As the country posts record economic growth, its private companies launch a global acquisition spree, and forges economic and political alliances around the world, ‘India Emerging’ has become the theme of countless seminars and lectures. The subtext of a lot of cerebration — and some hot air — is India’s alleged march to great power status. Later this week the 2006 Hindustan Times Leadership Summit will take up the theme, ‘India: The Next Global Superpower?’ That interrogation point is important. At this moment, all we are is a potential Great Power. No country with the highest number of poor, illiterate, shelterless, waterless and hungry can have the gumption to call itself a great power, leave alone a superpower.
This is a good time to ask what exactly is a superpower? The word itself came into prominence in the Cold War era to define two countries, the United States and the Soviet Union, whose adversarial relationship spanned the globe. The erstwhile Soviet Union was much poorer than the US and the attribute ‘superpower’ really spoke of its singular ability to devastate the richest and most powerful country in the world with nuclear weapons. The immense scale of their military presence defined the US and the USSR as superpowers, as against the traditional Great Powers like Britain and France, who, too, had nuclear weapons and large economies, but whose military planning and deployments were limited.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, a consequence of unsustainable military expenditures and an ossified political system, has given us a better measure of what true superpowers are all about. In recent centuries there have been only two, Britain and the US. A key feature of both, at different points in time, is that they were/are not only the dominant military power, but they also have/had resilient political systems, are/were key centres of finance, manufacture(d) technological innovation. Their universities and media set the global standard, and their culture is emulated around the world.
So while location, population and military power remain key attributes, any country entering the superpower sweepstakes must have a flourishing economy, a vibrant, self-assured culture, and supple political system. In all these departments, India registers some score. No real constraints remain now on Indian economic growth, no serious doubts remain about the country surviving as a single nation. Indian culture has a global presence and in many parts of the world Hollywood’s one main rival is really Bollywood.
But India lacks something to move towards a great or superpower status. This is a ‘will to power’ — not in the Nietzschean-Nazi sense — but in the political will, based on some kind of a political consensus, to develop the economic and military constituents of power, and use it to maintain and further its interests and those of its allies. This is often a matter of political leadership. The roles of de Gaulle or Deng Xiaoping in shaping modern France and China are well-known. More distinctive is leadership in adversity, as displayed by Pitt the Younger or Churchill.
Some of this ‘will to power’ can be manufactured and is media-driven, as was the case in the Manifest Destiny that led to America grabbing chunks of Mexico in the 19th century. Some can come through modernising elites, as was the case of Japan in the Thirties, though today we can see a reverse process when the world’s second largest economy and possessor of peerless technological abilities, has decided to abjure military capabilities.
China is, of course, sui generis — it is, and has been, the Middle Kingdom, a great power, even in its dog days. There is the story of a British explorer in the early 20th century arriving at the Karakoram Pass that separated India and Chinese Turkestan (now Xinjiang). He found a notice there ordering any traveller to report to the Chinese representative in Kasghar. Never mind that the Chinese consul ran a teashop there and that the writ of the empire had ceased to run. Another (true) story of modern China: A year ago, Chinese officials from Shanghai toured Broadway in New York with a view of replicating this famous cultural artifact of that great superpower, the US.
A lot needs to be done before India can achieve its Manifest Destiny. First, politically, India is still a work in progress. Large chunks of its population have been electorally empowered, but are yet to be able to have a square meal a day or find work for even 100 days in a year.
Second, having achieved the democratic revolution, India needs a ‘governance revolution’. Its governmental system, both at the Centre and the states, needs to work at far higher levels of efficiency and dispatch to meet the challenges it confronts and take advantage of the opportunities that are coming its way.
Third, the country has yet to achieve an equilibrium on the relationship between the Centre and the states. Indian regional elites do not see beyond their nose. A Lalu Yadav, M. Karunanidhi, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati have no real interest in strategic issues except when they believe that these are affecting their electoral support base.
Fourth, India needs to work out consensual and workable policies of economic growth that are inclusive as well as sustainable. Take a simple figure: India’s per capita electricity and petrol consumption is 520 units and 122 kg respectively, as against Brazil’s 2,240 units and 666 kg; India’s current per capita income is just 25 per cent of Brazil and it expects to reach Brazil’s level only by 2030. But as the figures show, this will represent an incredible challenge in the energy front alone.
Fifth, India confronts a major challenge in transforming its military culture — not to make it aggressive, but effective. Our armed forces are somewhat archaic and inward-looking, and barring the Indian Navy, there is little interest in the world outside. However, our limited nuclear capability ensures that we can militarily hold our own against most adversaries.
There has been a certain ambivalence about military power in India, even though New Delhi has never hesitated to use it whenever it wanted to. This is, in part, an outcome of the celebrated lack of a strategic culture in India, a factor that has ensured that at no time in its history has it produced a Napoleon or an Alexander. Its real roots lie in India’s social divisions. Some were allowed to wield the sword, others were barred from even seating themselves on a horse. The resultant military organisation and culture prevented the accumulation of exportable military power. A socially united country, where a Dalit or an Oraon tribal, too, has the same sense of the India they live in, as someone from the erstwhile dominant castes and the current elite, is a vital pre-condition for the evolution of a genuine Indian strategic culture.
In recent years, however, the most powerful and coherent component of India’s march to Great Power status has come from the Indian business and entrepreneurial class. Having overcome the initial fears of the opening up of the economy, the Indian business class is now aggressively expanding Indian business interests across the globe. Clearly, taking a billion people to superpower, or even Great Power status is not something that will happen with slogans and aspirations alone, but practical, hard-headed policies, and that elusive ‘will to power’, which will reflect a collective determination of the Indian people to become a superpower.