OVER THE last two decades, numerous books, articles and press commentaries have hailed India as the next global power. This flush of enthusiasm results partly from the marked acceleration in India’s economic growth rate following reforms initiated in 1991. India’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew at 6 percent per year for most of the 1990s, 5.5 percent from 1998 to 2002, and soared to nearly 9 percent from 2003 to 2007, before settling at an average of 6.5 percent until 2012. The upswing offered a contrast to what the Indian economist Raj Krishna dubbed “the Hindu rate of growth”: an average of 2.5 percent for the first twenty-five years following India’s independence in 1947. The brisker pace pulled millions from poverty, put Indian companies (such as Indian Oil, Tata Motors, Tata Steel, Infosys, Mahindra, Reliance Industries and Wipro) even more prominently on the global map, and spawned giddy headlines about India’s prowess in IT, even though that sector accounts for a tiny proportion of the country’s output and workforce. India also beckoned as a market for exports and a site for foreign investment.
The attention to India has endured even though its economic boom has been stymied, partly by the 2008 global financial crisis, with growth remaining below 5 percent for eight consecutive quarters from early 2012 to early 2014. In the quarter lasting from April to June 2014, growth ticked back up to 5.7 percent, but it is too soon to tell whether or not this represents the beginning of a more sustained expansion. The persistent interest also stems from analyses that portray India’s and China’s resurgence as part of a shift that is ineluctably returning the center of global economic power to Asia, its home for centuries before the West’s economic and military ascent some five hundred years ago. Yet even those who dismiss the proponents of this perspective as “declinists” are drawn to the “India rising” thesis, in part because of the transformation in U.S.-Indian relations during the last two decades and the allure of democratic India as a counterweight to authoritarian China. For much of the Cold War, the relationship between Washington and New Delhi ranged from “correct” to “chilly.” Nowadays, in contrast, predictions that China’s ascendency will produce an Indo-American entente, if not an alliance, are commonplace.
But is India really ready for prime time? India has many of the prerequisites for becoming a center of global power, and, assuming China’s continued and unhindered ascent, it will play a part in transforming a world in which American power is peerless into one marked by multipolarity. India has a vast landmass and coastline and a population of more than one billion, faces East Asia, China and the Persian Gulf, and has a wealth of scientific and technological talent along with a prosperous and well-placed diaspora. But the elemental problems produced by poverty, an inadequate educational system and pervasive corruption remain, and India’s mix of cultural diversity and democracy hampers rapid reform. For now, therefore, the ubiquitous reports of India’s emergence as a great power are premature at best. There’s no denying India’s ambition and potential, but as for its quest to join the club of great powers, the road is long, the advance slow and the arrival date uncertain. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may seek to be a reformer, and he enjoys a reputation as a charismatic leader and skilled manager. He is also a proponent of improving ties with the United States and Israel. But he will face daunting obstacles in his bid to push India into the front rank of nations.
DESPITE ITS many blemishes, India’s democracy has increased the country’s appeal in Europe and America and prevented quarrels over human rights from complicating the expansion of economic and security transactions with the West. This is in stark contrast to the intermittent skirmishes over human rights that have marred the West’s relationship with China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In defending the 2005 U.S.-Indian nuclear agreement, the George W. Bush administration (and American experts who backed the deal) noted that India is a fellow democracy. Barack Obama—who hosted Modi in September 2014—pledges to back India’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and invariably invokes the country’s democratic record when he does so.
Yet in East and South Asia, two regions in which India has been most active on the diplomatic and strategic front, its democratic model hasn’t yielded it much influence, or even stature. If anything, the economic achievements of China and Singapore—and the other Asian “tigers” during their undemocratic decades—in delivering rapid growth and modernization and improving living standards have made a bigger impression. India, weighed down by the compromises, delays and half measures necessitated by its democratic structure, comes across as a lumbering, slow-motion behemoth that’s never quite able to sustain whatever momentum it manages to gain on occasion or to bridge the gap between proclaiming reforms and implementing them.
The Indian government, for its part, has crafted sundry soft-power slogans and strategies, among them “India Shining” and the even sappier “Incredible India.” The latter was not simply rhetorical excess—though it was that—or even solely a catchphrase to capture additional tourist revenue. It was also part of a larger effort to increase transactions between India and the West and to recast India’s image. Yet there’s scant evidence that India is seeking to use culture as a means to create a transnational bloc in Asia, or anywhere else. With all due respect to the late Samuel P. Huntington, who listed “Hindu civilization” among the cultural-religious blocs whose rivalry he believed would supplant the competition and conflict among states, there’s no sign that India plans to mobilize that form of soft power, or that it could if it tried. Hyping Hindu discourse in a multiconfessional country, one with more than one hundred million Muslims, would amount to jeopardizing internal security to road test a quixotic theory that emanated from Harvard Yard. Besides, Hinduism is too torn by divisions of class, caste, language and region to make such a strategy feasible; the Hindu diasporas in Asia and Africa, for their part, would have little to gain and much to lose by embracing it. Modi and the BJP will doubtless spice up their rallies with Hindu-nationalist verbiage, but they are likely to find that this tactic, far from mobilizing unity, sows disunity in what is a country of multiple faiths and provokes India’s neighbors, above all Pakistan, while yielding little of tangible value in return. Nor will the project of “Hindutva” help the BJP extend its base beyond northern India’s “Hindu heartland” and into the country’s southern regions, where its message has much less appeal.
The difficulty with “soft power,” a concept now embedded in the lexicon thanks to another Harvard professor, Joseph Nye, is that it’s hard to determine its effectiveness, or even to figure out quite how it works. Few would deny that a country’s political system, cultural achievements and image can, in theory, add to its allure. What’s much less clear, though, is how this amorphous advantage goes beyond evoking warm feelings and yields actual influence, defined as the capacity to shape the policies of other countries.
Did Americans (or Europeans or Japanese) gain a greater understanding and appreciation of India and begin to take it seriously because of India’s soft power? Unlikely, given how little the outside world interests the citizens of the United States, never mind that their country is engaged in every corner of the globe on a host of issues and in ways that affect the lives of millions. Did the greater coverage of India, in part perhaps because of New Delhi’s endeavors on the soft-power front, increase the attention it received from America’s well educated, well heeled and politically powerful? Possibly, based on the data on tourism, the increased number of courses on India-related topics at universities, and the growing popularity of Indian prose-fiction writers and attire bearing traces of Indian culture. But one can yearn to see the Ajanta Caves, read R. K. Narayan or Arundhati Roy, sport a kurta, or be able to tell one genre of Indian classical music or dance from another without giving so much as a thought to the pros and cons of developing military ties with India, championing its quest for a spot on the UN Security Council, or expanding trade and investment ties with it. Soft power, apart from being a slippery principle, can only do so much in practice. It simply cannot compensate for the deficit India has in other, tangible forms of power, which remains the greatest impediment to India’s becoming a global power.
THE HEYDAY of central planning and import-substitution-based economic policy, which had extraordinary influence in India, is over. The BJP’s thumping victory over the Congress Party, which itself initiated economic reforms in the 1990s, betokens an even stronger push toward privatization and foreign direct investment (FDI). While the principal aims of India’s economic strategy will naturally be growth and prosperity, the country’s leaders understand the strategic benefits that are to be gained from having the business community of important democratic countries (the United States, Britain, Japan, Germany, France, South Korea and Brazil, for example) acquire a strong stake in India’s market.