Despite India’s "impressive" rise, its ambition to be a super power may remain just that—an ambition, according to an authoritative new study by the London School of Economics to which several Indian scholars have contributed.
It pointedly dismisses what it calls the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s "unequivocal verdict" during her India visit in 2009 that "India is not just a regional power, but a global power’.
The study, India: the Next Superpower? acknowledges India’s "formidable achievements" in fostering democracy, growth and cultural dynamism but concludes that these are nullified by its structural weaknesses, widespread corruption, poor leadership, extreme social divisions, religious extremism and internal security threats.
India, it argues, still faces too many "developmental challenges" to qualify for "super power" status, or to be considered a serious "counterweight" to China, a role sought to be thrust on it by some in the West. Some of the report’s authors wonder whether India should even aspire to be a super power given its institutional weaknesses and social and economic divisions.
Historian Ramachandra Guha, currently the Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs at LSE, suggests that rather than being seduced by the bright lights of great power diplomacy, India should instead focus on reforming its institutions and repairing the social fabric that seems to be coming off its seams.
“We need to repair, one by one, the institutions that have safeguarded our unity amidst diversity, and to forge the new institutions that can help us. It will be hard, patient, slow work,” he writes.
The study, a summary of which was released on Wednesday, starts off by acknowledging that" India’s rise has certainly been impressive, and warrants the attention that it has commanded".
"India has been one of the world’s best-performing economies for a quarter of a century, lifting millions out of poverty and becoming the world’s third-largest economy in PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) terms. India has tripled its defence expenditure over the last decade to become one of the top-ten military spenders. And in stark contrast to Asia’s other billion-person emerging power, India has simultaneously cultivated an attractive global image of social and cultural dynamism," it says. But then come the "ifs" and "buts".
Plunging the knife into Indian ambitions, the report says:"Still, for all India’s success, its undoubted importance and despite its undisputed potential, there is cause for caution in assessing India’s claim to superpower status. India still faces major developmental challenges. The still-entrenched divisions of caste structure are being compounded by the emergence of new inequalities of wealth stemming from India’s economic success. India’s democracy may have thrived in a manner that few ever expected, but its institutions face profound challenges from embedded nepotism and corruption. India’s economic success continues to come with an environmental cost that is unsustainable."
These problems are compounded by India’s "pressing security preoccupations" arising out of "insurgent violence" affecting large parts of the country and long-festering cross-border disputes.
The best that India can hope for—the study offers as a consolation-- is "to continue to play a constructive international role in, among other things, the financial diplomacy of the G20".
"Yet the hopes of those in the West who would build up India as a democratic counterweight to Chinese superpower are unlikely to be realised anytime soon," it concludes.
The report forms part of LSE IDEAS’ series on "Power Shifts". Authors include Mukulike Bannerjee and D. Rajeev Sibal (both LSE) and Sandeep Sengupta, a doctoral candidate in International Relations at Oxford University.