The Tribune - Spectrum

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

Sunday, January 26, 2003
Tribune special

Not a superpower but an emerging power

What makes a nation a superpower? China, it is claimed, is on its way to becoming one. Stephen Cohen describes India as an ‘emerging power’; not as a superpower, not even as a great power, and, at best, an Asian power. It is Cohen’s contention that India’s power is, as yet, in a nascent stage, says M.V. Kamath.

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

CAN India become a superpower? The thought is beguiling. Time was when the USA, the erstwhile Soviet Union, Britain and France were considered the Great Powers and following the end of World War II they held key positions as permanent members of the UN. Security Council. As the years rolled by, Germany in Europe and Japan in the far East started flexing their economic muscles, Britain and France unobtrusively began to slip behind and the USA and the Soviet Union stood apart as the two superpowers. Now the erstwhile Soviet Union has splintered, leaving behind a Russia struggling to survive. The USA stands as the sole superpower in the world, a position unique in history.

What makes a nation a superpower? China, it is claimed, is on its way to becoming one. Stephen Cohen describes India as an ‘emerging power’; not as a superpower, not even as a great power, and, at best, an Asian power. It is Cohen’s contention that Indiapower is, as yet, in a nascent stage.

In the last one decade, India has begun to grow fast. Census 2000 noted that in the decade 1990-2000, literacy figures rose from 52 per cent to 65 per cent. The biggest gains were reported from among the backward social groups and in the most backward states. India today has around 35 million cable television homes — more than all of Latin America put together. The number of telephones in the same period increased from 5 million in 1990 to more than 30 million by 2000. The Department of Telecommunications modernised its equipment and laid 76,000 km of fibre optic cable, which stands out as a substantial achievement.

Gone is the paranoia over foreign exchange. India’s foreign exchange reserves have risen from a barely $ 1 billion to over $ 65 billion. More than a quarter billion people have lifted themselves out of poverty between 1980 and 2000. The average Indian lives twice as long in 2000 ( 63 years) as compared to his life-span in 1947 (31 years). In the sphere of technology, India has taken giant strides and is fast becoming the world’s number one in software production. Bangalore is developing into the software capital of the world. Infosys, started by six computer engineers at the beginning of the 1990s, with a capital of Rs 10,000 was worth Rs 16,000 crore in February, 2000. It developed software for the best global companies and its sales have grown at a steady pace of 40 per cent a year for a full decade. With the gradual appreciation of its stock, more than a hundred of its managers have become millionaires in dollar terms and more than 400 managers have become crorepatis. As many as 10,000 professionals now work for Infosys — an indication of the distance India has travelled in the space of just one decade.


If India is to be strictly judged by economic indicators, it has done remarkably well. But what, one may ask, are the factors that contribute towards the acquisition of power status in today’s world? One may name several factors:

* Internal unity, for instance. No matter how hard India’s enemies — notably Pakistan — have tried to foster dissension and rebellion in the country, India has emerged stronger than ever. On this count India has nothing to fear.

* Economic strength: Even conceding that some 30 per cent of the people are below the poverty line, the fact is that the economy is moving from strength to strength. And who says that? According to the UK Secretary of State for trade and industry, Patricia Hewitt, India will soon become the fourth largest economy in the world, overtaking even the UK. Addressing the plenary session of the CII partnership summit in Hyderabad on January 6, Hewitt said that India is the fifth largest growing economy in the world and is fast moving up the ladder. Addressing the same meeting, Credit Suisse’s First Boston Director and Chief Economist for South-Asia, P.K. Basu said that India is likely to emerge as a net creditor in another 15 months. He said: "I call India a stealth miracle. It is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world."

"Over the last one year, India has acquired some current account surplus and the country is likely to emerge as a net creditor in another 15 months". The point to note is that a debtor country can hardly aspire to be a great power, let alone a superpower. India is fast moving towards being a creditor nation which can see the world in its eye.

Military power, of course, is a necessary concomitant to aspire to be a great power. It is well-known that India has the third largest armed force in the world with a totally non-political and disciplined leadership — the envy of many countries. While it is true that at present it has to buy a substantial portion of its weaponry — from ships, tanks, destroyers to fighter planes — from abroad it has the capabilities to manufacture them on its own and can be fully self-sufficient in the next quarter century. It has already perfected missiles and has a modest accumulation of nuclear weapons.

If, then, all the indicators show that India has the capabilities to be a great power, what are the factors that act as a check to India’s forward movement? Given that India sees itself as a civilisationally blessed, responsible and peaceful state — yet another perquisite to aspire for a great power status — what should India do? To start with, it has to undertake a massive effort to spread primary education among the masses. No great power can afford to have even a 5 per cent population of illiterates. Next, it has to create substantial opportunities of employment for an ever-expanding army of educated people. This means opening its doors to foreign investment. Most importantly, it must grow in self-confidence, whether in tackling its bothersome neighbour in the West or in negotiating with the only superpower, the USA, with which it has on again-off again relationship.

Writes Stephen Cohen: "Strategically, the USA should regard India not as another Asian state comparable to Pakistan or Indonesia, but as a player in the larger Asian sphere, one of the five most important states in the world, whether from a strategic, political or ideological perspective... India should be acknowledged as South-Asia’s regional dominant power and as a major Asian power....If Indian diplomacy of the past five years is any indication, the gap between Indian ambitions and capabilities and between India rhetoric and Indian intentions are slowly closing". That said, all is said.

The writer is a well-known columnist and Chairman of Prasar Bharati