When will India take its place?

Sumit Ganguly | 21 Feb 2020

Is India the next emerging Asian power? A number of economic, political and diplomatic yardsticks may well suggest as much. On the economic front, the news is certainly heartening. In the last quarter, the Indian economy grew at an annual growth rate of 9.2 percent. The country's current foreign exchange reserves are hovering around $150 billion.

Within the past month Indian conglomerates such as Tata and Birla have made important global acquisitions, ranging from British steel plants to Canadian aluminium companies. Matters are also looking up on the domestic political front. The Congress Party dominated United Progressive Alliance government has weathered multiple challenges from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the principal parliamentary opposition and now appears poised to complete its full term in office. At a diplomatic level, the government can also take some credit for having recently reached a major accord with the United States which will permit the sale of a range of civilian nuclear technologies to India. All of these achievements are laudable and do suggest that India may be on its way toward assuming a position in Asia commensurate with its size and potential.

Yet it may be a bit premature to pop the champagne. The country still faces significant economic, political and diplomatic challenges that could hobble it from achieving the status of a great power in Asia let alone beyond. Consequently, it makes sense to take stock of a number of existing problems and challenges that India will have to tackle before it can afford to rest on its laurels.

There is little question that since its fitful embrace of the market following a significant fiscal crisis in 1991 India's economic performance has been dramatic. This surge in economic growth has made a significant dent in both rural and urban poverty. Despite these achievements in both growth and poverty alleviation, some 26 percent of the country's population still remains mired in abject and degrading poverty. Worse still, with the possible exception of the countries of sub-Saharan African region, India has the largest number of malnourished children in the world.

While there is no great and imminent threat to political stability at the national level, political turmoil and violence continues to stalk a significant part of the country. The neophyte, Maoist, Naxalite movement, long considered to be moribund, has again managed to reconstitute itself and is wreaking havoc across much of central India. The Indian state, no doubt, has the requisite capacity to repress these insurgents. However, a purely repressive strategy could actually further inflame passions and also entail substantial human costs.

Finally, India's achievements in the diplomatic realm are significant. The foreign policy establishment has, for all practical purposes, shed its infantile fondness for third world solidarity at the cost of pursuing India's own interests. Nevertheless, significant challenges remain.

Two of the most pressing challenges remain in the country's immediate environs. India has yet to forge a clear-cut strategy on how to deal with its nettlesome neighbor, Pakistan and its emerging northern colossus, the Peoples Republic of China. As far as relations with Pakistan are concerned, the Indian foreign policy establishment appears to believe that over time Pakistan will simply tire of its mischief-making in Kashmir, the principal bone of contention. India's policy toward China is even more muddle-headed. Its policymakers are labouring under the happy illusion that an expansion of trade and economic contacts will enable the two sides to achieve a harmonious relationship.

Without a concerted set of new policy initiatives in these three areas, it is far from clear how India will be able to achieve the status of a major Asian power in the foreseeable future. On the economic front, instead of a series of namby-pamby make work schemes designed to reduce rural poverty, its policymakers will have to focus their efforts on the generation of greater farm employment through a more rational and imaginative set of agricultural policies. Simultaneously, they will have to muster the requisite courage to finally contend with the incendiary issue of labour law reform to generate greater employment in the manufacturing sector.

Employment generation alone, however, will not be a panacea for what ails over a quarter of India's population. Under-investment in primary education and basic health care has long dogged India. With an expanding stream of revenue, thanks to robust economic growth, the country now needs to devote more resources to these two long-neglected arenas.

The specter of a million mutinies --- to borrow V.S Naipaul's evocative phrase --- does stalk much of the countryside. Yet the government's efforts to deal with them have been mostly piecemeal. Admittedly, the federal structure of India's polity necessitates working through individual state governments when dealing with questions of law and disorder. That said, the national government still needs to forge a coherent strategy in conjuction with the afflicted states to deal with the underlying sources of political and economic disaffection that have spawned these violent social movements in the first place.

Nor is India out of the woods as far as its troubled relations with Pakistan and China are concerned. Without fashioning a strategy that enables it to live with a modicum of peace with Pakistan and a margin of security with China, the country will not be able to transcend the boundaries of the subcontinent. Given the acute intransigence of the military regime in Islamabad to any meaningful political compromise on the Kashmir question, India should re-double its efforts to drain the reservoir of discontent that still brims within its part of Kashmir. Such a strategy will significantly undercut Pakistan's ability to sow continued discord.

In dealing with the PRC, the Indian policy establishment also needs to forthrightly confront the long-term threat that an unreconstructed Communist regime with hyper-nationalist notions of territoriality poses to India's security. Assuming that expanded trade and commercial contacts with the PRC will dilute these differences amounts to criminal folly.

The domestic and external agendas that India will still need to address are formidable. Nevertheless, they are not beyond the reach of its policy establishment. However, until it has fashioned clear-cut strategies to meet these substantial challenges, any jubilation about India's imminent emergence as the next Asian power is downright premature.

Sumit Ganguly is Professor of Political Science and the Director of Research at Indiana  University's Centre on American and Global Security. 

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