Tapping into Soft Power Diplomacy in a World of Increased Regionalism: India, Southeast Asia, and the Missing Odisha Link

 By Sabyasachi Biswal

March 12, 2020

India has emerged as a significant economic, military, and cultural power on the Asian map over the ages. However, with the advent of the Cold War, and by its cessation, the region of Asia created two separate regionally motivated power blocs – South Asia and Southeast Asia. The Southeast Asian bloc quickly got together unilaterally to form a regional forum – Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967.

However, the South Asian states, following the footsteps of ASEAN for a regionally motivated forum, struggled for a unanimous, joint, and cooperative platform, whose malady stretches until now (Karim, 2019). Unlike ASEAN, the South Asian Forum, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), struggled with post-colonialism, nation-building, and bilateral mismanagement(s), which eventually made it sway away from a shared idea of development and cooperation with ASEAN and the whole Southeast Asian region, in the longer run (Datta, 2017).

Nonetheless, India acted as a strong bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia to not only strategize its growing importance in both the regions, but to bridge the growing economies of South Asian nations like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka with Southeast Asia. India, being a culturally diverse country itself, has had ancient ties with Southeast Asian countries.

Therefore, India, armed with its public diplomatic power, delved further to discover these ancient ties and restart the deep historical links between South Asia and Southeast Asia. These ancient routes have not only facilitated the intersection of ideas, arts, and sciences but allowed cultural and religious exchanges. Thus, it led to the free movement of goods, services, labour, knowledge, and capital within the two regions to pave way for a greater Asian common market (Chandramohan, 2011).

Former Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon iterates this soft power strategy as an overwhelming development. According to him, this area of public diplomacy is India’s strategic culture of its own, which as he mentions, “have resisted the siren calls for us to do what others want us to, in the name of being responsible or stepping up to the plate” (India Writes, 2013). This has not only produced a sharp sense of awareness on the country’s part but has also judged the limits of India’s powers, and its potential in prioritising between regional goals, and self-interest. It has moved beyond the post-modern underpinnings to deal with issues of the 21st century, by elaborating and building upon this strategic thought. Through this, it has forged its vocabulary and perspective for engaging its neighbours and other regional actors with zero isolationism, and a huge library of heritage to draw from (Menon, 2013).

Act East Policy: A Strategy of Upgradation, Renewing Relations

India’s Act East Policy is a much-needed continued upgradation from PV Narsimha Rao’s brainchild – the Look East Policy (LEP) of 1991. While the LEP focused mainly on liberalisation of economic policies in Southeast Asia, the re-christening of the policy to Act East Policy (AEP) by the Modi-led government has provided it with an immediate strategic dynamism for engagement, where traditional civilisation links with Southeast Asian countries are pursued to restore contacts, vis-à-vis economic liberalisation (Panda, 2018).

Furthermore, it also helps in extending India’s diplomatic hands to the entire Asia-Pacific region, up to Japan.These factors establish India’s strategy in Southeast Asia as a quest to create a multipolar regional order with India as one of its equal poles. India’s plan is not to establish a stubborn leadership as a rising power, but to invest political and economic capital to develop infrastructure, connecting the Indian sub-continent to Southeast Asia, with aims of multipolarity.

These concepts laid down the principles of Modi’s “Panchamrit” of Indian diplomacy, complimenting Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Panchsheel”. The way of using such soft power by India might have been taken from Koenraad Elst’s anecdote, where he mentions that “India is still ill-suited to the conventional framework of the modern nation-state, it better identify itself as a civilizational state” (Elst, 2014).

Therefore, it can be understood that this technique of diplomacy rests on its ability to persuade through shared cultures, values and ideas between two or more parties, as opposed to hard power, which coerces through military might.

Furthermore, cultural diplomacy is innovative and vibrant, and in its practice, incorporates both the public and private sectors for its benefit. It has been recorded that traders, religious teachers, explorers in ancient times were considered as informal ambassadors or cultural diplomats of their respective provinces, which is a testament to its success and incorporation of different sectors. Similarly, cultural diplomacy in modern times is being practiced through diverse cultural exchanges, delegations, sports, and are aimed to affect intercultural and interfaith understanding to promote socio-economic reconciliation.

Project Mausam – The Way Forward?

Project Mausam, launched in June 2014, can be dubbed as India’s latest addition to its arsenal of soft power for maritime cultural diplomacy. It is a transnational initiative that aims to revive India’s ancient maritime routes and cultural linkages with the countries of the Indian Ocean Region. It will expand the established base of India’s soft power diplomacy, and follows a three-dimensional approach, that includes deepening cultural bonding, ensuring maritime security, and broadening economic connectivity (Jha, 2015).

It will also be a collaboration among researchers, students, and thinkers to ensure maximum people-to-people connectivity, positioning itself at two levels – macro-level: re-connect and re-establish communications between countries of the Indian Ocean Region; micro-level: focus on the understanding of national cultures in their maritime milieu (Kuriakose, 2015).

