Buddhism in India’s Soft Power Quiver

Originally published: Jabin T. Jacob, “A tale of two coalitions,” DNA (Mumbai), 8 December 2011.

The Special Representatives talks on the Sino-Indian boundary dispute slated for the end of November were called off after the Chinese objected to a Buddhist gathering in India that would have hosted the Dalai Lama. The incident has been viewed in different lights among New Delhi’s strategic community – as a diplomatic gaffe signifying lack of coordination within the government, as standing up to China by refusing to pressure the organizers of the Buddhist gathering, and as having meekly surrendered to China by cancelling plans to allow the Indian President and Prime Minister to address the gathering.

While the incident can be dissected endlessly for what it says about India’s China policy, how can it be understood within the larger ambit of Indian foreign policy itself? What after all was the government of an avowedly secular country doing supporting an international religious congress? And then why of all religions, Buddhism, that hardly has a few million followers in India?

It is important to remember that it was the staunchly atheist government of communist China that hosted the First World Buddhist Forum in 2006 and which recently turned its attention to reviving Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha on the India-Nepal border. Against this background, India’s support to the Global Buddhist Congregation in Delhi can be read as a natural, if overdue, reaction. If the Chinese have intended through their meetings to build the profile of their chosen Panchen Lama and to position themselves to legitimize their choice of a future Dalai Lama, India’s aims are no less political.

Prayer flags at a Buddhist monastery in Mechuka, West Siang District, Arunachal Pradesh

But to call it a ‘reaction’ does not perhaps give the full picture. Given that political, economic and military might do not really yet form its strong suits across the globe, the Indian establishment must realize that building its profile on the basis of its soft power is a winning strategy. And particularly in East Asia, Buddhism is a good starting point, if India seeks to counter Chinese hegemony. Further, India does not even really need to use the Dalai Lama here. With religion remaining a closely-monitored affair in China and despite the tiny presence of Buddhists in India, China’s neighbours will continue to look to India as Buddhism’s historical and spiritual home.

Such soft-power diplomacy is smart politics by India and could form part of a larger ideational turn in its outreach to the world. If this is coalition-building, it is not targeted against China or the Chinese people but against authoritarianism everywhere.  After all, Buddhism is the fastest growing religion in China today – think therefore, of the effect that India will have on the newly converted in China. An India more confident of its democratic and republican ideals and willing to use these as foundations of its foreign policy will thus be an infinitely more creative and powerful actor on the global stage than any other.

By contrast, another coalition being built around and possibly against China is a reminder of the old politics of exclusion and containment. The US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a proposed new free-trade area that excludes China and imposes restrictions on activities of state-owned enterprises and on state subsidies. While the Chinese too have been engaged in exclusionary multilateralism in East Asia, the US since it is the more open and liberal society will only undermine its ability to influence and shape China by copying that country. Further, this does nothing to reduce the massive interdependence of the American and Chinese economies or indeed of the close economic ties of the other members of the TPP with China.

Even granting that unfair Chinese trade practices and the undervaluation of the renminbi have affected the US, it is clear that the American litany of economic complaints against China is based also on an inability to effect rapid changes in the American lifestyle and on both ignorance and domestic political pandering.  The point here is that any coalition that is based on resentment against China will likely collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.

However, even coalitions based on such positive values as democracy and equality can fail due to hypocrisy. The Americans have, despite their overwhelming global power and reach, been poor promoters of democracy and human rights. India, meanwhile, would do well at this stage, to remember one of its own great Buddhists, Babasaheb Ambedkar, and the struggle he represented.

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