As part of his charm offensive in Parliament on Monday, Barack Obama announced that India has already emerged as a world power.
“For in Asia and around the world, India is not simply emerging; it has emerged,” Obama said. However, in a rare slip that seems to have gone unnoticed, he also said later in his speech: “India is not the only emerging power in the world.” So has India emerged or is it still emerging?
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This minor contradiction apart, such a ringing endorsement from a US president was met with applause from our parliamentarians. It is an endorsement that is likely to be unthinkingly repeated in the months ahead.
India’s growing clout on the global stage is quite evident—in the Group of Twenty (G-20) meetings, climate change talks and global trade negotiations. A permanent seat on the UN Security Council in the (undefined) future would add to this clout. Gone are the days when a US ambassador to India, the scholar-politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan, could ask why India should matter since it exported nothing other than disease. But is that enough?
No country can lay claim to big-power status only on the strength of its international influence. A strong domestic economy and a firm commitment to pursue national interest are usually found in great powers. India could be the first country in modern history that aspires to take a seat at the high table of global influence before it has banished mass poverty and displayed a strong sense of national purpose.
Here are three parameters to quickly judge how close or far India is from great power status—economic opportunity for every Indian, state capacity to deliver public goods and technological innovation.
India is no longer a poor country going by the definition used by the World Bank. We are a lower middle-income country. However, average incomes are only one way to judge development. Liberal economist Peter Bauer said true development means the expansion of individual choice. The lack of occupational mobility, malnourishment and inadequate education restrict individual choice and hence deny millions of Indians the opportunity to take part in a booming economy on their own terms.
These limitations are more likely to be reduced through strong economic growth rather than populist redistribution. But the Indian state also needs to increase its capacity to provide public goods and administer social security schemes for its citizens. Such state capacity is very weak right now, leading to the inability to plan and finish projects of national importance. The mess in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games was one recent example.
Finally, there is the issue of technological innovation. Rich countries are usually at the technological frontier while the poor countries try to catch up by absorbing the latest technologies through trade and investment. But there are times when the technological frontier shifts, often leaving new countries at the cutting edge of innovation. The move to a post-oil green economy is likely to throw up such an opportunity in the coming decade. India does not seem prepared to be at the crest of the next technology wave.
China is a useful point of comparison. Philosopher and sociologist Daniel Little recently wrote an incisive blog post during his first visit to China.
“Travelling in China for the past two weeks has given me a different perspective on the country. The most powerful impression I’ve had is one of collective national confidence; the sense that China is on the move, that the country is making rapid progress on many fronts, and that China is setting its own course. We’ve known for twenty years about the unprecedented rate of economic development and growth in China since the fundamental reforms of the economy in the 1980s. China’s manufacturing capacity is also well known throughout the world. But the story is bigger than that. What is perhaps not so well understood outside the country is the scope and purposiveness of the development plans the country is pursuing,” writes Little.
Little draws attention to “the breadth of forms of capacity building that the country is investing in”, especially the new high-speed trains and the new universities. He also points to the challenges of dissent and democracy, and how China could manage the transition to a more open political system, even though my personal opinion is that he is far too sanguine about this challenge.
“So—rapid, sustained economic growth; a broadly shared sense of China’s distinctive values and history; successful incorporation of advanced, large-scale technology systems; the world’s fastest super-computer; integrated regional and national plans for the future; and a degree of recognition of the importance of addressing China’s social problems—this is a powerful foundation for a China-cenetred future for this country and its 1.3 billion citizens,” said Little.
India should also start making greater progress on these fronts in the coming decade. And we should be wary of premature great-power rhetoric, even if it comes from a US president.
Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is managing editor of Mint. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com