By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)
The ravages of the pandemic and the Ukraine war have combined to cause high inflation, food insecurity and depressed growth world-wide. Many countries are keeling over in debt and financial instability. Decoupling, friend-shoring, relocating and de-risking dominate supply chain discussions. The major powers are involved in prolonged hot, cold, proxy, hybrid or gay zone wars with each other. The world is re-nuclearising. Most countries are spending more on arms and security than they did in the past two decades. New alignments are emerging as the world order is changing. In this volatility, India’s rise has been a topic of international debate. It must be. Afterall, when the most populous nation on mother earth, with a reputation of being a conservative slow mover, starts clocking impressive growth rates, there are bound to be many opinions. Opinions from across the globe swing across the spectrum. As per some, India is likely to become a superpower. Others see it barrelling down a perilous path. What is the objective reality? From ground up, let me examine its growth and then see the geopolitical impact of this growth.
Goldman Sachs and Arnab K Ray’s research paper Logistic Forecasting of GDP Competitiveness state that India is set to be the third largest GDP between 2047-50. This is a conservative view. Against this, Imagine 2030, a Deutsche Bank paper, says that the Indian economy is likely to touch $7tn by 2030 itself. The Japan Center of Economic Research predicts that India’s GDP is set to overtake that of Japan around 2025. Morgan Stanley states that India is on track to become the world’s third largest economy by 2027. This has found echo in the New York Times also. The discordant vibes come, predictably from the South China Morning Post, which calls it a hype masking the real problems.
The Indian economy has overtaken the French and British economies. At this point of time there are only four larger economies – US, Chinese, Japanese and German. The Japanese economy, shattered by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings was rebuilt by the USA. Germany was rebuilt through the Marshall Plan in the post 2nd WW period. Its economy benefited further after reunification, the collapse of the USSR and the disappearance of the cold war. Since the 2nd WW, Japan and Germany have enjoyed an uninterrupted peace dividend. Geopolitical alignment with the USA virtually guaranteed their rise. The Chinese economy was aided completely by the USA and the West. It was the USA which chaperoned China into the globalised world. Further, China had a peace dividend since its last war with Vietnam in 1979. The common theme is that China, Japan and Germany were aided economies which had a peace dividend ranging from about 50-75 years. India did not get the benefit of such international tailwinds. In fact the opposite happened.
When India gained Independence, the colonial rule had deprived the partitioned nation economically and technologically. A poverty-stricken India was considered unnatural and expected to dissipate and disintegrate. However, India defied everything. It rose above poverty, caste, creed, race, religion, languages, ethnicities, ideologies, identities, politics and the myriad mosaic which makes and mars India. Vagaries of weather gods could not stop it despite cycles of floods, famines and earthquakes. It had contentious borders with formidable adversaries – Pakistan and China. Resultantly it had to contend with conflict and proxy wars often. It survived onslaughts from a predatory China and a toxic Pakistan. Besides this, India had to overcome numerous sanctions, technology and aid denial regimes repeatedly from the USA and the larger West. It survived the disdain of the West with which it was in constant geopolitical misalignment. Slowly but steadily it grew through the adversity of the internal political contradictions and external headwinds. When its back was against the wall, it discovered economic reforms and information technology. Between the ebbs of stagnancy and the flow of progress India rose like a phoenix. The rise is built on the hard working Indian, a solid democracy and an apolitical but tough as nails Armed Forces. In the process, the nation which once scrounged for food became food surplus. It made its own mark in space and atomic energy despite strong headwinds. The relative peace of the past two decades gave it the break it needed. Despite all doomsday predictions, India attained critical mass. Hereon, its growth is irreversible. India will only grow further and faster. The only issue which can be debated is its rate of growth. The world has no choice but to take note of the new kid on the block.
India’s growth was pegged down by its security environment for a long time. For over half a century, the monkey on its back was Pakistan. National energies were diverted towards thwarting Pakistani efforts at destabilising India and creating mayhem in the country. The strategic divergence commenced at the turn of the century when India developed the national forbearance to ignore Pakistan and forge ahead on its growth path. The current implosion in Pakistan will force internalisation in that country on a long term basis. The Pakistani monkey is hereafter permanently off India’s back. It allows India to grow unhindered. The second factor of India’s security environment was the Chinese threat. Till recently it was felt to be a gorilla on India’s back. However, the events along the LAC in 2020 and the Pandemic have given India the strategic confidence to handle this gorilla. As the demographic decline in China takes effect and aging becomes visible, the threat from China will also morph. While China will continue to pose a threat, it can not impede India’s growth hereafter. On the other hand, Chinese decline will only propel India’s growth. The recession of the Pakistani and Chinese dampeners act as a release spring in India’s upward trajectory.
India’s rise is a matter of debate for other reasons too. Oftentimes it is compared with China. India is expected to behave like China. A democratic India can never be another autocratic China. In fact it should not be. That is the worst fate to befall any nation or people. India’s rise will be on its terms and must be judged accordingly. Those terms are set by its people, their varied culture, values, ethics, norms and democratic traditions. In recent times, India’s democracy has been called into question by critics within and abroad. My take, as apolitical and as objective as can be, is that India’s democracy is as strong or even better than most. The fact that the prime minister of the nation has to go and address election rallies in remote areas of the country to win or lose votes in local elections, is a reflection of India’s vibrant democracy. It is an established fact in India that the moment any politician takes its people for granted, he/she is changed unceremoniously like a soiled nappy. Notwithstanding all the hype of India developing a majoritarian outlook, this fact doesn’t change. Indian political parties including the current ruling dispensation have to perform or perish hereafter. The healthy trend is that political parties in India are increasingly seeking votes on the basis of competitive economics, growth and social justice. Having said this, India has its demons to fight. These include partisan politics, ethnic and religious fractures, poor education, poverty, et al. It will remain energy deficient, prone to climate change and disasters. There will be wide disparities and contradictions in distribution of resources, wealth and growth. That is the India the world will have to live with rather than contend with or pontificate upon . However the most positive trend is that the change in India is phenomenal, willing and palpable. In some cases it has gone far ahead and in some it has lagged behind the curve. The overall trend line is however positive. India is changing at a pace which suits Indians and not Americans, Chinese, European or Africans.
