‘Making India Great: The Promise of a Reluctant Global Power’ is a timely book, authored by Aparna Pande, that tries to answer many tricky questions on why India is still struggling hard to emerge as a global power.
With rising population – India is set to emerge as the most populous country by 2024 – the ambition to become a global power is quite understandable. India certainly has the resources to stake a larger claim on the world. But Pande believes that despite the conviction to emerge as a ‘Vishwaguru’, India continues to remain reluctant to implement proper policies needed to realise that vision.
The substance of Pande’s main argument can be summarised in a simple sentence: greatness at the global level is not granted, it has to be earned. In truth, India remains a country punching well below its weight.
With the fourth largest military, soon-to-be the third largest economy, one of the largest English-speaking populations, there should be consequences for abusing India by its adversaries. Sadly, there are few. Even if the government wanted to move India in a more muscular direction, the country is tied down by a governance structure and a governing ethos with innate vulnerabilities and fragilities.
What Factors Are Preventing India’s Rapid Ascent Into The Superpower Club?
Pande is eminently qualified, both academically – she did her graduation at St Stephen’s College, MPhil at JNU and earned a PhD at Boston University – and professionally – she is currently Director, Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia, at Hudson Institute in Washington, DC – to author this ambitious book.
In many ways, ‘Making India Great’ is a continuation of her search for India’s statecraft that she undertook sometime back in From Chanakya to Modi: Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy, opening a wide window on a wide topic.
This multidisciplinary book offers a macro-level vision on factors that impede India’s rapid ascent into the superpower club. She does an excellent job in focusing on some inexplicable sources of India’s ‘inward-looking’ strategic culture.
Pande has discussed almost everything that dominates current political discourse, ranging from anti-colonial intellectual thought to Hindu revivalism, from secularism to Hindutva, from caste to communalism, from Kautilya to Mahabharata, from demographic dividend to unemployment, from education to healthcare, from non-alignment to strategic autonomy, from bureaucracy to business, from urbanisation to infrastructure, from ‘Make in India’ to foreign direct investment; the list is endless. Of course, these are big – some controversial – subjects for any one book, and about a country with an immense civilisational pride and breathtaking diversity.
Most Serious & ‘Full Spectrum Of Threats’ To India’s Power Come From China
The author has underlined many dichotomies between ambition and performance in government’s preferred policy positions. Scrutinising the challenges in social, economic, strategic and foreign policy domains, her recommendation is to execute a comprehensive change in mindset and preferences. This is easier said than done, as it requires grand re-engineering on a national scale.
There are apprehensions of a new Cold War between the United States and China. The strategic competition would be two-fold – the struggle for global power, and the quest for dominance in trade and technology.
Pande acknowledges that the most serious and ‘full spectrum of threats’ to India’s power and influence come from China. She recognises that China’s rise is not a “single conflict; instead it is a clash between two civilisations which intersects on political, social, security and economic levels.”
As the global landscape has been witnessing tectonic shifts, India is likely to remain clueless as long as the country does not change the way it perceives itself and the world around it.
While the personality of current leadership is certainly a factor, there are much larger forces at play.
Throughout the book, she is brutally candid. For instance, she argues that “Indian civilisational attitudes are skewed against the generation of wealth.” Elsewhere, she feels that “India has underinvested in its cities, its institutions and, most of all, its people” because of “petty political division, legacies of big government, lack of foresight, and the type of simple mismanagement that is common to developing countries.”
Her solution is: “smart but difficult statecraft.”
Religious Or Cultural Symbols & Slogans Won’t Help India Become A Superpower
In terms of foreign policy bureaucracy, Pande writes that quality can’t be a substitute for quantity. In comparison to China’s 6000 and Brazil’s 3000 diplomats, the number of Indian diplomats is less than 800, who have to manage more than 160 Indian missions and posts abroad.
Giving many instances of moral rhetoric of Indian leaders regarding their country’s special role in leading the world, she is clear that Indians have never shied away from injecting realism into their foreign policy, and maintains that “realist and idealist philosophies have coexisted in India... Indians reflect a cultural ability to entertain seemingly contradictory thoughts parallel to each other.”
Pande is sure that replacing the British-era red briefcase with traditional Indian accounting ledger (bahikhata) by India’s finance minister in July 2019 could never be the stepping stone in making India a great global power. She also clearly suggests that pursuit of faith-based policies is not a good idea.
Symbols and slogans with cultural or religious undertones would be plainly insufficient to help India acquire the status of a superpower. Moreover, a sense of exceptionalism, rooted in the perceived greatness of “a five-millennia-old civilisation” could “impede self-awareness.”
Despite Obstacles, ‘Strong Reasons To Be Hopeful Of India’s Future’
Pande is no idealist or moralist, and she is scathingly critical of wishful thinking over hard calculation. Though her tone is completely realist, as she asks Indian leadership to adopt “contemporary instruments of national power,” one is reminded of Michael Walzer’s prescription – that keeping religion as a key determinant would only undermine rather than enhance a moral foreign policy, because religious beliefs soon become political dogmas.
In a brilliant essay titled, ‘Can there be a more moral foreign policy’, Walzar argued that “strategic arguments about what is possible or necessary are a façade behind which political and military leaders act out their deepest moral and political convictions.”
The scenario Pande has painted certainly doesn’t look good for the prospects of India achieving greatness. But that doesn’t mean that India is incapable of controlling its destiny.
The author has “strong reasons to be hopeful of India’s future,” since a deeply-embedded “democratic foundation provides the political stability and ability to adapt to changing circumstances, which many other developing nations lack.” Therefore, Making India Great is a welcome addition to what should now become an interdisciplinary field of inquiry. Writing an honest book on grand strategy without confusing the readers is an uphill task, and she has achieved this with élan.
(Vinay Kaura, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs and Security Studies at the Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice (Department of Home, Government of Rajasthan. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)