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India's strategic pieces of eight

We, as a nation, need to take the lead, make the difficult decisions and learn to say yes, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri,Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times.

delhi Updated: Jan 01, 2011 15:52 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times

Over the next decade, India may become a $5 trillion economy. Its economic growth rate may overtake that of China. It may become the preeminent military power in the Indian Ocean. It could become one of only 10 countries in the world with a full technology cycle. Most importantly, India could see its poverty index drop to the single digits.

All this and more is possible if this one-sixth of mankind can get its act together. But the rise of a great power is never an accident. It takes hard work, foresight and, granted, a bit of luck.

Great Britain was a small foggy country on the margins of Europe through most of its existence. Then it began to get things right - parliamentary democracy, the limited liability company, the steam engine, the Royal Navy - and, as a result, eventually established the world's largest empire.

The preeminence of the United States, it is half-seriously said, arose ultimately from the invention of the world's best higher education system. Understand how fast it grew: In 1900, half of Americans regularly wore secondhand clothes; 50 years later, the rest of mankind was berating them for gross wastefulness.

With China, it has been the other way around. For the past 300 years, the country that traditionally commanded half of mankind's wealth has been kept down by its own nobility, an invasion-cum-civil war and the aftermath of Mad Mao. It has been the same for India: A natural Goliath punching at the level of a dwarf because of a feudal elite, societal divisions, colonialism and, more recently, socialism.

Both countries' domestic failings have kept them out of the world system for the past two centuries. In recent times, China has scripted its own resurrection. If India doesn't make it this coming decade, it will have no one to blame but itself. The British East India Company isn't here to kick us around any more - and its brand is now owned by a person of Indian origin anyway.

So what does India have to do in the coming decade to become a country of note? There are two sides to the answer: Build capacity and build coherence. Capacity - in the form of aircraft carriers, nuclear reactors, globe-spanning corporations, all types of guns and butter - are the tangible evidence of power, the stuff that commands the front pages and stirs patriotic breasts.

Coherence is the largely invisible business of evolving political and bureaucratic cultures that allow a country to convert capacity into policies and policies into actual action. This is the really difficult part of being a great power.

The physical part is easy. The political part separates the pygmies from the powers.

When foreign analysts and governments express doubts about India's great power prospects, this is the source of the skepticism. India can build a shiny navy, get a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and pile up lots of money. But its politicians and bureaucrats still struggle to actually do anything proactive.

In the annals of foreign policy, New Delhi has gone down as a master at blocking and obstructing initiatives. This, foreign diplomats like to say, is the country that can't say "Yes". Take one real-life test: Is India's strategic culture strong enough to make repeated longterm security decisions that are, in the short-term, domestically unpopular? The jury is still out.

India has to show it has both the Will and the Way before it can expect to be treated as a great power. Here are eight things India needs to do to make it big in the coming decade.

As the current defence ministry's workings testify, India takes about a generation to choose and buy a weapon. Arms procurement moves at a snail's pace and is shot through with whimsy. Until this is sorted out, India will continue to buy obsolete equipment and struggle to avoid corruption and its indigenous defence industry will remain a vestigial organ.

India also needs to let its service chiefs have more say in strategic decision-making. If New Delhi still fears a coup d'état, it shouldn't be talking about a global role.

Chances of this happening: 75%

Over the next two years, India will strut its stuff at the UN Security Council as a holder of a non-permanent seat. Then it will try to stitch together a coalition and a means to ensure it never gives up that seat.

Some argue India isn't ready for a permanent place at this table. But the best way to rid the country of a juvenile desire to be liked by everyone is to be in a position where it can't escape tough decisions. Ultimately, it's not how you vote, it's how good you are in solving diplomatic tangles that makes you a UN worthy.

Chances of this happening: 60%

Energy is one big barrier to India's rise that has a big overseas component. The simpleton solution is to keep buying lots of reactors, oil and gas fields. The strategic solution is for India to become a nuclear technology hub, help preserve the free flow of the fossil fuel trade, and establish a foothold in every renewable. It also means having market-based domestic pricing for fuel, to ensure efficiency and investment.

The game is to preserve all possible energy options - especially if a climate change squeeze begins to close the door on India's main energy source: Coal.

Chances of this happening: 70%

India's foreign service of about 900 people is approximately the same size as Hungary's. Our thinktanks and universities contribute next to nothing to the country's strategic debate. Welcome to a global aspirant without a strategic community.

New Delhi likes to say it's all about "national interest" but barely has the institutional ability to define what that means. And it doesn't have the strategic policymaking process to convert these conclusions into actual policy. We need to ensure we don't end up like Winnie the Pooh, a Bear of Very Little Brain.

Chances of this happening: 90%

New India's most dynamic component is its private sector companies, the largest of which have already begun to shape their own foreign policies. Many have brilliant networks of contacts, huge dollops of intel on overseas developments, and an ability to do stuff that leaves governmental departments eating dust.

India Inc is the country's only real response to China's bigger moneybags. Many of the governments that visit to woo India are really after the country's entrepreneurs. India needs a public-private partnership - in strategic policy.

Chances of this happening: 90%

A country doesn't have permanent enemies, just permanent interests. But we have to make a special case when it comes to Pakistan. No other political entity so dominates India's strategic horizon - or so successfully limits that horizon to the subcontinent. Pakistan is a headache whether it does well or poorly.

Finding a way to live with a neighbour who alternates between shooting out your windows and threatening to shoot himself would test anyone. And New Delhi is being sorely tested.

Chances of this happening: 50%

India's economy is the basis of India's rise. But the domestic consumption engine that has driven the economy for so long will begin to sputter in the next few decades. To maintain and increase its GDP growth figures, India needs to develop a manufacturing base that can sell goods to global markets. This is why such unsexy things as completing the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, learning from Germany's small and medium manufacturers and tying up with Israel's early venture capital industries are all crucial to India's future. As are settling land acquisition, labour exit policy and infrastructure issues at home.

Chances of this happening: 60%

Only two Asian countries currently have a full technology cycle - the term for the ability to create ideas, convert them into real things, and make them commercially viable. India is not one of them. Neither is China.

Even today, this is the heart of US power. Its technology-innovation cycle is more sophisticated than any other country's. India needs to put this cycle in place if it wants to be an economic frontrunner. This will mean a whole slew of reforms in everything from universities to patent regimes. Transforming Strategy

Chances of this happening: 60%

(Pramit Pal Chaudhuri is the Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times)

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Dec 30, 2010 18:42 IST