Wednesday, January 18, 2006

India: Great power or hollow power?

India: Great power or hollow power?


As we enter 2006, people increasingly ask if India is going to become a global power. The 2003 Goldman Sachs report on BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) emphasised the huge economic growth potential of the four countries, suggesting that by 2050 China would be global leader in GDP (though not GDP per capita), followed by the US, with some way behind in third place.

GDP is not everything: income per head and technological and military strength matter too. Arvind Virmani, the director of ICRIER, in a paper last November (Global power from the 18th to 21st century) used a mix of economic, technological and strategic parameters to formulate an index of power, which he with great modesty called the Virmani index of power (VIP).

The VIP of each country is relative to the US, which has the benchmark rate of 100%. The accompanying table gives estimates for VIP for the top 13 countries for 2003 and 2005. It shows that the US is way ahead. Note: the relative ranking of all BRIC countries goes up in the two years, while that of others goes down.

Virmani defines countries with a VIP of over 20% as global powers, and with over 5% as regional powers. By this measure, only Japan and China were global powers in 2005, apart from the US. Virmani describes this scenario pithily as ?uni-polar with a multi-polar fringe.?

Projecting trends forward to 2040, Virmani visualises the return of a multi-polar world. China will be the biggest power (measured by VIP), followed by the US, with India a long way behind in third place. If the European Union gets together as a political entity ? very unlikely ? it will be a fourth global power.

To attain number three status, says Virmani, India needs continued rapid economic growth; needs to persuade the US to supply military, nuclear and other techno-strategic inputs; needs to acquire technology from all other economic partners, even while developing its own R&D; and should seek a strategic partnership with democratic, multi-polar-fringe countries such as Japan, UK, Germany, France and Russia.

It feels nice to be told that India is going to become a great power. I think Virmani is absolutely right in stressing that strategic-military power flows overwhelmingly from economic power, not mere possession of arms.Yet I think the very concept of global powers and regional powers is flawed.

These concept are, to my mind, constructs of the 19th century that became decreasingly relevant in the 20th century, and have very limited relevance in the 21st century.

In past centuries, countries were willing to incur huge casualties and tax their citizens to the bone to achieve military success. Conquest was greatness. That is simply not so any more. Consider the US.

It is the sole superpower today. Yet it has failed to achieve its goals quickly in either Afghanistan or Iraq, and may not achieve them at all. A mere 2,000 casualties in Iraq has been enough to sap US morale, sink Bush?s popularity ratings, and lead to widespread calls to withdraw US troops.
Bush does not dare institute the draft (compulsory military service) which was uncontroversial in the Korean War, and was resisted only after several years in the Vietnam War. Bush has not dared raise taxes to fund his war on terrorism.

No country can be a conventional great power tax-free and casualty-free. The US retains great economic and military influence. But changed citizen attitudes simply will not permit a return to great power politics (and wars) of 19th century vintage.

India is widely called a regional power in South Asia. But in practical terms what does this mean? India has the biggest regional army and economy by far, but these are useless in attaining key regional aims. India cannot get Bangladesh to provide road transit from Tripura to West Bengal, or sell India natural gas.

India cannot persuade Nepal to build big dams to supply hydro-electricity to India, and cannot persuade the Nepal King to restore democracy. India cannot oblige the Tamil Tigers to lay down arms, or broker a peace in Sri Lanka. India can do nothing whatsoever to prevent Pakistan from sending militants into Kashmir.

There is vague and wild talk of bombing training camps in Pakistan or pursuing fleeing militants across the border. Neither would make the slightest dent on militancy. India cannot even persuade Pakistan to provide most-favoured nation status in trade, although this is mandated by WTO rules!

In sum, being a regional power amounts to very little indeed. Having nuclear weapons is useless: it may give Indians an illusion of power, but cannot be used for any political or economic objective.

Far from enabling a country to bend neighbours to its will, a big GDP and military strength appear to be a disadvantage. Big neighbours are resented, feared and treated with suspicion. They are not kow-towed to.

Talk of being a regional power sounds especially stupid when Indian power looks so moth-eaten and useless within the country. Today 150 of the country?s 600 districts have some degree of Naxalite insurrection, and the situation is worsening despite rising GDP, military strength and nukes.

Dawood Ibrahim is beyond our reach, and so was Veerappan for decades. Our moribund justice system is unable to catch and jail even the perpetrators of the Bombay bombings. Criminals increasingly dominate our legislatures. For such a country to claim to be a regional power, let alone a global power, is simply laughable.

India is an utterly hollow power. This hollowness cannot be disguised by an outer shell of rising GDP, technological prowess and nukes.

A government that steadily loses control over its own troubled regions, that cannot control Naxalites, Kashmiri militants or north-eastern militants, that cannot catch common criminals, simply cannot claim to be a regional or global power. Virmani?s measures of power are irrelevant.
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