If one were to go by the many intimations of imminent global power status it has received over the years, India should by now have been a force for good across the world. But the bitter truth is that India doesn’t even “own” its immediate neighbourhood, much less cast a long shadow in far-off corners of the world. Even the puniest of countries in India’s neighbourhood thumbs a nose at it; others, like Pakistan and China, nurse less benign intentions, ranging from outright hostility to a sneering disdain at Indian pretentions to imminent superpowerdom.
The reasons for this are not far to seek. In a world that respects raw military and economic power, India commands respect on neither count. For all the military firepower it has been acquiring in recent years – making it the world’s seventh-largest military spender and the largest importer of weapons – India’s ability to project power across its borders is hobbled by the absence of a strategic vision. Heck, even within its borders, large tracts of Indian territory – in the Maoist-dominated areas and elsewhere too - are effectively outside the authority of the state.
The debate over the correct manner of responding to the decades-old Maoist insurgency, the azaadi upsurge in Kashmir, and the troubles in various border States continues to be dogged by a lack of conviction that manifests itself in the failure to give security forces a free hand and, inversely, in winning over the local populace from under the influence of extremists.
Add to that the mass poverty that afflicts large sections of the population, the widespread undernourishment that robs millions of children of a reasonable shot at shaping their destiny, and age-old caste and feudal conflicts that hold people back from realising their potential, and the picture you get is of an ancient civilization that is hobbling along, preoccupied with internal dissentions, which seems destined never to take its place on the world stage.
But still the breathless wait among the overseas commentariat for India’s ‘coming-out party’ continues. “That India can become a great power is not in doubt,” observes the Economist in its latest cover story. “The real question is whether it wants to.”
India, the report claims, would have “much to offer” to the world – in terms of ‘soft power’ appeal, a commitment to democratic institutions and the rule of law and human rights. Additionally, as a victim of jihadist violence, India is in the front rank of the fight against terrorism. “It has a huge and talented diaspora. It may not want to be co-opted by the West but it shares many Western values. It is confident and culturally rich. If it had a permanent Security Council seat… it would not instinctively excuse and defend brutal regimes.” With its vast coastline and respected navy (which is seen as measuring up to NATO standard), India, the magazine notes, is well-placed to provide security in a critical part of the global commons.
Yet, India’s biggest failings, in the estimation of the commentary, relate to the absence of what it calls a “strategic culture”. India and its leaders show little interest in military or strategic issues, and the country’s political class shows little sign of knowing or caring how the country’s military clout should be deployed, it observes.
Yet, when viewed from the perspective of India’s developmental shortcomings, the absence of a strategic culture centred around India’s military clout seems among the least of its limitations.
What India needs – even from the limited perspective of securing itself internally – is to lift hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty. It may well be true that an army cannot march on an empty stomach, but, equally, even a nation armed to the teeth is not wholly secure so long as nearly half its population lives in abject poverty.
If India is to command respect on the world stage, it will come about not on the strength of its military might, but primarily on the strength of its economic clout. Two decades of 8-plus percent growth, whose benefits accrue not just to the creamy layer of Indian business but is widely shared among the pepole, can do more to strengthen India’s muscle rather more than the endless import of high-tech military equipment, which are no more than gravy trains for the defence dalals and their political masters.
In other words, the key to India acquiring its promised place on the world stage is not guns, but butter. Only when stomachs are full can the mind turn to thoughts of shaping a “strategic culture”.