India will shape its global influence as its economic might grows over the next few decades, but whether it will necessarily become a superpower based on military might, economic standing, cultural pull, political clout, or all of the above, will be defined over a period of time, a panel of experts argued at the World Economic Forum’s India Economic Summit in Delhi on Tuesday.
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The participants in the debate differed over whether the country can be a superpower anytime soon even as a sizeable number of its population goes hungry.
Besides, the analysts argued, superpowers historically have been associated with great military and economic clout, such as the US and Britain. Russia was a superpower without enough economic scale and faced the same problems that beset India, including corruption, illiteracy and a rich-poor gap. Ironically, unlike Russia, India sources most of its military equipment from foreign countries.
The arguments were made at a session on what kind of superpower India would be.
BBC’s Nick Gowing was sceptical of India becoming a superpower in the historical sense, but said it would certainly be a strong power with economic and political clout. He added, however, that the way China is moving to develop ports, the military and navy, it is aiming to become just such a superpower.
Sudha Pillai, member secretary of the Planning Commission, said India will be a soft superpower “building on its cultural outreach across the planet”, something the panellists said was lacking with China’s rise as a possible superpower.
Anil Gupta, professor of strategy, Insead, Singapore, said that while there is a perception that India’s democracy is an impediment as it tries to replicate China’s rapid economic growth, the reality is that democracy is a huge asset that allows the country to negotiate important policy challenges sustainably.
The debate comes at a time when globally, the international levers of power are shifting towards a multi-polar world and the high table of the UN Security Council alone may not be enough to qualify one for a superpower status.
“There will be not one superpower, there would be many great powers,” said Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of The Indian Express, adding that as people, Indians tend to announce victory too soon. Diplomatic certificates by US President Barack Obama calling India not a rising power but a risen power were not good enough to make the case that the nation was already a superpower in the making.
While the country needs to have influence befitting its economic strength, its unique traditions of democracy and lack of Islamophobia make India’s rise much less a concern for other countries. In that sense, India’s rise can be a calming influence in a multi-polar world, he said.
Rahul Bajaj, chairman, Bajaj Auto Ltd, said “superpower dreams cannot be sustained on empty stomachs”. India has a long way to go to reach levels of income that would guarantee all its citizens a prosperous lifestyle. He said that corruption was the elephant in the room that needs to be tackled.
He, however, said that membership of groupings such as the UN Security Council was critical for a rising India to help shape future policies that ultimately would impact its progress.
Joseph Madiath, executive editor, Gram Vikas, while concurring with Bajaj, pointed out that the country’s grassroots democracy holds the key to increasing accountability of the government and has the potential to unleash the positive energies that would transform India. India was already a superpower when Mahatma Gandhi showed the world the power of non-violence, he said.