Joseph Nye, the former Dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, coined the term “soft power” in 1990 to describe a nation’s ability to “attract and co-opt rather than use force or give money as a means of persuasion”. In the lexicon of modern diplomacy, the expression more broadly suggests the process of influencing public perception through relatively subtle channels: digital media effectively turbo-charges this notion.
Take South Korea for example. Gangnam Style, with its memorable “Hey Sexy Lady” chorus, went viral on YouTube with over 2 billion views to become the most watched video of all time. Drama Fever, a North American video streaming site whose content offering is primarily Korean drama, reports that over 80% of its viewership is non-Asian. For a nation that is almost entirely reliant on US support as its primary deterrent against the tubby nuclear buffoon across the border, K-Pop and K-Drama have likely accomplished more than any government sponsored lobbying effort ever could. As an aside, I personally think the fact that Korean golfers occupy an unreal 22 spots in the LPGA Top 50 rankings – compared to 12 for the Americans – is way cooler than anything served up by the pudgy Psy. Either way, the venerable Professor Nye would approve: this stuff matters. Not only does it do wonders for the self-esteem of 50mm Koreans, it also makes Seoul a safer place.
Indian soft power over the years has a somewhat mixed track record. The world perceives us as analytical and spiritual, but absent the very shapely Priyanka imprinting a Punjabi Style video on the collective consciousness of the millennial generations, our cool quotient is decidedly low. To most Westerners, we are, quite bluntly, a nation of geeks, a stereotype reinforced by Nadella and Pichai at the apex of Microsoft and Google, or the brilliant Manjul Bhargava as the latest recipient of the Fields Medal. We also seem to populate and dominate the uber-geeky and tainted world of finance, and New York cab drivers tragically drag us down even further: its bad enough being geeks, but smelly geeks? As for Bollywood, I know its big in the Middle East and Africa, but when Shashi Tharoor proudly announces on TED that middle-aged Senegalese women ride buses to watch weekly screenings of Hindi movies dubbed in French, I find myself asking “wtf dude, so who cares”?
To be fair, nobody has yet asked me to fix their computer (except my daughter), and perhaps I am, as always, over cynical. With the formidable NaMo in charge, India is back in fashion…well, among investors anyway. But for all the news flow emanating from India, the one that decidedly falls within the category of “wtf, I didn’t see that coming” is the phenomenal success of the Indian Pro-Kabaddi league.
For the uninitiated, kabaddi is an ancient Indian contact sport that combines a high-octane mix of tag, wrestling, and chanting. According to The Wall Street Journal, kabaddi demands “the strength of a linebacker and the lung capacity of a tuba player”. Two teams of seven players face each other in a circle and take turns sending a “raider” into the other team’s terriotory. To win a point, the raider must take a deep breath, run into the opposing half, tag one member of the opposite team, then return to his home, holding his breath and chanting “kabaddi” all the while. The raider will have precisely 30 seconds to touch and eliminate an opponent(s) and come back to his home turf. Each game is 45-minutes, with 20-minute halves and a five-minute half-time break during which the teams change sides. No equipment is involved, which perhaps adds to the games earthy appeal. As for what “kabaddi” actually means, nobody seems to know, although a fan offered The Guardian a cheerful and typically convoluted Indian explanation. “The kabaddi is called the kabaddi because of the saying kabaddi.” Of course.
The first I heard of the existence of a professional kabaddi league was in a casual conversation at a cocktail party in Delhi with a lady who happened to be co-owner of an international kabaddi team with the unlikely name of Yo-Yo Tigers, named after her equally absurdly named partner, Punjabi rapper Yo-Yo Honey Singh. Intrigued, I investigated further. Turns out a staggering 22 million people watched the inaugural match on July 26, with Twitter and Facebook recording an equally mind blowing 140mm tags within 12 hours of the game! For perspective, 2.2mm Indians watched the first 2014 World Cup soccer match, and the global viewership for the deciding game of the NBA finals was 18mm. The World Kabaddi League followed, kicking off at London’s O2 Arena with a total of 144 players from various countries participating across 15 international venues, broadcast live on its own YouTube channel to a global digital audience. Total viewership for the matches was estimated at an incredible 400mm. (Appropriately, the league featured a Korean player. Hong Dongbu from Busan is a Delhi defender who played kabaddi in college and apparently relocated to India in defiance of his family to play professionally. Go figure.) Last night, the United Singhs beat the formidable sounding Khalsa Warriors in the finals, while the California Eagles captured third place beating the Vancouver Lions. Within 4-months pro-kabaddi had achieved the remarkable feat of becoming India’s #2 professional sport, ahead of hockey, badminton or soccer. With the endorsement of the local business, Bollywood and sporting elite, the kabaddi league hopes to rival the Indian Cricket League in terms of media and financial metrics within a 5-year time frame. Heady stuff indeed.
Which of course begs the question: does kabaddi have the potential to make it on the global stage and provide some much needed oomph to Indian soft power? Could it capture the hearts and minds of people in the fashion of Bruce Lee’s kung-fu fighting? Many of the ingredients are in place – the game itself is fast-paced, and demands strength and agility, with the type of vigorous physical contact that is de rigeur in the modern sporting arena. A robust following in India and among the diaspora provide the essential financial support for a sustained global push. And unlike cricket – despite the protestations of most Indian fans who believe that cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British – kabaddi is quintessentially and undeniably grass-roots Indian. So I suppose one would have to concede the possibility.
But I’m not holding my breath…