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 will remain a tale of unrealised potential

In terms of its military capabilities, India is now, formally or informally, an acknowledged nuclear power. Its missile programme is credible and self-reliant, with Agni-III (3000-km range) coming up by the end of this year. It has the world's third-largest armed force that is capable of defending India's territorial integrity and internal subversion, writes S.D. Muni.

ANY country in possession of a huge territory, expanding demographic size and adequate natural and intellectual resources must be in want of a great power role. India cannot be an exception to this near truism. Deputy Prime Minister Advani has recently claimed that India would be a great power in 2020. The US President George Bush, Jr. even in his election speeches had predicted that "This coming century will see democratic India's arrival as a force in the world."

But this is not for the first time that the Indian and the world leaders have made such statements. India's great power status seems to be the logical conclusion of its geo-strategic thrust that includes its location at the 'centre of Asia' and as a sentinel anchor in the Indian Ocean. More than the geo-strategic thrust, it is India’s economic dynamism, political stability, military capabilities and ever-growing pool of skilled and enterprising manpower, that contribute to India's aspirations and projections as a great power of this new millennium.

However, before we come to the current millennium, we must bear in mind that India's aspirations to emerge as a great power in the post-World War II era date back to its struggle for Independence. The leadership of India's freedom movement, on the strength of its historical and civilisational resilience, moral foundations and ideals as well as the perception of the country's physical attributes envisioned an independent India's constructive engagement with the process of designing and shaping the post-war world order. Nehru deeply pondered over the components of this engagement and when he became independent India's first Prime Minister, effectively articulated India's aspirations.

The way he tried to put India's ideals into practice through his foreign policy soon made India's presence felt in world affairs. Through the sheer dent of the collective vision of the Indian leadership and confidence about the richness and diversity of India's moral superiority, Nehru set out to mobilise the Asian and African nations to fight for their freedom from colonial and racial suppression, hegemonic domination and economic inequality and deprivation. He rejected the Cold War policies of military alliances and arms race, ideological rivalry and confrontation, and theories of balance of power and areas of influence. He led his Asian and African colleagues to carve out and nurture an area of peace in the name of non-alignment which not only gave a sense of dignity and self-respect to the newly independent countries but also played a significant role in moderating cold war hatred. India's no less impressive role in defusing tensions and containing conflicts, if not resolving them, in the crises of Suez canal, Indo-China war and Congo, may be recalled to illustrate the point. This contribution, however, was not adequately acknowledged.


In fact, India's role as a peace builder and a fighter for justice and equality in the then emerging world order was not really accepted by the powers that be, nor was India allowed to unfold its capabilities as a major player in world affairs. The Cold War and its wagers did not have the will or the courage to appreciate the nuances of the evolving world order. They only recognised either allies or enemies. The USA rejected India's non-alignment, and, deriding its Afro-Asian mobilisation as alleged "Third Worldism", labelled it as a cover for a pro-Soviet stance. Whatever perception that the Indian leaders had about their contribution and clout in world affairs, was rudely shaken by the humiliating military defeat at the hands of China in 1962. Nehru virtually cried in desperation, "we were living in a world of our own creation".

The problem of India in those years was that while it knew and exerted the values and strength of its soft power, of moral authority, ideology, civilisational thrust, geo-strategic attributes, and negotiating and diplomatic skills, it did not respect the necessity and indispensability of hard power comprised of military capabilities, economic prosperity and brute force. Nehru's mentor, Mahatma Gandhi had strong reservations on acquisition of military strength.

Contrary to Mahatma Gandhi's caution, Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi grasped the significance of the gap between the soft and the hard power. She had to, being a close observer and sufferer of India's predicament during the two wars, of 1962 and 1965. Her skilful management of even the limited components of hard power and eroded residual of soft power carried the day for India in December, 1971 when Bangladesh was born as a sovereign, independent nation in the teeth of opposition from the major powers like the USA and China, backed by the world opinion. Her thrust on green revolution to eliminate India's food vulnerability and her peaceful explosion at Pokharan in 1974, were clear indications that hard power sells in world affairs more than any thing else.

India has since then been on the course to acquire real capabilities so that its great power aspirations are realised. And it has not done too bad.

It has successfully carried out three revolutions on the food front; the green (food grains), the white (milk) and the blue (fisheries). The economy has shown its dynamism in maintaining a five to seven percent annual growth almost consistently since 1987. The target now fixed by the Prime Minister is at 8 per cent, but the international corporate and financial institutions do not even rule out the possibility of 10 per cent within certain conditions.

India is the world’s fifth-largest country of per capita purchasing power, with a burgeoning middle class. And its foreign exchange reserves, having crossed $70 billion in January, 2003, stand at the world's seventh largest. India has emerged as an IT giant and a front ranking science and technology manpower pool nation, including in remote sensing and satellite fields.

In terms of its military capabilities, India is now, formally or informally, an acknowledged nuclear power. Its missile programme is credible and self-reliant, with Agni-III (3000-km range) coming up by the end of this year. It has the world's third-largest armed force that are capable of defending India's territorial integrity and internal subversion. There are obvious question marks on India's self-reliant defence production, and the leaders of the day admit their failure in handling the challenge of terrorism and internal security, but the viability of the Indian state is in no doubt anywhere. The Kargil conflict demonstrated it decisively.

Certainly, India will not be able to catch up with even China as far as economic strength is concerned in coming two or three decades; nor will its military capabilities be able to match those of Russia and the USA, but India does not have to become a sole superpower to play a great power role.

The problem that India faces in realising its legitimate aspiration in the emerging post-Cold War, nay post 9/11 world is that it has lost much of its clout in the areas of soft power. Its leadership clout and moral standing has been eroded in the Asian and developing world; it is seen more as a follower than a fighter, an adapter than an initiator or innovator; its internal cohesion has come into serious questioning with the rise and assertion of sectarian forces; its inability to manage its neighbourhood is impinging heavily on its capacity to build cooperative linkages with the extended neighbourhood.

Every one within and outside the country realises that India cannot pursue its global goals effectively so long as it is preoccupied with the domestic political and immediate neighbourhood agenda. This introvert obsession is not allowing India's creative energies to unfold in full strength. The persisting presence of a sizable section of its population below the poverty line is a shame on its development strategies.

The road to India's status as a great power therefore, lies through a judicious and balanced building of both its soft and hard power attributes. Indian leadership in the coming decade or so will have to demonstrate that while adjusting with the unipolar world order, they have not compromised on India's independence and self-respect; that they are capable of resolving the dilemma of dealing with Pakistan and the immediate neighbourhood; that the forces tearing India's democratic credentials and plural, multicultural, secular identity have been contained; and that the pace of capacity building in economic and military sectors will not be slackened.

Failing on any of these four counts will delude the aspirations of a great power. In that case, 2020 or 2030, India would still linger on and muddle through as a 'potential' and 'emerging' great power, rather than being accepted as a nation that has arrived and cannot be ignored in any vital decisions affecting the world order.

The writer is a Professor, School Of International Studies, JNU