Reviewed by K Rajeshwar Sharma
No student of geopolitics would ever resist the temptation to read a book that concerns India and China. The book is none other than Making India Great by Aparna Pande, the director of the Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Hudson Institute, Washington, DC. It is a non-fiction about the rising global role of India and its challenges. Published in 2020 by Harper Collins in India, Making India Great is a treatise on how India can transform itself into a global power.
Other than the United States of America, no Nation sees India as “the free world’s strongest bulwark to the seductive appeal of Peking and Moscow”. The rise of China has made the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia more inclined towards India. In Making India Great, Aparna Pande writes ‘At no other time in history have so many countries wanted another country to rise to big power status and play more of a role on the global stage’. But it seems to be assumed in India that its ‘5000-year-old history of unbroken ancient tradition’ is more than enough to make India a great power. Perhaps this is why Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, saw the inevitability ‘not because of any ambition of hers, but because of the force of circumstances, because of geography, because of history’.
Deeply impressed by the rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union under autocratic Joseph Stalin, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru toed the line of Fabian socialism, and India led the non-alignment movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s that ‘represented a commitment to be neither pro-Western nor pro-Soviet’ at the height of the Cold War. However the Soviet Union, under its own weight, collapsed and the Cold War ended at the beginning of the ‘90s. A new geopolitical map began to emerge with China rising to challenge the supremacy of the United States of America. But in India ‘China’s expanding influence’ is viewed with suspicion. Aparna Pande writes, ‘Since 1962, India has noted China’s efforts to build close ties with countries on its periphery, thereby trying to possibly encircle India’. In view of ‘China’s expanding influence’, India adopted its ‘Look East’ policy in the 1990s which has now transformed into ‘Act East’ policy under the BJP Government.
Under this new ‘Act East’ policy, India has taken up several measures to improve ties with the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) countries not only in trade and finance but also in military and defense to counter Chinese influence in South East Asia. In her book, Aparna Pande states that ‘India’s trade with the region stands at US $76 billion’. Several agreements have been signed with Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia to bolster military ties. In 2015, India signed ‘defence cooperation and strategic partnership agreements’ with Singapore. Indonesia has given India access to Sabang, an island ‘strategically located’ near the Malacca Straits which are ‘as critical for India as they are for China with almost 40 per cent of India’s trade passing through this narrow waterway’. The agreement with Indonesia, signed in 2018 will allow Indian naval ships to visit the port at Sabang. Militarily India has not only been helping Vietnam but she has also been holding talks for the ‘sale of the surface-to-air Akash and the supersonic Brahmos missiles’ to Vietnam. Not only does India have close ties with South East Asian countries but she also has closer ties with her immediate neighbor, Myanmar, to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative or the new Silk Roads.
Armed with Agni and Brahmos missiles, and along with its 1.4 billion-strong population and its vibrant democracy that opened its economy in 1991 to become a free-market economy, India cannot help but aspire to be a global power. Some of its leaders have already begun to think aloud of their desire to be a ‘superpower’. In July 2019, Anurag Thakur, then Minister of State for Finance, said that choosing to carry the budget documents in a ‘bahikhata’ rather than a ‘red box’ was evident enough to show India was ‘moving in the direction to becoming a superpower’.
Aparna Pande does not think ‘symbols and slogans demonstrate India’s great power, or soon to be superpower status’. She feels that India needs to focus on ‘building economic and military strength’ so as to be a global power. She wonders if India could ever become the third largest economy by 2030 with the ‘Hindu rate of growth’ of 3.5 per cent. For that matter, India has managed to recover and improve its economy despite the devastation of the Covid pandemic during the last two years. According to the IMF, its growth rate is expected to rise at the rate of 6.1 per cent this year, but the Economic Survey, published early this month predicts it to be higher than what the IMF predicted.
The sluggish growth rate of 3.5 per cent, according to Aparna Pande, is due to the ‘paternalistic attitudes’ of the Government of India towards its people. With ‘a maze of regulations and regulatory bodies’ and ‘a narrative of self-sufficiency’, India, during its fifty years of independence, had stifled not only innovation and investment but also competition, which are the essence of a developed economy. In spite of its economic reforms in 1991, India failed to attract a large amount of foreign direct investments or FDIs. This failure is attributed to ‘restraining and regulating foreign direct investment’. It suggests introducing more economic reforms that would enable India to be one of the top three largest economies of the world.
In terms of firepower, India ‘ranks fourth in Global Firepower Index of 2019’ and she is also one of the top five ‘high-spenders’ on military purchases. The defence spending of India had even surpassed that of United Kingdom and France. It stood at US $63.9 billion in 2017. In this year’s budget, the Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, has allocated 5.9 lakh crore rupees for the defence, which is 13% more than the previous year. However, according to Aparna Pande, India is yet to see her ‘massive military’ as ‘an effective tool of foreign policy’. She argues that modern India ‘has consistently been reluctant to involve itself in international conflicts and blocs’.
During the past one year, however, one can observe a shift in India’s foreign policy that seems to be more independent, and bold enough to buy oil from Russia in spite of sanctions imposed by the United States of American in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Making India Great is as much about modern India as it is about geopolitics and Indian economy. With her crispy sentences which are devoid of metaphors, Aparna Pande has managed to cut the cackles and drive home her point of view. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Making India Great could be a bible for the likes of Fareed Zakaria and S Jaishankar whose diplomatic missions have made the world recognize the inevitable rise of India as a global power.
**K. Rajeshwar Sharma is a freelance journalist. You can write to him at:[email protected]