Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

India’s great power aspirations

Narendra Modi seeks to transform India into an entity whose weight and preferences define international politics

Less than a year after he took office in May 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi challenged his senior diplomats “to help India position itself in a leading role, rather than [as] just a balancing force, globally". Elaborating on this idea, foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar later noted that Modi’s dramatic international initiatives reflected India’s growing self-confidence, declaring that the country now “aspire[s] to be a leading power, rather than just a balancing power".

When this ambition is realized, it will mark the third and most decisive shift in independent India’s foreign policy, one that could have significant consequences for the future international order. It will take concerted effort, however, to reach this pinnacle in the years ahead: India will have to reform its economy, strengthen its state capacity and elevate the levels of rationalization across state and society writ large so that it may be able to effectively produce those military instruments that increase its security and influence in international politics.

For the longest time, India’s foreign policy was essentially defensive. Its early rhetoric was bold—championing, in former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s words, a “real internationalism" that promoted global peace and shared prosperity. Yet, its material weaknesses ensured that its strategic aims in practice during this first phase were focused principally on protecting the country’s democracy and development from the intense bipolar competition of the Cold War. India survived the Cold War with its territorial integrity broadly intact, its state and nation-building activities largely successful, and its political autonomy and international standing durably ensconced. In the process, it created some impressive industrial and technological capabilities, but its obsession with “self-reliance" unfortunately also ensured the relative decline of India’s economic weight in Asia and beyond.

After 1991, when it was freed from the compulsions of having to avoid competing alliances at all costs, India entered into the second phase of its foreign policy evolution: building strategic partnerships. The domestic economic reforms unleashed in the very year of the Soviet Union’s collapse aided this process by paving the way for consolidating India’s path towards higher growth. From the abysmal 3.5% annual growth witnessed until the 1980s, the 1991 reforms accelerated the improving 5.5% growth rate to the 7% demonstrated since the new millennium, leading the CIA to conclude that India was likely to become the most important “swing state" in the international system. This assessment suggested that India’s significance in global politics lay mainly in its being a balancing power.

Since the presidency of George W. Bush, this realization has driven the US to consciously assist the growth of Indian power. On the assumption that New Delhi and Washington share a common interest in preventing Chinese hegemony in Asia, the US has sought to bolster India as a counterweight to China, fully appreciating that India would pursue an independent foreign policy, but expecting nonetheless that it would concord with larger US interests in the Indo-Pacific. Even if India were to eventually become a true pole in international politics, US calculations would not in any way be undermined: shared democratic values would then position India as a valuable partner for the US, while its growing national capacities would help to create those objective constraints that check the misuse of Chinese power in Asia in the interim.

Modi’s clarion call for India to assume a leading, rather than merely a balancing, role signifies larger ambitions. Jaishankar summarized these aims succinctly when he stated, insofar “as larger international politics is concerned, India welcomes the growing reality of a multi-polar world, as it does, of a multi-polar Asia". In other words, India, by its choices at home and its actions abroad, would seek to create the distribution of capabilities at both the global and the continental levels that would accommodate its presence as an authentic great power. Although these aspirations are conveyed by the more modest locution “leading power", Modi’s vision, strictly speaking, envisages India becoming a traditional great power—an inescapable conclusion if the desire for multipolarity at the global level has any consequential meaning.

Contrasting the concepts clarifies the point abundantly. From a structural perspective, great powers in international politics are genuine poles: their number defines the configuration of the global system, and their preferences regulate its institutions and determine the ways in which its constituent entities relate to one another. Great powers, accordingly, are system makers. Leading powers, in contrast, are not genuine poles. They exist within the dispositions defined by the great powers, and while they do influence various issues, they cannot determine outcomes pertaining to the fundamental questions of order against the core inclinations of the great powers. Leading powers, therefore, can at best be system shapers. Minor powers, in even greater contrast, are unambiguously system takers. They cannot impose their desires on others, and they can secure their national aims only through aid from other states and institutions or at the sufferance of stronger powers.

