India’s Transition from an Emerging Power to a Leading Power: Prescriptive Steps
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Issue Courtesy: CLAWS | Date : 10 Jul , 2016

India has made phenomenal economic progress in the last two decades, to the extent of being accepted by most as an emerging or rising power and also being described in informed circles as a potential superpower. However, despite its overwhelming claim for progressing into a higher status based on the strengths of its geography, population, economy, resources, military, diplomacy and national identity, India is yet to gain recognition universally as a leading global player, due to a number of clearly discernible reasons, both in the internal and external realm. In that context, there can be no doubt that India’s geostrategic central location dominating the maritime trade routes in the Indian Ocean, its large size, its two and a half trillion dollar worth “world’s fastest growing economy”, its democratic credentials, its youthful demographic profile, its achievements in space, cyber and nuclear technology, its 400 million strong work force, its 35 million diaspora, its globalised industries like software and pharmaceuticals, and its credible military capabilities provide it the justification to claim status as a leading global power.

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However, on the flip side, its abysmal 135th ranking in the UN’s Human Development Index and its high poverty levels put a serious question on its global ambitions. Further, its socio-economic and cultural fault lines have yet to stabilize fully. From India’s point of view, it can be argued that India has a very large, diverse and multi-cultural population spread over a very large area, many of whom have been fighting social discrimination for centuries and, to that extent, it will always be very difficult to raise the living standards of all its people within a short period of time. Moreover, many countries with high levels of human development and security do not figure anywhere close to India in the global power rankings. Nonetheless, there is a need to examine what India needs to do to be counted as a leading power of global standing by succeeding in all dimensions of comprehensive state power. Let us first take a look at India’s place in current global power equations and what India would need to do politically in terms of foreign policy priorities, especially through its genuine friends in high places.

The first die was cast for claiming global power status when, after the Second World War, the victor nations appointed themselves as veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council of the newly formed United Nations. The P5, as they are known, ensured thereafter that no new member was admitted into this exclusive group of global powers, thus robbing India of its rightful claim subsequently for a place on the high table. Bipolar power politics of the Cold War period, which followed, was characterized primarily by nations joining or supporting either the NATO or Warsaw Pact blocs which had split Europe down the middle. India kept clear of the bloc memberships on offer and tried to chart an independent course separately by taking leadership through numbers – the non-aligned movement (NAM) – a project which largely failed as an alternative because the Asian and African member nations were economically backward and could be easily incentivized, economically or militarily, to support either superpower bloc.

In the post Cold War era, after the initial period of the 1990s when the US was the sole superpower, it is largely recognized that, given current and future economic and military trends of the 21st century, the world would essentially be multi-polar, where balance of power would remain a tussle between the US and Europe on one side, and China and Russia on the other, with both blocs attempting to retain power by influencing other countries and regional groupings to join their side. Economic and other incentives are held out as a means of forming partnerships and gaining influence. In exceptional cases, security guarantees are offered in exchange for agreeing to join alliances, as was earlier prevalent in case of the NATO and erstwhile Warsaw Pact alliance countries. Within this strategic landscape, India had largely followed an independent course, while Pakistan opportunistically joined the anti-communist alliances on offer in the Cold War period and was rewarded with latest weaponry, which it predictably utilized to launch attacks against India in efforts to forcibly resolve territorial disputes in its favour. Subsequently, it joined up with China in an alliance that has majorly sought to undermine India’s interests, since it suits the regional strategies of both Beijing and Rawalpindi.

In the current global equation, India is identified as the ‘swing state’ that can tilt the future balance of power either way between the West and the China-Russia bloc. Nonetheless, historically, India has always charted a carefully chosen independent course, professing friendly relations with all, even engaging China economically and socially. But, in a world of ‘black’ and ‘white’ perceptions, where there is hardly any space for shades of grey, India has largely been unable to leverage its bilateral relationships optimally in a manner that these convert into power in tangible form. In fact, advantages of relationships with one power bloc have normally ended up cancelling out the advantages of partnerships with others, rather than adding to each other, which should ideally be the case.

