An acute economic slowdown, rising poverty levels and mass protests: India steps into the year 2020 in a state of turmoil.

So it might seem especially bizarre to recall that for a brief period around the turn of the millennium, some people were convinced that 2020 would be the year India would become a superpower.

Given that we are now in 2020, we know this isn’t true – not by a long shot. Far from being a superpower, living standards in India are rather low compared to the rest of the world.

Here’s a look back at the irrational exuberance that gripped large numbers of Indian elites, tricking them into thinking that the country would snap its fingers and transform from a poor country to superpower in the blink of an eye.

Missile man

There’s little doubt that the man who started it all was APJ Abdul Kalam. At the time, Kalam was a scientist and administrator associated with India’s missile programme as well as the Pokhran-II nuclear tests. He would later go on to serve as President of the Indian Union.

In 1998, Kalam and YS Rajan, also a government scientist, co-authored a book called India 2020: A Vision for the New Millennium.

The book had a simple message: “A developed India, by 2020 or even earlier is not a dream. It need not even be a mere aspiration in the minds of many Indians. It is a mission we can we can all take up­ and accomplish.”

Much of the book is a meandering set of wildly optimistic forecasts, powered more by an impressionable sense of patriotism than any relevant data. In many ways, the book’s style is a long-form precursor to the millions of patriotic WhatsApp messages that would flood smartphones two decades later.

Kalam and Rajan, for example, assume that there is a “greater likelihood of more women taking part in direct economic activities” and – most incredibly – that “there are good chances that poverty can be fully eliminated by 2007/8”.

Not only is it apparent that 12 years on from 2008, poverty in India has not been eliminated, it seems astounding that such a time frame was fixed at all. And far from more women entering the workforce, in reality since then, India’s female labour force participation rate has fallen to a historic low in 2017-’18. Only eight countries across the world have a lower female participation rate than India’s. When it comes to leaving home and joining the workforce, Indian women are the most disadvantaged in South Asia. While making their freewheeling predictions, Kalam and Rajan it seems simply forgot about the deep-rooted strength of Indian patriarchy.

An interview of Kalam focused on "India 2020" published in the "Times of India" in 1998.

Collective delusion

Rather than bemusement, these incredible targets were actually met with admiration at the time. “Seldom does one, in these troubled times, see such a lucid marshaling of facts and figures to bolster the thesis that India is mere two decades away from super-power status,” wrote the Times of India while introducing “India 2020”.

This praise, it seems, had the unfortunate effect of encouraging Kalam to make his targets even more astonishing. In 2008, a decade after his book was published, Kalam brought forward India’s rendezvous date with superpowerdom to 2012. “Though I have envisioned India to become a superpower by 2020, the attitude and the confidence of the youth, to conquer everything in the right spirit, would make the country a global leader and super power within five years,” the by-then former president said with an admirable sense of self-belief.

To make things even more surreal, this idea – the India was just around the corner to becoming a fully developed industrialised economy and superpower– entered policy and politics at the highest levels. In 2002, Prime Minister Vajpayee’s Independence Day speech argued that the aim of his government was to “make India a developed nation by 2020”.

Under Vajpayee, the Planning Commission delivered a report in 2002 titled “India Vision 2020”. The report acknowledges the “vision of Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s book, India 2020: A Vision for the New Millennium”.

Superpower 2020 predictions were rather common till a decade back. Here's BJP MP Subramanian Swamy's version from 2012 in which he predicted that the Indian economy would beat China's by 2020. As we enter 2020, China's economy is actually five times as large as India's.

Misplaced optimism

To the Planning Commission’s credit, it did not reproduce Kalam’s formulation of India becoming a superpower. However, it did continue the trend of Pollyannaishly overestimating how much a poor country can achieve in twenty years.

And like India 2020, the report predicts the vapid patriotism of WhatsApp, reproducing a widely circulated fake quote from Lord Macaulay about travelling across India but never seeing “one person who is a beggar, who is a thief” – a (made-up) testament to the country’s “spiritual and cultural heritage”.

The report’s actual predictions continue in much the same credulous vein. The report confidently states, “India will move from a low-income country to an upper-middle-income country”. That of course did not happen. As of today, India is very far away from being an upper-middle-income country (it would need to double its per capital gross national income to enter that bloc). Like its Raj siblings, Pakistan and Bangladesh, India is a lower-middle-income country. However, India’s small southern neighbour, Sri Lanka did quietly, unheralded by superpower prophecies, become an upper-middle-income country in 2019.

More: “Combined with the enormous opportunities for creation of new employment opportunities, the incidence of unemployment could be almost eliminated by 2020”. As we read this in 2020, we know there were no such “enormous opportunities”. Unlike a Vietnam or Bangladesh, India was unable to develop mass manufacturing industries. In fact, the unemployment rate in 2017-’18 stood at a 45-year old high following the Modi government’s disastrous move to demonetise high value currency notes.

At one point, it lists out India’s 2020 targets, “not only to reach these reference levels but to surpass them in many cases”. The confidence was misplaced. India in 2020 did not reach any of the Planning Commission’s targets.

For example, the report assumed India’s female adult literacy rate will be 94% by 2020. But according to latest figures from the previous census, that stands at only 65%. Infant mortality will be 22.5 per 1000 births, predicted Vision 2020. But latest figures from 2017 have it at 33, well above the global average. Child malnutrition based on weight for age will be only 8%, said the report. In reality, it is more than four times that prediction at 32.7% (India in 2020 is one of the most malnourished societies on earth).

A sarcastic News Years tweet on the Superpower 2020 prediction

Enter the memes

While the Superpower 2020 predictions did not materialise, that did not mean they did not result in anything useful. The forecast was so wildly off the mark that the Internet smelt blood, seeing in it a rich source of irony: perfect raw material for memers.

Two version of the “Superpower by 2020” meme popped up. One circulated on international messaging boards such as Reddit and 4chan, mocking Indian claims to superpower status. Memes often contrasted this prediction with the country’s severe open defecation crisis – an unusually elementary problem for an emerging superpower to have.

The other version circulated within the country: Indians derided the claim that their country would go from underdeveloped to superpower in such a short time span. The meme mostly circulated in the form of a diptych, with one panel consisting of a regular photo of India labelled “December 31, 2019”. The next panel labelled “January 1, 2020” saw India miraculously transformed, usually using images from highly-developed countries or even digital graphics.

The costs

In spite of the fact that the original superpower 2020 prediction was widely off the mark, versions of it continue to survive (even if they pop up far less frequently now). During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, BJP President Amit Shah promised voters that India would become a superpower by 2024 if Narendra Modi was voted back as prime minister. Earlier in 2018, Union minister Jitendra Singh claimed that Modi would fulfil Kalam’s “Vision 2020” – although, wisely he did not mention by which year.

Some of this might seem funny or absurd. Indeed, some of it is. Yet, this does not mean there aren’t real costs associated with this “superpower 2020” business. It seems for the past two decades, many Indian policy planners were designing programmes based on absurdly unachievable targets. This would have had real implications in terms of misplaced allocations.

In the first few decades after Independence, East and South East Asia raced past India. Now, experts such as economist Amartya Sen have flagged the fact that India is even losing out to its South Asian neighbours such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, who are being able to offer their people better standards of living.

All this while India – home to a sixth of humanity – tragicomically, keeps dreaming of becoming a superpower.