Soft Powers

The crowds at the Nehru Centre on the evening of the 17th August were not for the exhibition on Sri Aurobindo which was being held on the ground floor. No, they were, in fact, for the talk that was going to be given by Shashi Tharoor. For once there were young people waiting in the foyer instead of the usual venerable and scholarly types that one gets to see there. Obviously, this was an unusual event.

After fighting to get a seat, when the auditorium was opened, I managed to get a place to sit on the steps of the stage. So I literally got a “wings-side” view of things. But after all that running around and pushing around I was a bit disappointed at the end of the talk because I didn’t get what I had expected.

The subject of the talk was “The Soft Powers of India” and I had been told that Shashi Tharoor was going to talk about the spiritual powers of our country. Ah, I had thought, at last someone has understood that our true strength lies in our spiritual powers. Even the High Commissioner who made the introduction said the same thing but somehow Shashi Tharoor himself did not mention the word “spirituality” even once during that talk.

Firstly, the talk was little more than a reading out of his own article which had come out two days earlier in “The Guardian”. And secondly, he seemed under so much pressure to perform. It was a performance on stage rather than a sharing of thoughts. There was a joke every five minutes which seemed to say that he did not have faith on the attention span of his audience, as if he was afraid that they would walk out if he didn’t make them laugh.

It was only when the question-answer session started that the evening got interesting because that is when he became himself, he was no more the performer. The questions came from the young who had a genuine desire to know what the future of India was going to be. And not only did he answer those questions admirably well but also, at last, he was speaking from his heart.

And this question-answer session saved the evening in more than one way. It was in answer to the last question that at last he pronounced the word “spirituality”. I wondered why it was so difficult for him to speak of spirituality.

One can’t be too harsh on Shashi Tharoor. After all, a celebrity in our world has to give to the audience what it wants. As for why he didn’t speak of spirituality, one can find an explanation. He did not say it in so many words but it was implied between the lines. When he spoke of the religious diversity of our country he implied that there was something beyond religion that kept this vast ocean of humanity together.Although he did not say it, one can understand that this entity that one can’t define is certainly what, in essence, is at the heart of every religion and those spiritual values are what all Indians have in common.

And finally, I hope that when he went downstairs, for the private dinner which was being hosted for him and the special invitees, he saw the exhibition on Sri Aurobindo and read what the great revolutionary had written about the real soft powers, the spiritual powers, that had guided his life.

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2 Responses to Soft Powers

  1. Anju Chandel says:


    You are really fortunate to get the opportunity to listen to Shashi Tharoor and that too from a vantage position – steps of the stage! I envy you 🙂

    But I am rather amused at your disappointments because I am sure that Shashi Tharoor must have included everything in his talk about what constituted ‘soft powers’. (I have read his article on the same.)

    When a country conquers the world with its soft powers, it does so by spreading its culture, customs, costumes, cuisines, films, music, etc. beyond its shores – which, in our case, also includes spirituality.

    To give you an example: if America could dominate the world, it could do so actually by maximum use of its soft powers – by export of its life style, food (McDonald burgers, Coca-cola, Pepsi), clothing (jeans – tees), music (pop, rock), films (Hollywood), etc. which got adopted by people all across the world – and, therefore, today we live in an Americanized world or McWorld!

    So, the ‘real’ soft powers is not only about spirituality. Even Sri Aurobindo would have agreed about it 🙂

  2. sunayana says:

    Actually, I started anticipating something about spiritual powers because the organisers told me that it was what he was going to speak about. And as I said, even the Indian High Commissioner said so in his introduction.

    If I had gone without that expectation then I would not have been waiting for something that didn’t come. Also, he spoke about Indian culture without even once mentioning our spiritual heritage. When he spoke about what constituted India’s soft powers he spoke about Bollywood, TV serials (Kyunki Saas…), fashion, cuisine -specially referring to the curry houses of Britain, novels by Indian authors, Indian dance and music -special reference to the bhangra beat in the British pop albums etc.

    The good thing about that talk was that he often referred to our unity in diversity and our Indian identity which was the subject of his article in The Guardian on 15th August.

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