The Tribune - Spectrum

Special Issue
Views of eminent experts and thinkers on the occasion of Republic Day of India.

Hari Jaisingh

A.P.J. Abdul Kalam

M.V. Kamath

D.C. Pathak

S.D. Muni

Barjinder Sodhi

A.P.S. Chawla

V. N. Sharma

Ujjal Dosanjh

Gurcharan Das

J.N. Dixit

Yash Pal

I. K. Gujral

Arun Jaitley

Jaipal Reddy

Prakash Karat


Symbols of greatness

Sunday, January 26, 2003
Tribune special

It is possible if there is political will

Territory, demography, economic potentialities and potential military capacities underpin India's prospects of becoming a great power. There are, however, certain pre-requisites, a series of exercises that will help in getting India’s act together. A deliberate and conscious effort should be made by civil society and the political classes in India to overcome the centrifugal impulses and trends, says J. N. Dixit.

ONE is glad that there is an inclination now in the community of political and strategic analysts to introspect about whether India can become a superpower. This is a pleasant change from the somewhat smug subconscious attitude in the collective Indian psyche that regardless of the realities of what India is, India is a superpower and a major influence on international politics. This sentiment, though not specifically articulated in this form, underpinned many of our attitudes and postures in foreign relations, practically for the first two decades after Independence.

The military defeat in the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 and pressures which led to India giving concessions to Pakistan despite its military victories of 1965 and 1971, made us realise that we are, after all, subject to the pressures of realpolitik and to our own limitations in terms of economic, technological and military power, which clearly precludes our having any illusion about being a superpower.

The question whether India can become a superpower requires an answer to three criteria: First, what are the qualities and attributes which a state should have to become a superpower? Secondly, what are the assets and liabilities which characterise India within the framework of the criteria of the first category just mentioned?

Thirdly, what are the potentialities and more importantly, what are the possibilities of India becoming a superpower?

The characteristics of superpowers, as can be discerned from contemporary historical experience are: first, the state or the nation concerned should have sizeable territorial presence in terms of the size of the population. Secondly, such a state should have high levels of domestic cohesion, clear sense of national identity and stable administration based on strong legal and institutional arrangements. Thirdly, the state concerned should be economically well to do and should be endowed with food security and natural resources, particularly energy resources and infrastructural resources in terms of minerals and metals. Such a state should have a strong industrial base backed by productive capacities and technological knowledge. Then the state concerned should have military capacities, particularly nuclear and missile weapons capabilities at least comparable to, if not of higher levels than other countries which may have similar capacities.


The combination of all these ingredients and attributes of a particular state should be at far higher levels than those of the majority of states in the international community. Such endowments exceed the characteristics and capacities of other states aspiring to world power status. It is only then that a state can acquire the status of a superpower and be acknowledged as such.

It is in this context that it has to be examined as to how far India meets the criteria described above. One would preface this section of the assessment by pointing out that India's quest for, or assertion of, an influential status in world affairs in many ways had nothing to do with the substantive criteria described above. India's assertions regarding its influence were based on a perception that India was uniquely positioned to influence the world order because India's foreign policy was based on idealism and rooted in high moral principles. India's civilisational background and size were supposed to ensure for India an influential voice in international affairs. But this certainly was not a realistic claim.

Coming to the specific criteria, India has a large-sized territory, equivalent to the whole of Europe, excluding Russia. It has a good geo-strategic location at the southern end of the Asia's land mass. It has a population of over a billion people. It has trained human resources with technological capacities of a high order. India has the fourth largest army in the world and is now a nuclear and missile weapons power. It is among the seven or eight countries which have confirmed capacities in nuclear technology, space technology and other sophisticated spheres like laser, robotics and information technologies.

It is among the first 15 economic powers of the world. These attributes should lead to the conclusion that India is well on the way to becoming a superpower. Such a conclusion, however, has to be conferred with practicality, objectivity and caution. While India is a democracy with relevant institutional arrangements and experience stretching over half a century, the fact of the matter is that Indian democracy is still in its tenuous and experimental stage. The standards of governance in the Indian polity leave much to be desired. There is no internal cohesion and unity in Indian civil society. This is not denying a general sense of national identity which Indians have. In reality, however, India is subjected to

centrifugal forces originating in castes, religions, ethnic, linguistic sub-regional contradictions. Nearly, one-third of India's population lives below the poverty line, generating socio-political tensions in Indian society.

While we take satisfaction about the levels of our economic development and attendant technological capacities, the downside is that Indian economy is weak in infrastructure, and its productive capacities. India is dependent for energy, for defence supplies and for certain categories of high technology on foreign countries. India's internal social and economic problems are a limitation on India's capacity to project its power abroad in a meaningful manner. Above all, India does not seem to have the cohesion, the discipline and decisive political will to consolidate its strength and then to project this strength externally. Does all this mean that India cannot become a superpower? The answer in terms of potentialities is that India has prospects of becoming one of the most important powers of the world. Territory, demography, economic potentialities and potential military capacities underpin India's prospects of becoming a great power. There are, however certain pre-requisites, a series of exercises that will help in getting India’s act together.

First and foremost, a deliberate and conscious effort should be made by civil society and the political classes in India to overcome the centrifugal impulses and trends which afflict our people.

An intellectual and emotional sense of a composite Indian national identity has to be consolidated. Secondly, policies have to be formulated and implemented to consolidate India's economic well-being in all its dimensions, of health, education, roads and communications, productivity, food and energy security, and so on. India should be able to reach and sustain an annual rate of growth in the GNP of 8 to 9 per cent in the coming two decades.

India should focus on fashioning a stable pattern of relations, particularly with its neighbours so that an atmosphere of peace and security which it could generate, will enable India to focus on its political consolidation and economic development. India should sustain and update its military capacities in all dimensions, especially in the fields of missile and nuclear weapons capacities.

India should establish equations with the major power centres of the world, especially the USA, western Europe, Russia and China in order to ensure that these countries do not view India with apprehension. It is necessary that these important powers do not generate forces countering India's capacities and policies to emerge as a major influence in world politics.

It is important that India develops its strength and capacities to match the capacities of, at least, China, France and the United Kingdom, to become a member of the superpower club. Trying to match the capacities of the Russian Federation and the USA, is not a practical possibility in the foreseeable future. Hence, the exercise to come on a par with the lesser superpowers of the world mentioned above.

All this is not going to be easy. The domestic dimensions of superpower potentialities have to be met through democratic means which is clearly a difficult path, given the cross-currents of competing interests and dissent which are endemic in a pluralistic nation state like India.

Similarly, the external dimensions of moving towards superpower status would be subject to pressures which would be generated by countries in India's extended neighbourhood and even by the existing great powers. The solution here is to assiduously cultivate a harmonious relationship with India's neighbours and to strengthen the relationship with countries like the USA and Russia to reassure them that India will function in cooperation with them to establish a stable international order. Most importantly, clarity in objectives and persistent political will to work towards those objectives have to characterise our national attitudes and policies.

The possibility of India becoming a superpower is there, but there remains an uncertainty regarding the extent to which we can acquire the political will to realise this potentiality.

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary