India: To be or not to be (a superpower)
Following the BRICS meeting last month in India, there was some buzz about the latter nation becoming a superpower. Interestingly around the same time, the London School of Economics (LSE), which has been extremely influential in ex-British colonies, issued a report that posed the proposition in the form of a question: India: the Next Superpower?
The report is an explicit riposte to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s unequivocal statement when she visited India in 2009: “I consider India not just a regional power, but a global power.” Following the success of economic liberalisation in the 1990s, which generated growth rates in excess of 8%, its cultural dynamism and a rising middle class, expectations have grown that India might become a superpower, particularly in a West that sees in India’s democratic heritage the potential for strategic partnership. But was Clinton’s statement justified?
While acknowledging the above pluses, the report concludes that these are nullified by its structural weaknesses, widespread corruption, poor leadership, extreme social divisions, religious extremism and internal security threats. India, it argues, still faces too many “developmental challenges” to qualify for “superpower” status, or to be considered a serious “counterweight” to China, a role sought to be thrust on it by some in the West. Some of the report’s authors wonder whether India should even aspire to be a superpower, given its institutional weaknesses and social and economic divisions.
The report notes that additionally, “India has tripled its defence expenditure over the last decade to become one of the top-ten military spenders. But plunging the knife into Indian ambitions, the report says: “Still, for all India’s success, its undoubted importance and despite its undisputed potential, there is cause for caution in assessing India’s claim to superpower status. India still faces major developmental challenges. The still-entrenched divisions of caste structure are being compounded by the emergence of new inequalities of wealth stemming from India’s economic success.
India’s democracy may have thrived in a manner that few ever expected, but its institutions face profound challenges from embedded nepotism and corruption. India’s economic success continues to come with an environmental cost that is unsustainable.”
These problems are compounded by India’s “pressing security preoccupations” arising out of “insurgent violence” affecting large parts of the country and long-festering cross-border disputes. The best that India can hope for—the study offers as a consolation– is “to continue to play a constructive international role in, among other things, the financial diplomacy of the G20″.
There was one intriguing retort which answered the LSE’s Report with another question: Who says India wants to be a superpower? A superpower, the analyst noted, should have the ability to both exert influence and exercise power in its areas of interest, wherever that may be across the globe. Today, that area has extended into the realms of outer space. Some even believe that true superpower status is reflected in a willingness to engineer regime changes to protect your own way of life or interests, or even to pursue altruistic agendas of “keeping the world a safer place to live in.”
The author is convinced that “No Indian in his right mind, leave alone policymakers and strategists, could ever dream of subscribing to such fanciful ambitions.” Outlining India’s historical rejection of foreign excursions, he reasons that modern India, ravaged for two centuries by colonial exploitation, is still a nation in the making, benignly looking outward in recent times, primarily to seek energy resources and develop its vast human capital.
On the question of ‘hard power’ in relation to “superpower status”, he points out, “Capability is never equal to power unless it is backed by intent and willingness to use the power in pursuit of national interests. And concludes, “India’s development of force projection capability has always been governed by an overarching strategic direction of responsibility, restraint, resilience and respect for sovereignty. This has meant that deterrence has always occupied pole position, with coercive and expeditionary capabilities taking a back seat.”