Clearly, Modi seeks to transform India from being merely an influential entity into one whose weight and preferences are defining for international politics. This desire is laudable, even overdue, but India’s climb to great power status will take time. Although contemporary projections of global growth out to 2050 suggest that India will become a true pole by then, they also conclude that it will remain the weakest of the principal entities—China, US, the European Union and India—dominating the international system at that time. This does not imply that Modi’s vision of India as a leading power ought to be jettisoned. Far from it. It should, in fact, be pursued even more vigorously to protect the possibility of India becoming a true pole by 2050 with material power exceeding what the current prognoses suggest—an outcome that will require New Delhi to purposefully expand its own national capabilities in ways that other great powers have done before. Modi’s call for India to become a leading power represents a change in how the country’s top political leadership conceives of its role in international politics. Attaining Modi’s ambition will require India to undergo a concerted transformation. This entails strengthening what India has most successfully achieved thus far—territorial integrity, liberal democratic politics and civic nationalism—but drastically renovating the sclerotic elements of its economy to enable the progressive rationalization that comes, inter alia, from enlarging its market system. Concerted marketization thus holds the promise of improving India’s trend growth rates, enabling appropriate redistribution when desirable and empowering the state with the resources necessary to accomplish its international goals.

Modi is cognizant of the need for comprehensive transformation if India is to one day become a genuine great power. But his efforts thus far in promoting such change, though laudable in many ways, have been unduly conservative. He has certainly embarked on several high-profile projects intended to stimulate growth and development, but he has yet to articulate an overarching defence of systemic reform, and he has shied away from undertaking those consequential initiatives that would appropriately reposition the Indian state within the national economy while simultaneously strengthening it. These tasks cannot be avoided much longer.

Modi’s invocation that India become a leading power offers transformative possibilities if it drives the speedy acquisition of great power capabilities and makes their procurement a purposeful object of Indian national policy. If his vision takes root, perhaps the most important immediate change engendered would be the imbuing of self-assurance within the Indian polity, its elites and its leaders. For all the distinctive shifts that have occurred in Indian foreign policy in recent times, it is remarkable how large segments of the intellectual, bureaucratic and political classes are still fundamentally insecure about their country’s capacity to engage with the world on its own terms. This is partly a legacy of colonialism and partly a consequence of India’s persisting material weaknesses in international politics. Yet, it is nevertheless unsettling because among India’s native strength has been the capacity to assimilate diverse foreign ideas, cultures and peoples over the millennia—enriching both the entrants and the host in the process.

If Modi’s quest for India to become a leading power, then, strengthens Indian self-confidence, the foundations would be laid for making some difficult decisions about economic reform domestically; containing those elements on both the right and the left that would disfigure India’s democracy and retard its development, respectively; and articulating a clear perspective of India’s role in Asia and the world without either defensiveness or hubris. The stage would also be set for cementing the strategic partnerships that India has sought to build in furtherance of its own interests, taking the initiative in developing cooperative solutions that address the most pressing regional and global challenges, and building the military capabilities necessary to protect India and to provide the public goods needed to strengthen peace and security in the Indo-Pacific.

A focused effort along these lines would make India’s journey towards achieving great power status easier. There are few leaders in India today other than Narendra Modi who have the capacity to articulate the importance of this vision in ways that are comprehensible to the polity at large. And India enjoys the unique advantage of having its rise unambiguously welcomed by the most important power in the international system, the US. By consummating the path-breaking overtures towards Washington initiated in recent years and complementing those with deeper economic integration with the US, Modi can solidify a geopolitical bond that will be incredibly valuable for India as it continues along the road to becoming a real great power.

Ashley J. Tellis is a senior associate in the South Asia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and was formerly senior adviser to the US undersecretary of state for political affairs.

This excerpt from a paper titled ‘India as a Leading Power’ is published as part of an association between Mint and Carnegie India.

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