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CSOs: The New Power

June 13, 2011

A piece on “soft power” – in summary, the use of means, other than force, to achieve one’s goals – published in this newspaper (“India: Soft State to Soft Power, ET, 5 April 2011) drew a great deal of response. Most were skeptical; the view was that what really matters – especially between nations – is military strength, and it is this alone which determines the power equation. There was an acknowledgement, even if grudgingly, of the growing influence of the various elements of soft power; but this was seen as marginal, at best.

Towards the end of the last century, many felt that the nation-State was in terminal decline. Globalisation – driven and, often, caused by technology – and technology-catalysed empowerment of individuals, was effectively erasing national boundaries. This fed idealistic hopes about the birth of new trans-national global communities, and the demise of the nation-State. However, the scenario evolved rather differently. The new century, particularly post 9/11 concerns about terrorism, led to more intrusive and often oppressive measures by an increasingly “big brother” State. Patriotism transformed into jingoism, and hard power is back in fashion.

Yet, if one is looking for an example of the weight of soft power, it is right here, in India. The events of the last few months have brought home – figuratively and literally – the tremendous impact of soft power. What could be more demonstrative than the spectacle of Ministers trooping to the airport to receive a yoga teacher cum businessman? Or a government cajoled into creating a new committee to draft a Lok Pal Bill? The point is not whether these actions are right or wrong, good or bad, or even their outcome; rather, it is the reason behind these unprecedented moves. Clearly, governmental decision-makers felt pressured by the soft power implicit in the two cases.

Recent events around the world have thrown up interesting examples of the tension between soft and hard power. The undoubted effectiveness of the latter was seen in the US action against Obama. Violating all norms and riding roughshod over principles of sovereignty, it demonstrated how overwhelming military force has no answer in the short-run. Meanwhile, terrorists around the world continue to reinforce the force-of-arms doctrine through random strikes that have killed hundreds. On the other hand, the “Arab spring” – especially in Tunisia and Egypt – was an exhibition of the capabilities of soft power. However, it would be premature to claim its victory; for, the trend now – as seen in some of the other Arab countries – is to confront soft power with direct military force. It is far from clear as to which will finally prevail.

Irrespective of the outcome, there is little doubt about the growing role of soft power within a country, as witnessed in India, Tunisia and Egypt. The critical ingredients that power these “people’s movements” are community organizations – NGOs or civil society organizations (CSOs) – and media. In the latter, social media – technology-driven networking platforms like Facebook, Twitter and blogs – as also sms and mms, are growing in importance. The technological capability for an individual to be a “broadcaster” (reaching out to thousands through text, audio, video clips and photos) has changed the power equation. No longer are large organized entities – corporations or the State – able to control or manipulate information, or be its sole purveyors. Moreover, technology-facilitated networking can create, almost instantaneously, virtual organizations or mobilization of thousands as seen in Tahrir Square or (physically and virtually) Jantar Mantar. TV, and particularly 24×7 news channels, have a voracious appetite for material, and a reach that is now near-universal in cities and extremely wide-spread even in rural areas. When it decides to focus on any item, its impact is multiplied manifold. It is this combination of technology-driven mass mobilization (physical and virtual) and its coverage on TV that make for an explosive critical mass, further intensified by a positive feedback cycle between the two. It is not surprising, then, that the soft power implicit in this can put governments in a tizzy.

Technology, through its ability to instantaneously mobilize mass movements, has given immense clout to CSOs. Governments have woken up to this, sometimes through a rude jolt. CSOs themselves have yet to realize this immense power and need to think about how best to use it.

The corporate world too needs to comprehend this new force. For long, corporates have had a strange relationship with CSOs, varying between patronage and adversarial. Some have considered CSOs as merely the recipients of the largesse of their CSR budgets, an item to be included (with an appropriate photo) in the annual report. Others have looked at them with suspicion, as trouble-makers to be wary of. However, as the focus on inclusion and environment intensifies, as land and human rights become mainstream issues, corporates will need to include CSOs amongst their stakeholders. Companies have a senior-level professional to handle “government affairs”; now, they need one to interface with CSOs. This requires a change in mind-set. In the new scenario, companies must evolve new strategies to look at CSOs not as appendages or adversaries, but as partners.

For some years, terror groups have been the major non-State force, using hard power as their means of exerting pressure on governments. Now, CSOs have emerged as another key player, using soft power to wield influence. In years to come, this is certainly going to mean a change in the balance of power between State, business and civil society.

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