Home / Opinion / Online Views /  India: the superpower that wasn’t

I was meeting a friend of mine the other day for coffee. He is based in South-East Asia, and is the typical globetrotting multinational executive, travelling to a dozen countries in a typical year, from Australia to Ghana. We were meeting after perhaps three years, so there was much stock taking to do—about common friends, about the various new places he had visited, about the state of his industry, the world and India.

“It was sometime in 2009, I think, that the perception about India began to change," he mused. “Earlier, when I would meet people, in Zurich or Vienna or Chicago, when they came to know I was Indian, they would be instantly interested. They would want to know what was happening in India, what the prospects were, etc. Many of them wanted to visit India, for business, or just as a tourist. There was a buzz about the India growth story." But now? “No one’s bothered," my friend said. “And I can sense it in some of them that they feel we just messed up somewhere. And they find it surprising because everyone knows we handled the 2008-09 global economic crisis very well."

Back home, I did some Google searches. The famous Goldman Sachs BRIC Report appeared in October 2003, predicting that by 2032, India could be the third largest economy in the world in dollar terms, after the US and China. In fact, among all the big economies of the world, India would have the most consistent growth rate over a 50-year period. A Wall Street Journal story on the report began with the line: “Move over, G-6. By mid-century, the economic firepower of Russia, China, Brazil and India could have you surrounded." All of us remember the euphoria this report caused in India, though some hard nuts privately questioned the credibility of a 50-year economic projection. Could anyone in 1958, during the days of the Great Leap Forward, which saw millions of starvation deaths, have made an accurate prediction about where the Chinese economy would be in 2008? But anyway, Goldman Sachs had said it, and we were all happy.

In 2004, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agreed with Wall Street. Its National Intelligence Council predicted in a report that by 2020, India would be an economic superpower. Now that was really good news! If the CIA, that most hated of “foreign hands" during the Indira Gandhi days, was conceding that we had the necessary metallic knuckles and testicles to make it, what more confirmation did we need? So we neglected to read the “but"-s in the report. For, the CIA wonks also pointed out that India’s growth to superpower status could be stymied by problems like political and economic volatility, pressure on resources—land, water, energy—and an oversized and slothful bureaucracy.

In 2006, The Economist added fuel to the fire with a 15-page special report on India which admitted that the elephant had learnt to fly. This was taken as a particularly significant commentary, since in 1991, a couple of months before P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh began the economic reforms process, the magazine, in another special report on India, had called it “a caged tiger" and gone on at length about what India needed to do to let the beast out in its full glory. The reforms process has more or less followed The Economist’s 1991 prescription (though we are still far from taking all the medicines the magazine had listed).

Some weeks after The Economist’s flying-elephant analysis, Time magazine put India on the cover and said: “Why the world’s biggest democracy is the next great economic superpower."

Finally, in November 2006, someone in The International Herald Tribune got fed up and wrote a piece titled: “India can’t wait to put the ‘super’ before ‘power’". “An obsessive conviction that India is destined for international supremacy is spreading fast," the article commented. It cited an Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) scientist saying that India was planning to send a man to the moon in the next 10 years, and if the mission was successful, that would make the country a superpower. The last paragraph of the piece read: “Revealing proposals to build the world’s tallest tower block outside Delhi, an architect announced: ‘It is about status. It is about glorification. It is high time that people started realizing that we too are a great nation.’ The drumbeat of superpower mania goes on."

But did we pay any attention? Oh no. The world’s most successful investment bank, the most powerful intelligence agency, and the two foreign magazines most respected in India had told us that we were on the last lap to that somewhat ill-defined goal. That was enough for us. I remember a very well-known economist—at that time, based in the US—telling me in early 2007 that if India’s problem had been lack of confidence in the first few decades after Independence, now the wheel had turned full circle: “Today, I fear that overconfidence is becoming a problem," he told me.

And then came the fall. No, we can’t call it the fall. It was more like a slow boring slide, or a silent and resigned diminishing of stature.

My globetrotting friend told me that recently he had gone to hear one of the seniormost ministers in the Union cabinet speak on India and its economic future when he had visited the country my friend is based in. “I’ve always had the greatest respect for this particular gentleman’s intelligence and commitment," my friend told me. “But after the speech, I wanted to go up to him and tell him something. I didn’t finally." He smiled, looking into the middle distance, and said: “What I wanted to tell him was: ‘Sir, your speech lacked conviction’."

Sandipan Deb is a senior journalist and editor who is interested in puzzles of all forms.

Comments are welcome at

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