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Great Power: a ‘bridge too far’ for India?

Think of it. India was there when the Pharaohs ruled Egypt. It interacted with the Ancient Mesopotamian empires on the Tigris and the Euphrates.  India was the mystery Alexander of Macedon set out to conquer. Indian spices and precious stones, finely woven cottons and silk, and peacocks, were the luxuries and the exotica craved by Imperial Rome in the age of the Caesers. Much of Southeast and offshore Asia had Hindu kingdoms, and absorbed Indic values and culture, even as Tibet, Central Asia, China, and Japan came under the thrall of Buddhism emanating from the subcontinent. The Ramayana lore so forms the cultural core of countries in this “Farther India” that the 800-year old Thai monarchy still has its historic capital of Ayuthhaya, an ancient form of Hinduism is still practised in Bali, Indonesia, and the adventures of the great Monkey King with mythical powers journeying to the “Western Kingdom” – India – remains the stuff of traditional stories dear to the people of China. So, India is and has always been a civilizational presence and cultural magnet. Alas, that is a far cry from being a great power in the modern age.

Except India, its civilizational imprint aside, has all the attributes of a great power. It has prime strategic location enabling domination of the Indian Ocean, supplanting the Atlantic Ocean as the most strategically important waterway. India’s peninsular landmass jutting out into the sea is, as many have noted, like the prow of an immense aircraft carrier, permitting Indian naval assets and land-based air forces to maintain a grip on the oceanic expanse and choke off adversary forces foraying into “the Indian lake” at the Malacca, Lumbok and Sunda Straits in the east and, in the west, the eastern ends of Hormuz and Suez, and prevent a land power such as China from accessing these proximal seas.

India has a burgeoning economy and the largest, most youthful workforce in the 18-35 age-group, promising the manpower to make India both a manufacturing powerhouse — the “workshop” to the world — and the richest, most extensive, consumer market. Further, the country has been a “brain bank” the world has long drawn on – an endless source of talented scientists, engineers and financial managers from institutions, such as IITs, IIMs, and IISC that are now global brands, helping India to emerge as a knowledge power (in information technology, pharmaceuticals, engineering research and development, and “frugal engineering”). India, moreover, is a stable if raucous democracy, and boasts of one of the largest, most apolitical, professional and “live fire”-blooded militaries anywhere. So, why isn’t India a great power yet?

India is bereft of national vision and self-confidence. It has the will to security but not the will to power. This is manifested in the absence of strategy, policies and plans to make India a great power. An over-bureaucratized and fragmented system of government unable to muster policy coherence and coordination hasn’t helped. The resulting incapacity to think and act big has led New Delhi to take the easy way out and emphasize soft power, when historically nations have become great by acquiring self-sufficiency in armaments and using military forces for strategic impact.

But the Indian Army, that during colonial times won an empire for the British and sustained a system of “distant defence,” with its ramparts extending seawards in the arc Simonstown-Hong Kong, and landwards from the Gulf, the Caspian Sea to the Central Asian khanates, has been reduced to border defence becoming in the process as stick-in-the-mud and passive-defensive minded as a strategically clueless government.

The irony is that an impoverished, resource-scarce, India of the 1950s, strode the international stage like a giant – leading the charge against colonialism, racism, and championing “general and complete disarmament”, assuming leadership of the Third World-qua-Nonaligned Movement, and emerging as the balancer between the super power blocs during Cold War. It was also the time Jawaharlal Nehru articulated an “Asian Monroe Doctrine” backed by Indian arms and, by way of classical realpolitik, seeded a nuclear weapons programme and a cutting edge aerospace industry that eventuated in the Marut HF-24, the first supersonic combat aircraft designed and produced outside of Europe and the United States.

Just how far India has fallen off the great power map may be gauged by the fact that some 50 years after the Marut took to the skies the country is a conventional military dependency, relying on imported armaments and with its foreign policy hostage to the interests of the vendor states. And, far from imposing its will in Asia, New Delhi has become a pliant and pliable state, accommodating US interests (on nuclear non-proliferation, Iran, Afghanistan) one moment, adjusting to the demands of a belligerent China the next.

Far from earning great power status the old fashioned way by being disruptively proactive and, in Bismarck’s words, by “blood and steel”, the Indian government sees it as an entitlement, as recognition bestowed on the country by friendly big powers. Never mind that such position gained at the sufferance of other countries is reed-thin, as the recent move by a supposedly friendly US to join another friendly state Russia and China in opposing India’s entry into the UN security Council showed. The fact is India, albeit elephant-sized, remains a marginal power with a small footprint and, in real terms, commands little respect in the world. For such a recessive country, great power will always be “a bridge too far.”

Featured image: “Traditional and Modern – Kochi – India – June 2008” by Adam Jones CC BY-SA via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. […] Far from earning great power status the old fashioned way by being disruptively proactive and, in Bismarck’s words, by “blood and steel”, the Indian government sees it as an entitlement, as recognition bestowed on the country by friendly big powers. Never mind that such position gained at the sufferance of other countries is reed-thin, as the recent move by a supposedly friendly US to join another friendly state Russia and China in opposing India’s entry into the UN security Council showed. The fact is India, albeit elephant-sized, remains a marginal power with a small footprint and, in real terms, commands little respect in the world. For such a recessive country, great power will always be “a bridge too far.” —- Published on the OUPblog September 30th 2015 at https://blog.oup.com/2015/09/great-power-a-bridge-too-far-for-india/ […]

  2. Richard F. Kauffman

    As I research and write about globalization. I appreciate very much your succinct analysis of the place of India in the history of world civilization. I lament, however, that its perspective of tolerance and what you describe as “defensive mindedness “and as a “strategically clueless government “has been denied to the world a permanent voice on the Security Council of the UN by more militaristic minded victors of war, and that indeed you conclude that because it brings a different voice it “commands little respect in the world” and “For such a recessive country, great power will always be a bridge too far”.
    It is my position that the very opposite is true and that as Quaker’s have long reminded us and is in “real time” more essential today than ever that “War is not the Answer”. While the vision of planet earth the world received from the moon does not preclude “defensive mindedness” war must always be a last resort. Indeed I believe in the human family, as dysfunctional as it can be at times, alternate dispute resolution must strategically be our “first line of defense”. In a global economy, the nations that invest their resources in helping people will rise to power and those that continue to excessively use scarce resources for “blood and steel” will decline. Political leadership to do this effectively will make the difference.

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