Some in India think that the transformation of India is too defensive a goal, that we should make it clear that we wish to be a great power or a superpower. Frankly, being a great power will follow, not precede, success in building a strong, prosperous, and modern India. Our purpose is the outcome in India, not some notional status or recognition by others. We should never confuse our national interest in creating outcomes at home with international prestige. We have a long way to go, despite all that we have achieved since independence. All rising powers in history have chosen to keep their heads down while building their own strength, rather than inviting resistance to their rise to great power status by proclaiming their power and its uses. Those that followed the path of flaunting their ambition and their growing power too early, such as Wilhelmine Germany and Japan in the 1930s, were frustrated in their rise and paid a heavy price. Whether China has made the same mistake recently remains to be seen.
With thirty years of over 6 percent growth and the accretion of hard power, India has improved its relative position vis à vis all powers except China. India now has some economic influence, and the local political and military balance is not as unfavorable as it was for most periods after independence. There are no existential threats to India from abroad. If there are threats to India’s existence, they are primarily internal. The magnitude of the remaining task of transforming India means that the primary focus must still be creating an enabling external environment for the transformation of a resource-poor but people-rich India. It is likely to remain so for quite some time to come.
Until recently India had a vision of both its place in the world and of the order it preferred. That was of an order that was rule-based, democratic, and plural, that would assist in the transformation of India. To this end, India saw itself as a responsible stakeholder in the international system, was a willing contributor to international peacekeeping and to solidarity among developing countries, and was an active participant in the multilateral order. India was one of the greatest beneficiaries of globalization decades. Now, the Narendra Modi government desires to be seen as new and to overthrow what it sees as the Nehruvian legacy, but it has not described an alternative in practice or theory. The Nehruvian legacy in foreign policy was of expanding what Nehru called “the area of peace.” This involved working within the existing order to create an enabling environment for India’s development and to encourage an open, plural, and democratic international order, while improving the order, and India’s say in it, where possible. That policy, adjusted to circumstance by Nehru’s successors, worked. It delivered sufficient security for India to grow faster than it had ever done in history, to take more people out of poverty than any other country except China, and to have a realistic shot at ending India’s underdevelopment.
For the last few years, however, India seems adrift in terms of a vision of India’s role and place in the world. There has been an obsession with India as “a leading power” and its standing in the international order. Spokespersons for the Modi government have spoken of statecraft as a “battle of civilizations, battle of cultures, basically the battle of minds.” They have also concentrated on India’s civilizational glory and spoken of regaining it. Prime Minister Modi has spoken since 2015 of India as a vishwaguru, or world teacher. This is a noble soft-power goal but ignores the fact that soft power is useless without the sinews of hard power to back it up, and that whatever India may have been in the past, it is far from being a provider of knowledge to today’s world.
The idea of a vishwaguru probably plays well with Modi’s core Hindu constituency at home but is hardly a realistic goal when contemporary India is a net importer of knowledge, is not known for its innovation, and must still do a great deal to spread primary education to its people and raise educational standards to acceptable levels in its institutions of learning. Nor is it clear how vishwaguru status would address the immediate problems of livelihood and security that the Indian people and nation face. Becoming a vishwaguru is hardly the answer to India’s security, economy, and development needs and what they require from the international system. In any case, the first Modi government saw precious little done to move India toward this nebulous goal, which may be just as well.
In the last decade a domestic narrative has taken hold across the Indian political spectrum that India must be a superpower or a great power. But very little is said of the purposes of that accumulation of power and of the uses it should be put to. Nor is it clear how it will enable India’s transformation into anything but a nineteenth-century European power. It is worth wondering what the quest for great-power status will do to the polity and society within India, not all of which is likely to be for the better. Implicit in terms like “rising India” or “India the great power” are ideas of hierarchy and perception, both of which are hardly defined or measurable by agreed metrics or standards. Such terms reduce international relations in the popular mind to some kind of macho contest between states of who can throw a shot or missile furthest or can do the most damage to our planet and people.
India is and has been an important player on the world stage with its own interests and will continue to be so. And yet, the purpose of our participation in the international community is not to see how many people we can outdo or push down. It is to uplift our own people and to improve their condition from the abject state that we were left in after two centuries of colonialism. That is not achieved at someone else’s expense. Instead, it requires us to work with others in international society to achieve an enabling environment for India’s transformation.
The narrative about India as a great power seems driven more by a desire for status and recognition than by the outcomes the quest for great-power status is likely to produce for the Indian people, society, state, the subcontinent, and the world. What is missing is a vision of India’s place in the international system and its goals, as Nehru was able to articulate in his time, even though he was not always entirely in touch with the realities of power and therefore saw some of his policies fail.
This excerpt from ‘India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present’ by Shivshankar Menon has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.