By Maj Gen G Shankarnarayanan (Retd)
In the last seven decades, India as the second largest democracy is witness to a meteoric rise of the phoenix that the British brutally tried to tame for several hundred years. The stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947 saw the dawn of a new and resurgent India whose national contours were well defined as a potential superpower in the making.
Today, the comity of nations collectively acknowledges this resurgence, despite disproportionate adversities, be it national calamities, territorial aberrations, internal strife, political upheaval, financial meltdown or the recent global pandemic. The country as a whole has time and time again risen to these challenges with élan and brought succour to its teeming masses. In addition, as a responsible nation it has had the courage and conviction to look beyond its borders in the quest to provide much-needed humanitarian assistance in men and material despite the cliché of being a ‘Third world developing Nation’. Today the narrative is vastly different.
That having been said, the kaleidoscope of this trajectory is worth recounting to derive meaningful projections of the potential status for the future. One may recall, while India was rather slow in industrialisation, the expansion of the market economy and globalisation were defining characteristics that laid a strong foundation for a dramatic and pervasive economic transformation and a resilient democratic governance structure. Several factors contributed to this axiom, namely an unshakeable faith and trust in the Constitution, backed by a strong judiciary enabling accountability in governance as seen from a global perspective. This singular factor has been the catalyst in spurring industrial growth, although rather sluggish till the nineties which saw an economic revolutionary transformation. It not only accelerated the transformation process but pitched the country as an IT behemoth with irrescindable global connections. Thus India is today at a commanding position in digitisation, intricately embedded for effective grassroots governance. That apart, triggered by disruptive technology, the onset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution has led to fundamental changes in the nature and structure of the interconnected global economy with significant redistribution of resources and output than ever before. India is in the lead of this paradigm shift.
In fact, it may be prudent to recall that in the past decade India has witnessed innovations across domains such as digital payments, online retail, education and software. Exploiting the digital breakthrough has been the biggest liberalisation to occur in single-brand retail, wherein the government has recently permitted retailers to sell goods online to Indian consumers before opening brick-and-mortar stores, significantly expanding the domestic market for global players. In addition, the implementation of the IT-based Goods and Services Tax has removed tax barriers across states and unified various central and state tax laws, creating a single common market.
Commensurate with its commitment to ensuring that its economic achievements correspond with inclusive development, India has also made big strides in social progress. The expansion of the biometric identification system under the Unique Identification Authority of India has streamlined the delivery of government services and made resource disbursement through welfare programmes more efficient. Devising such a database of more than a billion people is no mean feat despite the serious handicap of language and literacy barriers.
In addition, through the financial inclusion programme Jan Dhan Yojana, it has provided bank accounts for 300 million hitherto unbanked people, creating new opportunities for them to access credit and state subsidies and bringing them into the formal economy. Initiatives such as the Ayushman Bharat for universal health coverage in India, the world’s largest LED programme to improve energy efficiency, a sweeping rural electrification drive and a strong push towards broad-based energy access and security through the Ujjwala and Saubhagya schemes, among others, show India’s ability to devise and implement a reform agenda that balances global aspirations with critical development imperatives at home.
Therefore, in economic terms it is projected that the world’s second-most-populous country is expected to see massive growth over the next three decades, averaging 5% growth in GDP per year, making it one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. By 2050, India is projected to be the world’s second-largest economy (overtaking the United States) and will account for 15% of the world’s total GDP. The positive outcomes of that growth have already started to make an impact globally. The changes in people’s lifestyles, from the urban and rural vibes to the attitudes in society and eventually the overall walk and talk of the country and its inhabitants are testimony to this fact.
However these improvements have their fair share of negative impediments. While there is a serious lack of commensurate infrastructure spending to keep pace with industrial output, there is a resolute political mindset to address these intangibles with an open mind while balancing budgetary resources vis a vis expenditure. This may well take a few decades to match that of the developed nations. But in a proportionate comparison the output in terms of technological absorption and delivery is way beyond global standards.
Hence it can be conclusively stated that internal reforms and infrastructure development have given rise to a stable and growing economy which in turn has warranted the institutionalisation of a strong and vibrant armed forces to fulfil national aspirations. Towards this end the higher defence reorganisation and restructuring currently underway is aligned to buttress this perceived global stature of India besides making it a more lethal, all pervasive regional conventional force with an expeditionary force projection capability. Such a military philosophy necessitates state of the art equipment with a large indigenous component to ensure sustainability.
The Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan in defence production, with a negative list of defence items, is largely designed to achieve this mandate. Furthermore, in a two-front war scenario a threat based force structure should be such as to achieve an aspect of punitive deterrence on both fronts albeit staggered in time and space. Thus a strong conventional military is a major deterrence against predatory neighbours. In addition, expansion of the military concerns of space and space-based weapon systems as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles are the need of the hour to enhance the scope of the philosophy of deterrence in the physical terms besides developing proficiency in multi-domain warfare. India is abreast with these regional and global military deterrence imperatives.