Launched in 2014 by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Project Mausam derives its nomenclature from the word “Mausam” or the Arabic word “Mawsim”. This refers to the seasonal winds blowing from the Northeast from November to March when the ships could sail safely to the Indo-Pacific region in ancient times. Therefore, the semantics of this word highlights the importance of this season to a variety of seafarers and their adventures till Southeast Asia, since the 3rd millennium BCE (Tripati, 2017). The regular pattern of wind facilitated the movement of people, goods and ideas across the Indian Ocean, enabling cultural interactions.

Silpasastra, an ancient Indian text, refers to these types of seaports as Pattana. Even today, places ending with Pattana depict ancient ports e.g. Visakhapatnam, Macchalipatnam, Nagapattinam (Roy, 1994). Even if the ancient connections were not constricted to coastal maritime activities and pervaded deep into islands and hinterlands, Project Mausam focuses only on the natural maritime phenomenon, shaping cultural interactions between South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, connected by the Indian Ocean. The impact of these varied ties is so huge that this project taps the present-day national identities with cultures of the past, that are deeply interwoven (Ministry of Culture, 2014)

The ultimate goal of this project is to explore the multi-faceted Indian Ocean world, collating archaeological and historical research with the help of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to document the diversity of cultural, commercial and religious interactions. UNESCO currently has identified 270 cultural sites, 111 natural sites and 17 mixed category sites in African, Arab and Asia-Pacific regions under the aegis of Project Mausam.

Furthermore, with growing intensity for implementation of the said project, UNESCO has gradually shifted its focus from distinct monuments to cultural landscapes, routes, and industries. This initiative will enable the celebration of intimate relationships between people and their ancient natural environment, as well as the cultural linkages between people, across Asia. This, in turn, creates avenues for revived and renewed interpretations, portals for safe dialogue and exchange, and upliftment of universal virtues (Ministry of Culture, 2014).

Project Mausam is also the main instrument in grasping the attention of the Indian diaspora in Southeast Asian countries by indulging itself in cultural assets, strategic aid, and employment. Therefore, all these efforts have multiplied the strength of India’s cultural soft power diplomacy, making it more willing to partake a bigger role in global policy. It has cemented diaspora bonds and has revived pride in the region’s ancient values by directly financing key revival and development priorities in Southeast Asia (Stephanie & Heing, 2016).

Odisha – The Neglected Potential in Project Mausam

Even if Project Mausam is doing fine in its initial stage by tapping into cultural heritage and maritime trade routes along India’s eastern and southern coasts, it has failed immensely in tapping into the greater potential that Odisha’s rich ancient maritime civilisation has to offer. According to Binoda Kumar Mishra, “To rejuvenate India’s interactions between India and Southeast Asia, India has to make the state of Odisha as one of its fulcrums and graduating it as a nodal point for operationalising Act East Policy” (Dash, 2018). This eastern state has a 485-kilometer-long coastline along the Bay of Bengal on its east, from Balasore to Ganjam. Historical shreds of evidence suggest that the ancient mariners of Odisha were aware of monsoon winds much before the Greeks, and have used it for maritime trade for over two thousand years.

Historical trade between the people of ancient Odisha and Southeast Asian provinces have been present since ancient times in the form of literary references, epigraphic sources, and representation of art and culture in modern times. Buddhist monks and saints, as well as Hindu religious leaders, used to partake in maritime exploration towards south-eastern provinces of Suvarnabhumi (Thailand), Bali, Sumatra, and Indonesia from the coast of Odisha. The ports facilitating such exchanges along the coast of Odisha were Sisupalgarh, Jaugada, Tamralipti, Palur, Manikapatna, and Kalingapatnam (in present-day Visakhapatnam).

Excavations have found evidence of such explorations dating back to 2500-2000 BC, ranging from pots, coins, and precious stones. The ships used to voyage from one of these ports to Sri Vijaya (Sri Lanka) or Andaman, before sailing into Southeast Asia through the Malay Peninsula, Strait of Malacca and beyond (Tripati & Rout, 2006).

Apart from all these, Odisha in ancient times was also a formidable political power, extending from the Ganga to the Godavari. Approximately from 11th to 16th century, the name Kalinga fell into disuse and Odisha was then called Odra Desa, Udissa or finally Orissa in English before its current name change.

Nonetheless, Odisha is still addressed as Klainga or Klinga in Southeast Asian provinces. Moreover, there are thousands of such accounts to support these voyages – Buddhist and Jaina ancient texts; Hieun Tsang’s accounts of his travels to Sri Vijaya and Andaman from Kalinga; Arab accounts signifying number of ports on the coast of Kalinga; Ptolemy’s accounts from the 2nd century referring to a port named Palura from where ships used to sail for Khryse (Southeast Asia) (Odia Language Literature and Culture Department, Government of Odisha, 2019). A lot of these accounts also talked about these sailors sailing to the Bhauma kingdom and Sarandip or Suvarna Dvipa (modern-day Thailand), and from there into Burma, Malaysia, Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Bali, Ceylon, and China, bearing exotic animals, pepper, corn, cotton, conch shells, etc.