India is the potential new economic superpower which is rising quietly under the radar as per many estimates in the UK, France, Russia, Japan and elsewhere. There are also reports to suggest that India’s rise will be perilous to the world. There is speculation as to what kind of a power India will be. The answer to that will be found in the people of India not anywhere else. Least of all in the governmental corridors of international power. Every government in India will be forced to adopt a geopolitical stand which is best suited to its people, circumstances and interests. This will be guided by past experience, current dealings and future prospects.
By common logic, the USA and India are natural partners. It was President Obama who said that the India US strategic partnership will be the defining relationship of this century. He is right. The intense people to people contact and the rise of second generation Americans of Indian origin in US politics should actually seal the deal. The fact that many US iconic corporates are headed by Indians who owe their success to the supposedly run down Indian education system underscores the fact. The relationship between the USA and India is very deep with many common bonds. However India cannot also forget that it was USA which supported countless dictators in Pakistan and elsewhere and held their hand when millions were being raped and killed through brutal pogroms. The smell of blood surfaces repeatedly when some ‘intellectuals’ from the USA start preaching to India as to how to treat its own people. Many times, their ignorance of India is galling. The USA needs to set its own home right. The USA also needs to understand that India cannot endorse all its actions nor can it toe the US party line when it is detrimental to the interests of 1.4 billion Indians.
When it comes to India’s relationship with Russia, it needs to be understood that the USSR stood by India when the chips were down. Ties between the Russian people and Indians are deeper than one can imagine in the West. At one point of time, every 3rd-4th girl born in Russia in the seventies was named ‘Indira’ after India’s late PM Indira Gandhi. Such ties will endure for the lifetime of a generation at least. That generation is still alive! The other bottom line is that the India- Russia security and defence linkages will also take a generation to dilute. Any effort to speed it up comes at an unaffordable cost to India’s security- qualitatively and quantitatively. Most importantly, at this point of time even the mighty USA is not up to the task of being a replacement. Despite this, India’s relationship with Russia has subtly changed. Afterall, it was only PM Modi who could tell Putin that this is not an era of war. In fact in so saying, the Indian PM actually laid down unwritten redlines of the India Russia relationship.
India’s relationship with China will always be of animosity till such time the border issue is not resolved. Further, as per my guesstimate, the border issue will not get resolved in this century at least. Hence the competitive and adversarial nature of the Sino Indian relationship will endure. Competitively speaking, it is India alone which can give China a run for money in terms of size and scale. China knows that. Its action and behaviour towards India has this clear undercurrent of undermining India’s strategic confidence. Its belligerence and assertiveness along the Line of Actual Control or in the Indian Ocean Region very clearly indicates this slant. India is geared for this psychologically and otherwise. It also needs to be understood that India realises that when the chips are down it must be prepared to handle the Chinese threat on its own. It is resolutely working towards that. However, it must also be known that China has grown so big that it cannot be held at bay by any one country alone. Hence a strategic relationship with the USA and other like-minded countries is mandatory. The result is QUAD. It is QUAD alone which will be able to contain China and its increasing footprint in the Indo Pacific region and beyond. In the same vein, If Russia gets too close to China, India will start maintaining some distance from it. In all this one must also remember that India is an important member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. It confers upon India an insider status in countering/containing China on a platform which many consider as the jump off in Xi Jinping’s effort at establishing a Sino Centric world order. India is the bulwark for establishment and maintenance of a rules based order.
There is another huge factor. There is this wider understanding that India will never be a hegemonistic power. India’s power stems from the fact that it generates trust amongst other nations. Recent inputs from ASEAN nations and Africa suggest that they trust India to do the right thing for most of them. The nations of the Middle East might have differences amongst them. However, they have always welcomed India unconditionally. The migrant Indian communities in these nations and beyond have built great trust on behalf of India. Indian contingents operating under the UN flag have expanded this trust quotient through successful operations over the past 75 years all over the world. Further, India’s non-alignment heritage gives it an unique leverage of trust in the Global South.
Examine it from any point of view, as India rises, it will be at the intersection of critical geopolitical issues which include global food security, climate change, supply chain stability, maintaining global peace and a rules based international order. A rising India has a huge role to play in this paradigm. India’s geo-strategic location, professional military, huge labour force, a vast consumer market and a stable political climate along with the genuine aspirations of its people make it a great stabilising power as it rises. .
To conclude, a rising India will do what is best in its interests and in the best interests of humanity. As put very aptly by a Turkish author, India is determined to remain a friend to all and to none. Its foreign policy will be one of horses for courses on a case to case basis. It will not toe anyone’s line but that of 1.4 billion citizens of India.
The author is PVSM, AVSM, VSM, and a retired Director General of Artillery. He is currently a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras. He writes extensively on defence and strategic affairs @ www.gunnersshot.com.
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