TO aspire to soft power without economic strength is not even a pie-in-the-sky scheme, it’s pieing oneself. From Chi to Qingqi to kimchi — can anyone name any trend, any fad that emanates from a country known only for its scenic beauty and hospitable people, and not for the strength of its economy?

The recently concluded Asia Cup was filled mostly with aspirants to ‘soft power’; ie, countries marred by poor governance, horrible policy choices, and economies in tatters, trying to make up for all of this by manifesting soft power through sporting prowess. One wonders what all the brouhaha was about.

For all one can imagine, the championship could have been named ‘David’s Cup’ instead, as it was a glaring example of a handful of Davids shooting slingshots at myriad Goliaths. As the championship drew closer to the final rounds, a country marred by more than three decades of wars of all kinds and no economy whatsoever, bowed out to its greatest frenemy whose economy has perennially teetered on the brink of collapse. A country that for all practical purposes is bankrupt but for the official declaration of it. This team played the nail-biting final with a team whose country, unfortunately, has officially gone bankrupt.

Who among all the aspirants in this tournament do you think is best placed to project its soft power? The unpalatable answer — to some — is the Goliath whose team ironically crashed out with fanfare — yes, you guessed it — at the hands of a succession of Davids. However, it is Indian movies that will continue to make their way into TV lounges, if not cinemas; it is songs from these movies whose beat enlivens mehndis while uncles in yellow scarves ogle at women trying to get some much-earned downtime, all the while planning to raise a flag at the Red Fort.

Nobody visits the country ruled by the Kims, while K-pop is all the rage.

One bankrupt country can gloat at beating another at a sporting event, but it is NRIs who continue to outnumber most nationalities at the top of the corporate world; it is Indian writers whose books make it to the best-selling lists, who regularly get shortlisted and occasionally win publishing prizes like the Booker and Man Booker. Why, you may ask? Because they have more than $500 billion in their kitty whereas aspirants to soft power coax all of $1.8bn from an IFI.

The disgrace we’ve brought upon ourselves in pursuit of fluttering flags over foreign forts doubles when we realise that there are individuals in the world for whom $2bn is pocket change. They sell cosmetics and undergarments, while we pursued a path where individuals appeared on TV confessing to being ‘distributors’ of sensitive technology to similar aspirants.

Noticed how as soon as the lira took a nosedive, the heroes and heroines from the Anatolian steppes stopped looking as bold and beautiful as they did in the not-too-distant past? Other than some retired basketball players and antiquated rock stars, nobody ever visits the country ruled by successive Kims, while K-pop is all the rage across the world. It is South Korea’s economic success that has endeared the world to Korean dramas, not sabre-rattling. The soft power juggernaut spurred by Gangnam Style continues to gather momentum with no signs of slowing down.

We may spend vast amounts of begged and borrowed money on hiring dubious characters and extending their visas ad nauseam while they file serious charges against high government functionaries, and on churning out anthems and serials in self-aggrandisement; we can even win cricket championships, but our image will not imp­rove until we change course. No soft power for those whose leaders travel on non-commercial flights to desti-nations ranging from shrines to foreign capitals, for purposes ran­ging from begg­ing forgiveness for sins to begging for dollars to keep the economy afloat.

While on the subject, it is difficult not to raise another question. While one believes in improving relations on all fronts, especially where regional integration and trade are concerned, and the importance of cultural ties cannot be stressed enough in this regard, one must ask how come it is kosher to play cricket with the ‘arch foe’ but a big no-no when it comes to accepting lifesaving vaccine at the height of a pandemic like Covid-19? Onions and tomatoes cannot be bought from across the Wagah border to feed 30 million plus flood-affected people because it will ostensibly upset our Kashmiri brethren, but cricket can be played and boxes of sweets can be exchanged at border posts between the armed forces of the two countries. Has anyone ever asked the Kashmiris how they feel about it and whether they think we compromise on the ‘cause’ by indulging in these activities?

The writer is a poet. His latest publication is a collection of satire essays titled Rindana.

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Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2022

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