The sailors from Odisha are also depicted in epics, Jataka tales, Raghuvamsa, Kathasaritasagar and excavated antiquities where Odia Paikas (sailors) took to exploration in Southeast Asia for economic purposes. The sailors used only monsoon winds at their disposal for navigation, sailing towards Southeast Asia in the Northwest monsoon winds blowing from October to February, and returning to Odisha next year with the help of Southwest monsoon winds blowing from May to September (Tripati, 2002).

However, with Odisha coming under Muslim rule around 1568, there was a gradual and visible deterioration of sea-borne trade with Southeast Asian provinces in Odisha. The Muslim governors started using the integrated shipping industry of the then Odisha as an inland waterway transportation system for transporting arms, ammunition, supplies, and personnel throughout the extensive river network in Odisha. It led to the closure of bigger ports such as Chilika and Chitrotpala in southern Odisha.

Furthermore, as the Muslim governors started moving northwards with the inclusion of Odisha under Bengal province, ports with strategic defensive importance were given precedence, leading to the decline of trade and tourism further (Shodhganga, n.d.). However, with the advent of the Britishers and the end of Muslim rule, the strategic importance of trade in Odia ports was overshadowed by Kolkata, which became the trade headquarters of the British East India company, and it was not until 1963, with the vision of late Biju Patnaik that Odisha got its first modern, major port at the confluence of the Mahanadi river and the Bay of Bengal sea – Paradeep.

Nonetheless, at the face of decline, evidences to support the claims of trade routes and techniques used by Odia sailors to circumnavigate Southeast Asia are in plenty. There are many festivals still being celebrated in present-day Odisha to commemorate the historical voyages. The onward journey to Southeast Asia can be attested to Odia festivals like Kartika Purnima in November, symbolising the traders to have a safe journey. The last day of this entire month of festivity ends with the commencement of sea voyages and is celebrated as Bali Yatra (Voyage to Bali), throughout Odisha.

One can observe mast ships being cast on courtyards of houses, using rice powder mixed with different colours, symbolising the importance of these ships in the rich maritime heritage of Odisha. Similarly, from June to September, with monsoon winds blowing Southwest, Khudurkuni Osha is celebrated around Odisha in September, symbolising unmarried girls waiting for their brothers to return, bearing gifts from distant Southeast Asian provinces (Tripati & Rout, 2006). Therefore, it is not wrong to assume that these cultural expeditions not only brought economic benefits to Odisha but shaped the socio-cultural experience of Southeast Asian countries and India even today, which can be thought of as the first signs of cultural soft power implementation.


With the inferences drawn from above, tapping into such an ancient maritime culture of Odisha will not only provide a whole new bunch of information of culture and heritage to Project Mausam but will also allow for better clarity of understanding of maritime routes and culture in East and Southeast Asia. This understanding can later be leveraged into establishing modern symbiotic economic and socio-cultural relationships with Southeast Asia, by copying and simulating such routes through tourism, cultural exchange, arts, crafts and trade for a more rigid connection between South Asia and Southeast Asia.

In fact, in recent times, some pockets of communities and historians in Southeast Asia have constantly been trying to draw their heritage back to Odisha, where the Government in Odisha has been instrumental in setting up avenues of international cooperation between Southeast Asia and Odisha. In 2016, Odisha concluded the high-level Indonesia-Kalinga talks where the idea of regional connectivity through Paradeep Port was applauded as a strengthening replay of past relationships between the two regions (Maini, 2017).

Moreover, Odisha has also been formulating policies on religious and cultural tourism, centred around Buddhism, ancient arts/crafts, and trail hikes as a major focal point of contact with Southeast Asia, which by far have largely been successful, if not extraordinary (Press Trust of India, 2014). Such areas of encouragement, supported by a greater interest by the Government of India through Project Mausam can work wonders for India in fostering a strong and everlasting connection with Southeast Asia, and play its role as an efficient ‘big brother’ in the region.

Moreover, India should also be highly transparent with its engaging Southeast Asian parties and provide maximum support and recognition to the Indian diaspora, to effectively engage them in the process. India should also counter its limited arsenal of soft power by nurturing strong relations with strong relations with countries in the Asia-Pacific region by pitching complementary traditional and heritage aspects in Project Mausam.

Beyond that, culture and heritage through maritime cultural diplomacy can be an imminent and useful soft power in harbouring greater ties with Southeast Asia, provided India follows the ancient maritime path laid out by Odisha, in collaboration with historians and the Government of Odisha, and push Project Mausam beyond the usual seminars and meets into a full-fledged diplomatic arsenal under the AEP. Thus, in the end, culture, as mentioned above, as an important arm of soft power diplomacy, does possess the skill to deepen lateral engagements with Southeast Asia, but the role of Odisha must not be neglected.

Sabyasachi Biswal is a Master’s student at Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University.


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