From a politico-diplomatic perspective the current economic growth (as the world’s fastest-growing major economy) has improved its standing on the world’s political stage, despite being a developing country for the reasons identified, but one that is showing a strong promise as a world leader. Many nations are moving to forge better relationships with India from a strategic standpoint besides aspiring to reap the economic dividends based on leveraging foolproof digital convenience. The stage is therefore set for India to realise its vision of becoming a $10-trillion economy in the next decade-and-a-half and to assist in shoring up a dwindling world economy.
Commensurately on India’s part, it is significantly enlarging its global profile by going beyond the realms of the non-aligned movement to address global issues of terrorism, climate change and more recently tackling the worst pandemic of the century on a global stage. India’s commitment to renewable energy through voluntary and ambitious renewable power capacity targets, a lead role in the Paris Climate Agreement negotiations and the International Solar Alliance shows its aspirations of becoming a leader in environment security and climate change mitigation. India has also expanded its global stature in space exploration through widely celebrated breakthroughs such as its recent lunar mission and its distinction of becoming the fourth country worldwide to shoot down a low-orbit satellite with a missile.
India, too, is increasingly involved in global humanitarian efforts and development initiatives, including infrastructure development in Afghanistan, the International North-South Transport Corridor, the Ashgabat Agreement, the Chabahar port and the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway. The Indian Prime Minister has articulated his strong vision for an India-Africa cooperative interest and India’s deepened participation in coalitions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum and the BRICS group demonstrate its growing global influence and appetite for enhanced visibility on a range of global initiatives and multilateral foray.
Climbing to the 52nd spot in this year’s Global Innovation Index, India is one of the few countries to have consecutively improved its rank for nine years. Its distinctive demographic advantage, technical prowess and knack for innovation, fused with the leap-frogging opportunities of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies, are consolidating its position as a dominant force in global economic, political and strategic affairs. Its befitting response to border intrusion by China and the tacit acknowledgement of Tibet and Taiwan are indicators that India is not a pushover but a country with strong global humanitarian considerations that respects global conventions, rule of law and good neighbourly relations.
Its contribution of armed contingents for the UN peace-keeping forces for over several decades constitutes the largest in comparison to any country in the world. Their service, which epitomises their impeccable conduct, has always been widely appreciated by the host country as well as the warring factions as being neutral and just in their dispensation of their duties. It is for this very reason that the UN has given a permanent mandate for India’s participation in UN peace-keeping Missions across the globe.
Like any other country, India’s foreign policy envisages widening its sphere of influence, enhancing its role across nations, and making its presence felt like an emerging power. However, post battling Covid-19 and the Chinese incursion, India faces the challenge of strengthening ties and building new ones with the US, EU, Middle East countries and its neighbours. The stark and violent response of the Taliban after the withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan presents India with an opportunity to emerge as a global rather than an aspirational player. However, in a run-up to these challenges, India has to deal with a stronger China that is militarily strengthening itself to dominate the Indo-Pacific Ocean, while maintaining an Indo-china imbroglio besides pushing for a tighter embrace of Russia.
In addition, India has to contend with the changing landscape of the Middle East brought about by the US-brokered rapprochement between Israel and four Arab countries — the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. Furthermore, its own self-Imposed isolation from two important supranational bodies as a founding member, viz., the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and weakening ties with neighbours like China’s Cheque Book Diplomacy vis-a-vis Sri Lanka, strained relations with Bangladesh on the NRC issue and recent border controversy with Nepal due to the release of the new map besides opting out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) does not synergise with India’s aspirations of becoming a global power.
Therefore, as a global and an aspirational leader, India must address the neighbourhood through a series of diplomatic initiatives and make valiant efforts to improve relations with some of its neighbours such as Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. In this context, as the world emerges from the pandemic, India can gain a lot from “vaccine diplomacy” with its neighbours, by supplying vaccines either free or at an affordable cost. It must broker external support in adequate measure. In this context, India will need continuing support from the US, Japan, Australia, besides European powers such as France, Germany and the UK.
India should appreciate European entry into the Indo-Pacific narrative, as already France and Germany have come up with their Indo-Pacific strategy. As India enters the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member for the eighth time, it should raise all important global matters like China’s aggressiveness — from Tibet to Taiwan, Iran-Saudi rivalry, refugee crisis between Bangladesh and Myanmar, etc. to sensitise global issues. India should refrain from its limited focus on isolating Pakistan or China, as it would distract from India’s aspirations of being a global leader. In so far as the future of Quad and the Indo-Pacific strategy is concerned, India will need to build on its deepening strategic and defence ties with the US.
In conclusion, it may be safe to assume that the changes being implemented internally on a development plank seem to influence its relations with the actualities of international situations. Implementation of these reforms across its geographic regions and diverse demographic size provides a unique opportunity to shape global agendas. India can tap its own sphere of influence and establish itself as a role model for the world to replicate its response to these opportunities, which will no doubt have a resounding impact on its collective future as a global leader.
–The writer is a former GOC-Indian Army and presently a Strategic Consultant & Principal Advisor. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda