In capitals across the world, the questions that swirled around India in the 1960s are being asked again

by Praveen Swami

“The emergence of India in world affairs,” Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told the Constituent Assembly in March, 1949, “is something of major consequence in world history. We, who happen to be in the Government of India or in this House, are men of relatively small stature. But it has been given to us to work at a time when India is growing into a great giant again. So because of that, in spite of our smallness, we have to work for great causes, and perhaps elevate ourselves in the process”.

Less than two years later, New Delhi was forced to accept emergency food aid from the United States—sparking off an ugly confrontation between American critics of Prime Minister Nehru’s non-alignment and bristly Indian diplomats that would run for years. In 1962, military humiliation was delivered by China. That idea of India as a rising giant seemed faintly ridiculous.

In capitals across the world, and in the pages of the world press, the questions that swirled around India in the 1960s are being asked again: its institutional weaknesses, administrative incompetence and anaemic State capacities ruthlessly exposed by the pandemic that is savaging the country, was the story of India as a rising power just an illusion?

The answer to the criticism is not nationalist ire, nor bluster. New Delhi needs to acknowledge that the questions now being asked of it come from friends, not just enemies. Economy of ambition, and economy with words, will serve to make India’s presence that much more credible.

Four issues are key. First, the Indian state is chronically anaemic; the resources needed for the execution of public-policy aims simply do not exist. Estimates published by the Seventh Pay Commission in 2016 show there are some 16 public servants for every 1,000 population. China, by contrast, has 57 per 1,000; Brazil 111 per 1,000. This means there are simply not enough teachers to educate the population; enough doctors and nurses to provide healthcare; enough police officers and judges to administer justice. India’s universities are largely poor; its research ecosystem ragged.

Nuclear weapons and militaries do not make nations great powers, witness the case of North Korea. No nation-state will be seen as a credible provider to the international system unless it can deliver at home. Issues like the provision of public services, tax reform, and industrial growth will determine India’s global reach and power, not diplomacy, however adroit.

The second issue is what India seeks to achieve. India is not, and will not presently become, a rich country; it is a poor country, striving to be a less-poor country. The country’s most important concern is ensuring its near-neighbourhood is as stable as possible.

In practice, this means New Delhi must deepen relationships with reliable allies and partners, like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Nepal. In many cases, the relationships have been frayed, not just by China’s growing influence, but New Delhi’s own missteps. India’s friends in South-East Asia, and in the West, have been consistently disappointed by India’s failure to deliver. The lesson is, perhaps, to promise less but deliver on what is committed.

As seductive as the idea of expansive alliance-building and military partnerships might be, moreover, New Delhi must clearly understand its principal objective is high economic growth. Economic growth and wars are not reconcilable ends; India must, even if it involves some bruised ego, do what it can to avoid being mired in conflicts from which there is nothing to be gained.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown a robust grasp of this reality, but hawkish public posturing by his party leadership has led his Government into more than one trap of its own making. “Hide your strengths, bide your time”, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping famously counselled his nation; it is an admonition India would do well to learn.

Nuclear weapons and militaries do not make nations great powers, witness the case of North Korea.

Third, the government must develop the ability to listen to opinions it does not like: No new ideas, after all, emerge from talking only to those one agrees with, while there is much to potentially be learned from critics. It is now well known the second wave of the pandemic was preceded by multiple warnings from actors within government, which went ignored. Similar missteps and errors of judgment preceded major foreign policy decisions on China and Pakistan.

Fourth, New Delhi would do well to eschew grandiose polemic. From Prime Minister Nehru on, Indian Prime Ministers have been guilty of overreach. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s “Bharat Mahaan'' ambitions were ruthlessly in Sri Lanka; Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s “India Shining” was undone, in no small part, by the subversion of his Pakistan policy in Kargil;

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s projection of India as a rising global power floundered in the face of 26/11 and Maoist attacks. Like Icarus, and his predecessors, PM Modi flew too close to the sun when he declared India a Vishwaguru, a model for the world to follow.

“The future is in the hands of the Gods”, the great independence activist and last Governor-General of India Chakravarti Rajagopalachari glumly noted in 1957, “but as far as I can judge, the centrifugal forces will ultimately prevail”. “The nation may be compelled to go through a period of political anarchy and face the risk of fascism, which is Nature’s way out of disorder and misrule”.

He was wrong: India has held together, as a democratic republic. It has made significant achievements in areas from industrialisation to technology.

The most testing challenges to India, though, might well lie in coming months and years, as India confronts the devastating economic and social impacts of the pandemic. The issues Rajagopalachari pointed to are real, and should concern every thinking policymaker. Indian foreign policy should be relentlessly focussed on enhancing trade and ensuring regional stability focussing on trade—not prestige and pride.