India’s path to power: Strategy in a world adrift

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At a time when global, regional and national politics is undergoing a churn, some of India’s finest public intellectuals — including those who have been policymakers and those who have observed and studied India in depth — have come together to outline the contours of the new world order and, more importantly, what India should do to achieve its objectives.

HT Premium offers an exclusive extract from the report, timed with its release today:

It is often said that countries have no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. Equally, it can be said that while countries have enduring objectives—the protection of their sovereignty and the well-being of their citizens—the strategies for achieving them need periodic rethinking and reformulation.

The guiding premise of this report is that India’s external and internal environments are now being shaped by tectonic shifts—incipient trends that require thinking afresh and calibrating India’s strategy on a broad front. A new world needs new ideas. This report is an effort to focus our attentions on the need for concentrated strategic thought and debate about the hard choices that confront India in the decade ahead.

Some of the authors of this report were involved in a previous exercise—almost a decade ago—that produced Non Alignment 2.0. While many of the objectives and strategies presented in that document served India well, we believe that the changes in the world in the past few years require revisiting some of the assumptions and analysis in that document.

The core strategic principles outlined in there remain relevant to India’s continuing engagement with the world: the need to make independent judgments in international affairs while not being unduly influenced by ideas and policies emanating from elsewhere; the need to develop the capacity for independently securing India’s interests without being excessively dependent on, or restrained by, the capabilities of other powers; and the need to create an equitable international order that not only reflects the shifting balance of aspiration and power, but also affords maximum space for India’s development. Yet, the circumstances under which these objectives of strategic autonomy are being pursued undeniably have changed.

The guiding assumption of India’s strategic thinking has been a distinctive conception of power. The foundational source of India’s influence in the world is the power of its example. This rests on four pillars: domestic economic growth, social inclusion, political democracy, and a broadly liberal constitutional order. If these integral pillars remain strong, there is no stopping India.

At the turn of the 21st century, we took it for granted that India was progressing on all these fronts. The most significant change in the last decade or so is that we cannot take for granted the success of India’s development model. India still has considerable strengths and often compares well with some of its peers. But the fundamental sources of India’s development and international influence look increasingly precarious. We must confront this changed outlook fully and frankly. Nourishing the foundations of India’s success requires a conscious political effort, and is a strategic imperative of the first order.

In the late 1990s, India’s growth began to take off. This was in part, a result of economic reforms, and in part because of India’s integration into the global economy. In the decade preceding the global financial crisis, India experienced an average annual growth rate of almost seven percent. This growth began to provide the building blocks for a more inclusive society. While India’s record on social inclusion remained patchy, head-count poverty ratios dramatically declined in this decade. India started to make great strides in building infrastructure, leveraging technology at scale, and developing the sinews of the state.

India's Path to Power
India’s Path to Power

Since the global financial crisis, however, the trend growth rate has been considerably lower and there has been a question mark on India’s growth potential. Even on an optimistic reading, it is unclear if economic growth will be socially inclusive. To be sure, India is registering progress on several measures: falling fertility rates, decreased infant mortality, greater access to a range of services and goods such as sanitation and water, electricity and mobile phones. And yet, there are serious doubts about social mobility and inclusivity. Even in the heady days of eight percent growth, India’s ability to invest in human capital and create enough good jobs was in question. While high growth had improved the state’s ability to cater to the welfare needs of its citizens, it had not much enhanced the capability of citizens to participate in economic growth via improved well being and quality employment. Over the past decade, this situation has worsened. Economic inequality has increased. Chronic challenges of health and education bulk larger. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, these challenges are likely to exacerbate.

These questions about growth and social inclusion are also creating intellectual and policy uncertainty about India’s development model. In particular, how should India conceive of its ties with the global economy? What does self-reliance mean in the third decade of the 21st century? Some of this discussion is warranted by the changing global economic order, by large-scale technological shifts, and by India’s own evolving needs. Yet, it is important that we do not settle for facile, off-the-shelf solutions. This document aims at clarifying the underlying global trends and the choices India needs to make in this decade.

Even if issues related to growth and inclusion can be fixed, there is greater uncertainty about the state of the other two pillars: political democracy and a liberal constitutional order. The electoral success of the BJP has not only meant a change in the party system and the nature of political power, but has also brought about a transformation in India’s constitutional order. There is concern that Indian democracy is moving steadily towards ethnic majoritarianism, polarization and divisiveness. India’s vibrant electoral democracy appears to be morphing into a no-holds-barred contest for power, fuelled by a notoriously opaque system of election financing. Indian democracy seems less inclusive today than at any point in its history.

Then too, India’s democracy is being disembedded from its founding constitutional norms. The majoritarian vision of democracy is increasingly accompanied by an autocratic conception of power. Institutional checks and balances enshrined in the constitution are largely inoperative. The parliament barely performs its deliberative functions; the judiciary is increasingly coy about protecting individual rights and freedoms; independent agencies bend to the whim of the executive; and the powers of the states in the federal polity are draining towards the central government. India risks bearing out the old adage that the forms of free government can all to easily be combined with the ends of arbitrary government.

The cumulative consequences of these developments could be grim. The combination of low growth, limited inclusion, ethnic majoritarianism and political centralization will enmesh India in internal conflicts that would, at once sap its resources, and also undermine its international aspirations.

At this crossroad, India has a choice. It can ignore the writing on the wall as so many scribblings from a bygone age. Or, it can take a sober and more analytical look at the deep, historical sources of prosperity, power and influence. In any event, we must understand that what can hold India back in the coming decade is India itself.

Meanwhile, the world around us is changing at remarkable speed. The two greatest powers, the United States and China are locked in a structural rivalry that will persist beyond this decade. It is tempting but profoundly misleading to see this as another Cold War. For one thing, China looms larger in the global economy than an autarkic Soviet Union ever did and the US-China economic relationship remains deep. For another, unlike the Cold War, the competition between the United States and China goes beyond geopolitics and military security, to encompass a host of arenas: global trade, investment and finance; manufacturing and supply chains; technological innovation and standards; global governance; and fundamental political values. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we are not in a bipolar international order, where the role, interests and concerns of other significant powers is subordinated to the competition between the two great powers. Nor are we as yet in a classic multipolar order. Understanding the nature of this interregnum as well as the challenges and opportunities it holds will be crucial for India.

Globalization too is undergoing far-reaching changes. If the global financial crisis arrested the momentum of financial engineering and cross-border financial flows, the eventual response to the crisis in the West led to a surge in global liquidity and a restless search for better yields in world markets. It also cast into stark relief the extraordinary and growing inequality in the developed world, so thus triggering a political backlash against globalization. There was an upsurge in narrow nationalism and parochial sentiments across the world and India has not been an exception. This trend was accelerated by technological changes such as in robotics and cloud computing, 3-D printing and artificial intelligence, that made manufacturing less dependent on cheap labour in the developing world and on-shoring a viable option in some industries. The upshot of it all was that the major developed economies sought to move away from global economic arrangements to regional ones of varying size and ambition.

One dimension of globalization that has actually deepened over the past decade is the cross-border flow of information and the rapid expansion of the use of digital platforms that span across national and regional borders as a consequence of the pandemic. Yet, as the major powers come to recognize the centrality of data and its analysis for their security and prosperity, the world wide web looks set to fragment. Globalization has been central to India’s growth in the past and, whatever the pull of insularity, it is imperative to get the correct measure of the fundamental reconfiguration that it is currently undergoing.

These trends in geopolitics, globalization and technology predate the pandemic. Yet, in the post- pandemic world, these will not only persist but accelerate—alongside others that will be unleashed in the wake of COVID-19. The pandemic itself is a sombre warning of the ecological crises that lurk in the Anthropocene. Given the scale of the challenge that climate change poses for India, returning to business as usual is not an option. The latest 6th report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change has underscored the scale of the global climate emergency that confronts us but whose impact will be much more adverse for tropical countries like India. In the post-pandemic context, India will have to rethink some fundamental aspects of its development model. Paradoxically, the current trough in our growth story may provide an opportune moment for such reflection. The pandemic has also underscored the importance of international cooperation, if only by its absence, in gearing up for the epochal challenges ahead.

This report analyses these interlocking challenges and suggests a broad reorientation of India’s external and internal policies over the next decade. The pursuit of strategic autonomy under these conditions will be ever more challenging. But we believe that it is ever more necessary. If India exercises sober political and strategic judgement, it can emerge more prosperous and influential in the years ahead. In this pursuit, however, India should not lose sight of its historic strengths – in fact, it must capitalize on them.

It is claimed that India now needs a new international identity—one that affirms itself as a unitary civilization and a state that is determined to draw on what it believes to be its own indigenous cultural and intellectual resources to cast off the lingering effects of the long encounter with colonialism. Such claims are doubly misplaced. For one thing, the conception of Indian civilization that informs this quest is deeply tinctured with colonialist readings of the Indian past. For another, the Indian nationalist movement not only had a much more sophisticated grasp of the resources offered by India’s past, but also the confidence to aver that India must be the site of an alternative universality. It is for us to realize that powerful inheritance, through the choices we make in the years ahead.

Rather than offering a pale imitation of China’s claims to being a civilizational state, traumatized by colonialism, India should affirm the strength and resilience of its historic national identity. Indian nationalism sought not to flatten out diversity, but to find an enduring national strength through the creative articulation of myriad local identities as sites of deeply connected differences. It was also confidently internationalist. The ambition to stand for an alternative universality stemmed not from an airy idealism, but a clear-eyed reading of Indian history over the longue durée, and from a profound understanding of the importance of legitimacy as well as power. Hence, too, the emphasis on the hard-won power of India’s example. That example could speak more powerfully to the world than the strenuous avowals of an authoritarian model of development. But, first, India will have to stand true to its own foundational values.

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