India and the US are proclaimed natural allies, one the world’s oldest democracy and the other the world’s largest democracy. Our strategic relationship has strengthened over the last few years, especially after the signing the Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Agreement in 2008. Nonetheless, while we strengthen our growing partnership with the US and European countries, in keeping with our common interests, democratic credentials and technological needs, we must take care not to let our traditional relations with Russia get diluted in any form. The Indian government has made a fresh pitch for a closer relationship with the China-Russia led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and is scheduled to be granted its membership, along with Pakistan, in 2017. Our involvement with the SCO will enable better access to energy rich Central Asia, but, considering that SCO is also evolving as an anti-NATO security alliance, it is a moot point whether our efforts at balancing out relationships may yet again be neutralizing the gains of our bilateral efforts with individual global powers.

Outside the power blocs, India also has close relationships with countries of South Asia, West Asia, South East Asia, East Asia, Africa and Latin America. In some cases, India has developed bilateral partnerships with some countries in keeping with our trade, energy, security and/ or diaspora interests. India has also been instrumental in forming the BRICS, a grouping of emerging economic powers who would like to set their own economic rules and not be browbeaten by Western economic regimes. But strangely, only Russia among the five member BRICS grouping supported India’s membership of the NSG, while the other members, China, Brazil and South Africa raised objections on varied counts. All this only emphasizes the challenges on the road ahead. India’s diplomacy will have to ensure that we are able to attain our global aspirations by leveraging our relationships with individual countries while also gaining optimally by our partnerships with the  global powers and power blocs, whatever their hue.

What Else do We Need to Do?

Another important area that needs focus is the economy. Though it is generally acknowledged that India is currently the world’s fastest growing economy, there are some who feel that much of this is hype, and that the State meddles too much in the economy, with negative effect. Further, our banks are likely to be dragged down by the burden of bad debts.  Obviously, the economy needs to do much better to achieve our national aims and objectives towards attaining big power status. The leadership at both the national and state level must not be led by populism alone but must also carry out incremental economic reforms. India is 132nd in ‘ease of doing business’ ranking among 185 economies. We must take a hard look at our economic policies and systems, and must be willing to take revolutionary steps to change the narrative.

We must enable our entrepreneurs, who are indeed very dynamic and talented and can generate jobs for our citizens, by removing bureaucratic obstacles and corruption from their path.  We must improve our education system and enhance access of our children to good schools. We must focus on skill development as a national project and ensure that quantitative and qualitative targets are met. At a time that global economic instability is foretold in view of the possible repercussions of Britain’s exit from the EU and the outcome of the US presidential elections, India would need to insulate itself from these market fluctuations by focusing on the domestic market through reforms in domestic policies and meeting targets in job creation. We must do more to make women join the work force, so that our growth targets are met easily. In sum, economic progress and human security holds the key to our ambitions to achieve superpower status.

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Furthermore, military modernization is an important part of our capacity building and deterrence strategy. The fact that our two potential adversaries have an ever evolving anti-India alliance between them, even in the realm of nuclear weaponry, is something that can be ignored only at our own peril. A policy of engaging them diplomatically, without adequate modernization and capacity enhancement of our armed forces, would only put us on a path to catastrophic failure, as it occurred in 1962. Our military must develop the required combat ratios that would enable it to thwart efforts by our adversaries to redraw boundaries by the use of force. Military budgets will have to be increased substantially in the short and medium term to match our military modernization plans. Otherwise, a day is not far off when the military is pitched forward once again against a much stronger adversary without the necessary wherewithal to carry out its mandate. Any setback in the military realm would not only lose us external credibility but will divert us from achieving our aspirational goals in a time bound manner.

The writing on the wall is clear.  India must do whatever it takes to speed up the process of becoming a leading global power, which not only follows the rules, but also participates in formulating the rules, in a fair and just manner. It may have to take a few knocks along the way, like the case of the NSG setback on June 24th, but that may be a good thing as it would enable us to discover our genuine friends from among those who profess friendship but act differently behind our back. It would also enable us to look within to identify our ingrained positivity and strengthen our pluralistic ethos because only when India is at peace with itself, and its people are secure and prosperous, will it be able to make others look at it with genuine respect and accept it in the role of a global leader.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Philip Campose

is the Former Vice Chief of Army Staff.

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