Book: Why India is not a Great Power (Yet)
Author: Bharat Karnad
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Among Indians writing on strategic affairs, Bharat Karnad occupies a distinct position, one that he has carved out for himself, by being an offensive realist. In his scheme of things, the international system is an anarchic entity where each state relentlessly pursues its national interests and big powers are locked in a struggle to be number one.
Karnad wants India to be number one, but as the title of the book suggests, we are some way from getting there. The purpose of this book is to explore the reasons for India’s weaknesses and suggest ways it can become a truly great power. In the first stage, Karnad wants India to become the great disruptor of the international system, much in the way China has been in the last two decades. Whether his remedies will be worse than the disease, of course, only history will tell, but first I would advise you to read this important and cogently argued book.
India has never known Napoleons and Alexanders, though it has been the object of their desire. The reason is that the famous diversity of the Indian people has ensured that anyone who established his empire in this country had to constantly fight to preserve his gains, rather than export military power. The British, of course, were an exception, but don’t forget when they left, the country was divided into two. Consistent with his analysis, Karnad argues that India must follow a policy of trying to co-opt Pakistan into its subcontinental strategy and focus on the real adversary — China.
The book provides a pitiless analysis of how things have gone wrong with independent India. Karnad’s analysis of Nehru’s long era is more subtle than the crude critiques we are used to these days. But he is quite unforgiving of Indira Gandhi who hobbled the country through her economic policies and undermined Nehru’s clever non-alignment. His principal villains are bureaucrats and policymakers, several of whom he cites and has interviewed.
At the heart of the problem, and he states it repeatedly, is the lack of an Indian “great power” vision and the strategy to achieve it. I would argue that along with this, there is an acute lack of political leadership which can outline this vision, as contrasted with the fantastic ways it is being articulated by Narendra Modi and his acolytes. Hindutva politicians who have come to power with Modi are functionally literate, but uneducated and probably uneducatable.
Sure, they have views on the greatness of Bharatvarsha and its stupendous achievements, but their problem is that they cannot separate myth from reality. They have a steady eye on the half-mythical past which reduces their vision of the future to crude assertion rather than analytical fact.
Looking back is not the answer, looking ahead is. Many of Karnad’s nostrums such as a more focused strategic policy, a more expansive and intensive Indian Ocean posture, uniting the subcontinent under Indian economic leadership, are well taken, though trying to undo the failed thermonuclear test could be a costly distraction. Karnad has his point of view and he has articulated it with great vigour. He has for long swum against the tide in the Indian context and deserves credit for the intellectual rigour of his writings.
A checklist he provides seems to suggest that India’s path to being a great power will be overly militaristic — the assertion of an Indian Monroe doctrine, the resumption of thermonuclear testing, establishing military bases abroad, arming Vietnam, building a military-industrial complex, enhancing cooperation with the US and its allies and so on. He believes that India has the resources to be an outward thrusting power, but this is questionable. Whether it is Central or South-east Asia or Africa, India’s investment and trade volume is a fraction of that of China.
Then, there is the challenge in demanding the attention of all the resources we have. The 2011 Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) revealed the shocking extent of poverty in India. In nearly 75 per cent of the rural households, the main earning member earns less than Rs 5,000 a month; over half of the rural households’ main income is from casual manual labour and a third of rural India remains illiterate. Military power must always be a function of national economic power, not the other way around. Not for nothing was military modernisation the last of the “Four Modernisations” in China.
Before India becomes a great power, it must be a nation of Indians. Even now, the politics of the country revolves around religious, ethnic, caste and linguistic identities, which may be natural but are also dangerously divisive. It is not just communal or caste violence: states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka war over water, and Telangana and Andhra over history. Without an emphatic national identity, asserting a greater Indian vision and strategy will not be easy.
The basic premise of Karnad’s book is that Modi is the leader who can lead the transformation. But some of Modi’s confused policy lines are no different from those of his predecessors whom Karnad so harshly criticises. Take China, Modi has led India into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, even as he has articulated a common Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean vision with Japan and the US.
Karnad’s bottom line is that India’s policies are correctable and he is probably right. But they cannot be corrected by a set of bureaucrats. For that the country requires not just an inspired prime minister, but a dozen good ministers and chief ministers who will systematically transform their respective ministries and states. The first big weaknesses of the Modi system is its reliance on the bureaucracy, which is good for carrying out the tasks it has been set, but is not capable of leading a transformation. Besides, there is the question of national stamina. We need at least three decades of sustained transformative effort, and given our challenges, things do not look easy. But, at least, we could make a beginning.
The writer is a distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation