Can India lead Asia?
India has been obsessed with the idea of leading Asia, exclusively if possible. Jawaharlal Nehru dreamt of a global role for India, based on its domination of the Indian Ocean and on its economic strength. Nehru’s dream went sour in 1962 and he did not live much longer. Nobel Laureate V S Naipaul calls India “a wounded civilisation” that has been overrun, plundered, occupied and ruled by foreigners several times in its history. A report that attempted to measure Indian power a few years ago observed that India “belongs to the class of countries that are always emerging, but not quite arriving.”
However, in recent years a lot has changed in India’s favour. Some years ago a noted defence analyst had observed that Pakistan was a drag on the Indian global power ambition. When I met him a couple of years ago, I asked him whether he still held that opinion. He replied that “India is in a different league now and it has gained much momentum.” Six years ago, the United States decided to upgrade its relationship with India to a strategic level. Ever since, it has urged India to play an assertive role in the Asia-Pacific region. But is India ready and, indeed, capable of playing that role?
In order to become a leading global power, a nation must fulfil certain criteria. It should have sizeable territory, an optimum level of population, internal cohesion, rich natural and human resources, and be outward-looking. More importantly, it should wield considerable economic clout and possess military muscle. However, it should preferably be able to cover the military muscle with a soft image. It should have the wherewithal to make friends abroad and influence other nations. India meets only some of the criteria. It has made impressive economic strides in the last two decades. From a growth rate of around 3 percent until 1990, it has since maintained a rate of around 8 percent. Economic development has not only created a sizable middle class but also translated into galloping defence budgets.
The Indo-US nuclear deal is a shot in the arm for India. It will not only strengthen India’s economic muscle but could also be a force-multiplier. In addition, the US has succeeded in dissuading India from importing Iranian gas. Meanwhile, the Indian image abroad has undergone a sea change. The Indian diaspora abroad is huge and, in some countries like the United States, quite resourceful. Arab countries have a sizeable Indian manpower and investments. A joke an Arab ambassador told me in Muscat said it all. An Arab leader asked his subjects to pray for rain. The prayer was granted, and it started raining in Mumbai, Delhi and Kerala! On a more serious note, the Saudi monarch, a great friend of Pakistan, suggested observer status for India in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference a few years ago, much to our disappointment. Whether we like it or not, the Arabs have de-hyphenated India from Pakistan although they still want good ties with Pakistan.
Democracy, Bollywood and cricket have given India a global soft image. However, India has many limitations. It lives under the Chinese shadow. About 400 million Indians still live below the poverty line and India is a recipient of foreign economic assistance. The Maoist insurgents pose a grave threat. India is not yet a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a sine qua non for big- power status today. Indian infrastructure, the roads in particular, are below par. India’s GDP is about half that of China. Its military muscle is also weaker than China’s.
While the Chinese staged the 2008 Olympics so impressively, the Indians had to struggle to host the Commonwealth Games. It can be said with some certainty now that, despite a strong desire to teach Pakistan lessons in 2002 and 2008, the Indian military establishment could muster the courage to do so. Corruption in India is rampant and Indian nationals hold the dubious distinction of holding the highest amount of black money in Swiss accounts.
So, in order to become a global power, India needs to be propped up and those props have been provided by the sole superpower, and yet India has not quite reached the goalpost. One is reminded of Iran under the Shah, which was also propped up by the US for a regional role. When the Shah fell from power, that role also fell like nine pins. For any such role to endure it has to be based on internal strength rather than external props.
The Chinese pursue an active but rather quiet diplomacy. China has never shown any anxiety about the Indian desire to lead Asia. For many years now both China and India have shown deference for each other. Their huge bilateral trade is now the bedrock of Sino-Indian relations. The bilateral trade volume crossed the $50 billion mark in 2008, with the balance tilted in China’s favour. Chinese foreign exchange reserves are $2.622 trillion, while Indian reserves stand at $315 billion. India is extra careful about China as it needs its vital support for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.
It is essential for a global power to have a wide following in the comity of nations. While India has certainly made diplomatic gains, the US support for its Security Council seat being the prime example, it is still quite a way from the international consensus about its future role. In this case, the US wants India to effectively counter the growing Chinese influence. The US, the UK, France and Germany had similar perceptions about the Soviet Union during Cold War days. Moreover, Europe needed US economic assistance after the Second World War. That strengthened the United States’ credentials as the unquestioned leader of the free world. But Pakistan, Iran and Indonesia have views about China very different from those of India. They do not perceive any threat from China. Pakistan may no longer be a drag on Indian ambitions but it is not ready to be a submissive India follower either.
As it is, India competes with China for influence in Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Sino-Pakistani ties are viewed by India as part of an attempt to encircle it. India does not enjoy acceptance by the regional nations as their exclusive leader. Its future role in Afghanistan may not only be questioned by Pakistan but half of the Afghan population as well. Economic growth in India has been very uneven. While some states like Bihar are still impoverished, some regions have undergone impressive development. This uneven development is one of the root causes of the Maoist insurgency. More importantly, India is not a country of the Pacific. Indeed, the proactive US sponsorship of the Indian leadership role, as America’s regional proxy, may be counterproductive and be resisted by some nations.
Therefore, the logical conclusion is that India will not emerge as the leader of Asia. It will be one of three Asian leaders, the other two being Japan and China which will be in the forefront. At a later stage Indonesia and South Korea may also join the league.
The writer is a retired ambassador. Email: email@example.com