Is India a tiger or a pussycat?

(This article, on why home-grown fantasies of India’s imminent superpower-dom don’t square with the reality of India’s influence on the world stage, was published  in DNA edition dated June 20, 2010.)

Venky Vembu

It isn’t often that 16th century French soothsayer Nostradamus and 21st century US president Barack Obama are invoked in the same breath. Yet, there are those in India who believe that both those unlikely characters have seen the future, and it is a future in which India’s rise as a Great Power is inevitable, perhaps even pre-ordained.

The notion that Nostradamus prophesied India’s economic and geopolitical ascent is, of course, easily disproved as Indian supremacist myth-making. And even Obama’s articulations on this subject, including his most recent comments (at the Indo-US strategic dialogue session in Washington earlier this month) may represent merely his warm and fuzzy sentiments for an ally that offers strategic possibilities. They may not represent a tracing of the arc of history and an extrapolation therefrom; much less are they a prophetic pronouncement on any historical inevitability.

Yet, as the Indian economy grows, a half-step behind China’s but at a fairly fast clip, at a time when Western economies are in debt-induced turmoil, such intimations of Indian superpower-dom find recurrent voice among sections of the Indian elite. But just how far do these self-perceptions square with the reality of Indian economic might, power projection and influence on the global stage?  

“There is a considerable dissonance between claims of India’s imminent superstar-dom and the deep fault-lines that run within its society,” says social historian Ramachandra Guha. “This superpower aspiration is a macho thing, with elite Indian males desperately envious of the status of their Western – and, increasingly, Chinese – counterparts.”

The notion that India is a ‘superpower-in-waiting’ is a fantasy, concurs Dr Dibyesh Anand, associate professor in international relations at Westminster University. But the main problem with that idea is not that it is a fantasy, but that it has an “intellectually limited and rather uncreative notion of power”, measured in “military might and crude economic statistics.”

Not everyone shares such downbeat assessments of India’s standing. “India is the anchor of the sub-continent and has significant capacity to influence events beyond its borders within its own neighbourhood,” points out David M. Malone, who served as Canada’s High Commissioner to India for two years from 2006 and is working on a book on contemporary Indian diplomacy. Globally, India exerts “considerable pull” through the “attraction of its civilizations and much else,” he adds.

But even Malone concedes that India has held back from exercising its capacity to influence events in its neighbourhood owing to “domestic political, security and economic circumstances and perceived constraints”. For now, India can best be described as a “major regional power with a degree of global reach.”

Indian diplomacy “punches below its weight” on global affairs, reckons Dr John Lee, research fellow at The Center for Independent Studies in Sydney and a Visiting Fellow at the Hudson Institute. India, he notes, is “not substantially involved” in any of the major international institutions – for instance, it isn’t a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which is a source of much angst among Indian intelligentsia and strategic thinkers.

But even Guha, a trenchant critic of unrealistic Indian superpower ambitions, argues that that omission is an error of history. Given India’s size, our diversity, our democratic traditions, and our history of not making war on other nations, we certainly deserve a permanent seat on the UN Security Council,” he says.


Having a formal place in such institutions counts for a lot, adds Lee, citing China’s experience. “Even when China was a weak power, prior to its reforms, it was entrenched in the international system because it was on the Security Council. It could therefore punch above its weight to an extent.”

India’s style of diplomacy, which has been criticised in the West as “shrill, moralistic and irritating”, may be limiting its persuasive potential on multilateral platforms, say analysts. “Indian multilateral diplomacy is sometimes considered to be stronger at countering and blocking than at problem-solving and results-oriented negotiating,” points out Malone. Indian negotiators’ skills are “much admired, but the smartest person in the room doesn’t always win the argument,” he add. “Indian multilateralists can improve their partnering skills, and Indian politicians must be careful not to overplay their hand.”

Lee too points to an “ingrained” habit among Indian strategists of resorting to “fierce rhetoric of strategic independence” as an impediment in building alliances to enhance its influence. “One of India’s strengths is that its rise complements the existing global order – and doesn’t challenge it in the way China’s rise does. Most countries are quite welcome to see India rise.” But to complement that, India must realise the importance of forging strategic partnerships with powers that are aligned in its interests, he adds.

So, what should India’s priorities be if it is to get over these deficiencies and set its sights on a distant star? Guha reels out a long list. Rather than obsess about India’s place on the global map, he says, Indians ought to focus on “reviving and restoring public institutions,” especially in the health and education sectors; on reducing corruption and criminality in our politics; on reversing environmental degradation; on moderating or eliminating violent internal conflicts; and on giving the poor and the excluded a stake in social and economic life.

Anand has a similar formulation. India, he says, should “elevate the quality of life of its people, enhance social harmony and make available opportunities to those left out of the equation by superpower fantasists.”

Lee emphasises the importance of India continuing to rise economically and undertaking the kind of structural reforms that India needs. “If it can do that and continue to rise economically for the next decade, it would be difficult to ignore India’s credentials,” he adds.

Malone reckons that India could do with some clarity on the big picture issues. “Advocates for India as a potential great power could helpfully offer up a vision of what sort of a power India would seek to be.”

To that long list, Anand has one more element that would better serve Indians with a puffed-up perception of self: a bit of humility. “That’s a virtue that will help create a better society, rather better than the fantasy of being a superpower-in-waiting.”


Even our ‘soft power’ goes limp

Even those who are convinced of the inevitability of India’s rise are just as sure that India won’t be able to project much ‘hard power’ around the world. “India does not project much power and may never seek to do so, even if it significantly builds up its military capability,” says David M. Malone, former Canadian High Commissioner to India.

But can India win friends and influence people around the global on the strength of its ‘soft power’? Can it perhaps rise as a ‘knowledge superpower’ and conquer minds, even if not territories?

Social historian Ramachandra Guha scoffs at the idea that India will ever be a ‘knowledge superpower’ either. “If one looks at the pathetic state of India’s universities, as I have, one will never entertain such fantasies,” he says. “The standards of our scientific institutions are second rate, and those of our social science and humanities institutions are even worse!”

Guha points out that his hometown Bangalore, for all its claims to being the ‘knowledge capital’ of India’, “does not have even a single decent library.” Writing software code, he says searingly, “is no substitute for real and deep knowledge.”

Much is made of Bollywood’s role as a Brand Ambassador for India, but Prof Dibyesh Anand of Westminster University isn’t convinced of that either. The supposed popularity of many of Indian cultural elements, like Bollywood, he reasons, owes rather more to the growing Indian diaspora overseas than to its allure among non-Indians.

In any case, the obsessive search for Western validation and appreciation of Indian cultural products – when in fact they are perhaps more popular in parts of Africa and Central Asia – says a lot, adds Anand. “Indian culture has its own appeal to different people around the world, but that’s not something that can be – or should be – harnessed for soft power projection,” he says.

Related reading
‘Superpoor’ India


About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
This entry was posted in Economy, Geopolitics, India and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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