India at 70: Rising economy and higher defence spending are key to stronger geopolitical stature

As India steps into its 71st year as a sovereign republic, it remains an enigma to the world. How do you define a nation that sends a mission to Mars and yet has a child mortality rate next only to Afghanistan and Pakistan? How do you assess whether the 70-year-old India project — unique in its complexity and diversity in integrating several ethno-linguistic multitudes into a continent-sized nation — has been a success or a failure? There are simply no reference points.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

India stands up to Chinese bullying and stares down the new superpower in an eyeball-to-eyeball dare; conducts complex naval exercises with the US; joins hands with Japan to float an alternative 'Silk Road' to counter China's vaunted OBOR and yet reports 1,00,000 under-five deaths due to diarrhea in 2015 alone in statistics that are comparable to sub-Saharan Africa.

India engages with other nations as a leading economic power in its own right. It has pulled millions out of poverty since Independence and has become world's fastest growing large economy, third-largest in the world after the US and China. From representing 15 percent of the US economy in 1947 — as noted by London-based Financial Times — India is now half its size. It has more than doubled life expectancy during this period, significantly improved literacy rates, reduced gender gap and is poised to cross 1 billion mobile phone users by 2020.

Concurrently, it shapes global opinion through its culture, soft power and an influential diaspora; is beginning to exert geopolitical and economic influence over its sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean Region and fancies itself as the security guarantor of Indo-Pacific. It aspires a seat in UN Security Council, boasts of nuclear weapons and is keen on joining the rarefied Nuclear Suppliers' Group.

Yet it is unable to provide the most public services, falters at carrying out its responsibilities to the poor and appears a failure in mitigating social divisions. Unlike the West which crawled towards universal adult suffrage through decades of bitter struggle and bloodshed, India has been a democracy since its inception as a republic with its billion-strong population enjoying equal voting rights.

Yet the state is a miserable failure in many parameters of human development index. It ranks 131st among 188 countries in latest rankings. In crucial areas of living standards, education, sanitation, nutrition, electricity and healthcare, the Indian state has started to act only now after decades of criminal neglect and it still falls short of minimum requirements. Livemint points out that there is a shortage of 500,000 doctors in India while public spending in healthcare has improved only marginally in the last two decades from 1.1 percent of GDP in 1995 to 1.4 percent in 2014.

For being a democratic, secular, republic India straddles a higher moral orbit compared to most of its south Asian peers but the aura is dimmed by the fact that it has not been able to make these advantages work for greater, common good. Politicians have been busy exploiting the religious and social fault lines for short-term, electoral gains. As a result, India has fallen behind in crucial HDI parameters compared to its Asian peers despite being on an even keel around six or seven decades ago.

It could be put down solely to lost opportunity and myopia of our political-bureaucratic class but the truth could be a little more complex. In their article for Indian Express, Swati Ramanathan and Ramesh Ramanathan point out that instant adult suffrage might be a major reason behind India's dismal HDI performance because the country did not get enough time in building its public institutions.

"A regime of incremental suffrage extension would likely have empowered local institutions and built their capacities. A heavily upper- and middle-class electorate would have focused on the local provision of public goods such as healthcare, education, civic facilities, and the like. Empowered, educated, and tax-paying elite and middle-class voters would have demanded routine and systematic accountability as well, as they did in incremental suffrage regimes," they write.

Failure to provide public service led to the middle classes moving away and choosing private services instead, and consequently, the poor who have little political agency except during elections had to bear the brunt of shoddy service. And the lack of accountability meant an easy ride for politicians. Disillusioned with the sarkar, voters quickly elected strongmen and criminals to positions of power because they were in a better position to deliver what netas could not. This eventually led to criminalisation of Indian politics, as Washington-based Carnegie Endowment senior fellow Milan Vaishnav points out in his book When Crime Pays.

There has been a renewed focus on infrastructure spending, building up the sanitary framework and raising awareness. But political activism is not enough unless these initiatives are institutionalised, reforms are done in crucial areas to increase labour and agricultural productivity. The economy, after its recent trysts with demonetisation and GST, remains shaky and growth stays essentially jobless.

Amid these dichotomies, however, the India story remains fundamentally positive. A new government at Centre has shown more energy in renewing regional ties and bolstering India's partnership with world powers, especially the US. India and the US have grown closer if only to balance the unsettling rise of China and have just announced a new dialogue mechanism to ensure "peace and stability" in Indo-Pacific region. The significance of the move when India is locked with China in a tense standoff at Doka La tri-junction area hasn't been lost on anyone. Air corridor has come up with Afghanistan, negotiations with Iran on Chabahar port development, after some hiccups, are picking up.

Yet older problems remain. The Ministry of Defence retains its Cold War-era mindset and cannot bring itself up to make quick decisions, hampering India's military operability despite the severe need for upgradation. Defence spending remains low. A recent CAG report has pointed out that India's ammunition stock is critically low. The India story, however, is plodding on despite these apparent contradictions.


Published Date: Aug 17, 2017 06:18 am | Updated Date: Aug 17, 2017 06:20 am