunak and Priti Patel, represent a big Indian-origin force within the parliament in the UK.

In Australia about a dozen Indian-origin members in cabinet and the parliament play an importantly role, amplified also by virtue of India becoming a member of the Quad – US, Japan, and New Zealand being other members of the alliance that is now realigned to primarily counter China’s growing influence worldwide.

All of them reflect the soft power that India wields abroad. This is what has blunted Pakistan’s narratives and also added to its negative image projection in these countries as a whole. Not every one of them would, of course, be a proponent of the Indian narrative but most do carry an inherent sympathy for whatever belongs to or comes from their country of origin.

Policy think-tanks in DC, London and Brussels boast many senior positions occupied by people of Indian-origin. I can personally think of, maybe, two voices of Pakistani origin, and those two have to blunt their thoughts in order to survive the space they operate in. For all the talk of fair and balanced perspectives, policy thought leader outfits in DC and elsewhere are filled with mostly-white American war/intelligence veterans and people of Indian-origin compared to a meager smattering of reasonable, balanced voices.

This is Pakistan’s challenge – one that requires correction at home as well as a simultaneous aggressive communications strategy.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 8th, 2021.