“India punches below its weight, failing to achieve what it could and should be doing”, writes John Elliot in his book Implosion: India’s Tryst with Reality, wondering why a nation with a population of over a billion people, abundant natural resources and an ancient culture is hobbled “with declining economic performance, poor governance and endemic corruption”. Running well through the nuclear tests in 1998, India’s long-standing aspiration to the status of great power through a totemic United Nations Security Council (UNSC) permanent membership came recently to the fore once again.
Trouble is, the UN, as a multilateral institution, post Cold War, lapsed into insignificance in the face of a clutch of military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, its policy paralysis related to Israel and Palestine, wars in Korea, Vietnam, West Asia, the Balkans, and across much of Africa and Latin America, genocides from Cambodia to Rwanda over the last few decades.
Among some 10 factors enumerated by scholars as necessary — Joseph S Nye coined the terms such as hard power and soft power — to become a major power, the military, economic, technological and demographic are hard power resources. Among the rest, norms, leadership role in international institutions, culture, state capacity, strategy/diplomacy and national leadership are intangible but no less important in the reckoning. The five permanent members of the UNSC were the winners of World War II and the major power status since 1945 has remained unchanged. Though among the P-5, France and the UK have stagnated since 1960s, while Russia have considerably weakened since the early 1990s. There are two leading economic powers — Japan and Germany — waiting in the wings. As one of the world’s largest and most enduring civilisational entities, India’s claim to a leadership role in the international arena is only but natural.
Why not? After all, India is the world’s largest democracy, and the second-most populous country with the fourth-largest army, the third-largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) in 2014, the eighth-largest industrial economy armed with the world’s largest pool of scientists and engineers after the US, and a burgeoning middle class double the size of Japan’s. India’s claim to major power status hinges for long on its subcontinental size and large population, ‘hegemonic’ presence in the Indo-centric South Asia region, the ‘perception’ of India’s economic and military power, sustained nationalist struggle that has guided its desire for foreign policy autonomy among others. India’s material capabilities, though, compared to the present-day major powers, have been relatively wobbly, particularly when placed alongside China which have climbed rapidly the ladder of upward mobility way faster than India.
The rub is, with many of the fundamentals still unattended, or poorly addressed, despite improvements posted along the way, seeking a claim to the major power system through media blitz is undeserved. In the book titled An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions co-authored by Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, we find a fairly reasoned critique arguing why we should tarry in seeking a major power tag for us, which might explain why they are not exactly popular with the Far Right today. They note that India’s high growth momentum was gained with little effect on the lives and freedoms of the people. “Over this period of rapid growth, while some people, particularly among the privileged classes, have done very well, many more continue to lead unnecessarily deprived and precarious lives.” “It is not that their living conditions have not improved at all”, they hasten to add, “but the pace of improvement has been very slow for the bulk of the people, and for some there has been remarkably little change”.
Some bits of statistics really jar with us. India spends less than 4% of its GDP on areas as paramount as education and health. Indian varsities and educational institutions hosting over 20 million students fail to find a place among the top 200 world class universities graded by world class agencies. Almost 12 per cent of our children (between 5 and 15 years) are classified as child labour, and we have about 2.4 million people living with HIV/Aids. India is home to over 340 million destitute people and is the second poorest country in South Asia after strife-torn Afghanistan — Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal have much lower destitution — says a poverty estimation study by Oxford University. Forty per cent of all the poor in 49 countries live in India, mostly in rural areas, according to the Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index (MPI) 2014. Forget about the West, even Bangladesh has gone past India in a wide range of basic social indicators, including life expectancy, child survival, enhanced immunisation rates, reduced fertility rates, and even some schooling indicators. Four years ago, a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll has placed India beside Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan and Somalia as one of the five most dangerous countries on earth for women.
As flag-bearers of an ancient civilisation and plural culture — which, because of being full of inner contradictions and opposing ideas, necessitates that conflicting strands of normative standards, ideals and ethics be reconciled — we are falling short. A preference for the middle path is the hallway of Indian tradition and culture as seen in the Sanskrit saying which goes, “ati sarvatra varjayet” (let us eschew excess at all times). This saying encapsulates India’s philosophical abhorrence of absolutes, of extremes, of the tendency to see things strictly in terms of black and white. Aberrations have taken place far too frequently, but the killings of Kannada writer MM Kalburgi and Maharashtra rationalists Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare and Mohammed Akhlaq of Dadri, to cite just a few recent instances, show how we mistake majoritarianism as a major power tool. There is little reason to feel that our rule of law has ever tried to hem in forces of obscurantism, which has been exemplified time and again by banning Salman Rushdie, or driving out Taslima Nasreen, vandalising MF Husain’s works or bullying Perumal Murugan, regardless of the political dispensation at the helm. Banning Ustad Ghulam Ali in Mumbai or attacking Sudheendra Kulkarni further betrays our insecurities. The United Nations Declaration of Principles on Tolerance (1995) asserts, “Tolerance … involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism.”
Truth is, we are a chaotic and boisterous nation bursting at the seams. A permanent UNSC seat may give India a greater institutional leverage. But to consider that a permanent UNSC seat, coupled with some nukes and space travel, would catapult India into a major power is to mistake the brand for substance.