India’s cities and towns are now dotted with classrooms that promise tutoring in the American self-confidence and international manners deemed necessary to succeed. Competent but demure in Mumbai? Programmes like Personaliteez, Persona Power, Spark Personality and Livewires will help you Westernize yourself and stand out. In Ahmedabad, the personality-development outfits front names such as Cambridge, Oxford, and Harvard—promising you the hauteur of the global elite. And should you be too shy to leave the house for training, you can enhance confidence online at, for instance, the menacingly named Enoma Institute. All this is, of course, part of a long tradition: The Self-Improving Indian. Mahatma Gandhi’s best-selling book to this day is not Hind Swaraj, but his self-help Guide to Health. But much of our self-improving is emulative: learning to conform to the expectations of faraway others.
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In a global economy, some emulation is useful. A Hyderabad call centre employee doing debt recovery in the US may improve his results when he wishes the bankrupt farming family in Kansas “a blessed day”, or tells the broke Manhattan banker, “I feel you”. But things get more tricky when the emulation coursework is prescribed not for individuals but for the national state.
Ascendent: (clockwise from top left) Call centre workers have benefited from emulating the US. Madhu Kapparath / Mint; the Bombay Stock Exchange alone can’t reflect our economic health. Prashanth Vishwanathan / Bloomberg; an American military airplane on display at the Bangalore air show in 2007. Bloomberg; Manmohan Singh and Barack Obama at the White House last month. Joshua Roberts / Bloomberg; it’s worth revisiting Gandhi’s model of development. AFP
These days, a regular fixture of Delhi’s winter months are “summits” of world leaders, policy pundits and businessmen flown in to tell India how to improve its global ranking. The formula is uncomplicated. Wheel in a few retired “great leaders” to tell India how much the world expects of it. Bracket these pensioners with the younger pups, preferably Harvard MBAs, who PowerPoint their way through nation-improving presentations. Finally, sprinkle in a few extra-worldly “minds” to spiritualize the world-conquering ambitions. There you have it: a short course in improving India’s backbone and comportment. The subtext of many of these performances: Existing powers are willing to cede power to new claimants such as India, provided the newcomers are willing to make themselves over to look like the existing power. It’s a seductive contract, and we Indians seem to be willing to sign.
As we tumble over ourselves to copy more successful nations, America remains the great looking glass of our self-fashioning. Every month we take on more of its superpower paraphernalia, as if these things have talismanic quality. Think tanks sprout, as experts worry about the dearth of strategic “culture” and doctrines and call for national security committees. But our pursuit of global power shouldn’t be a matter of borrowing some other power’s well-worn tools. Many of those tools won’t work for us. The US achieved dominance in a polarized world where other Western powers, devastated by war, were dependent on the dollar economy; moreover, the US had won the race for nuclear weapons. Those in search of newer, non-Western models will point to China, but its reinvented mercantilism and authoritarian rulers hardly provide a model path.
In considering what sort of international power we want to be, we’ll need to define for ourselves what we want power for, and how that power will address the particular challenges we face internally and in the region. With deepening global involvement, we need to confront three critical issues, each requiring distinct conceptions of power.
The first issue is that, for the foreseeable future, our citizenry will remain predominantly poor, while our state will be increasingly rich. Given the absolute size of the Indian economy, we’ll be taken seriously by other global powers. We thus have a unique opportunity—indeed, an obligation and, in the case of our elected politicians, even an incentive—to use our international status to imprint the interests of our poor upon the global architecture of decision-making. In matters of international trade, access to natural resources, and the environmental effects of economic growth, we’ll need to demand terms that are fair to the poor. That means we’ll need the nerve to disrupt the status quo. We will face international criticism as we did on the nuclear issue (and as leaders like Gandhi and Nehru did in the past), and we’ll have to do even better at negotiation and persuasion. Realistically, we’re a long way from superpower status in its conventional forms: military or economic power. But we have status that derives from our legitimacy in the eyes of the rest of the world, a power that can allow us to sustain profound arguments for global justice.
Second, we must cultivate a stronger authority as a regional power, since we live in a dangerous neighbourhood, with Pakistan at its explosive core. Our strategy towards that country has been threaded around assumptions now invalid: that it is a unified state, and that we can outsource our Pakistan policy to the US. In fact, Pakistan is disaggregating rapidly. Power is split among a civilian political elite, its military chiefs and their intelligence agencies, and numerous extremist groups, none of which is sovereign over the country’s whole territory. America’s response to regional instability—throw economic aid and military hardware at it (Kerry-Lugar + F-16s)—has proved disastrous. India has most at stake here, and we must devise a more creative, calibrated policy. We need to bring the world around to our ideas, instead of suffering the consequences of other people’s policies.
The third great challenge will be to handle, at India’s own doorstep, two great powers who are shaping Asia’s destiny: China, expanding influence among all of India’s neighbours while its economy strengthens, and the US, enmeshed in that contemporary dystopia, “Af-Pak”. India is trying to build relations with both China and the US (perhaps the last great classical sovereign entities of modern times) through economic diplomacy and engagement. But our economic relationships with both will be tested by conflicts of interest—and in each case we’ll need to deploy different forms of power: persuasion with the US, diplomacy and counter-force with China.
There are no tutorials or Western blueprints for the kind of international power we seek. We will not arrive at it by populating our cities with as many think tanks as self-improvement centres, or by asking McKinsey how to turn our Mumbais into Shanghais. Power, as it’s conventionally understood, is a struggle over the resources to coerce others. But equally, power is a function of belief.
I’d argue that the struggle for power today is also a struggle over meaning: for control over how terms such as democracy, legitimacy, international justice, civilization and terrorism are applied. And it’s a struggle over the definition of power itself. The greatest economic and military superpower of modern times has revealed some deep vulnerabilities lately. It turns out military force and financial wealth are precarious without legitimacy and trust.
This was something that one of the most powerful personalities of the 20th century, Gandhi, knew very well. A tutorial in some of his ideas on power: Now that would improve our national posture. Instead of striving to be more like others—conforming to their definitions of power—wouldn’t it make more sense to work out our own conception? If we must take something from the American idea of global power, then it ought to be the American conviction that the rest of the world should become more like it. We’ll know we’re a power to reckon with when others in the world want to become more like us.
Sunil Khilnani is the author of The Idea of India and is currently at work on a new book, The Great Power Game: India in the New World. Write to him at email@example.com.