Aparna Pande is Research Fellow and Director of the Hudson Institute’s Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia, as well as author of From Chanakya to Modi: Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy and, this year, Making India Great: The Promise of a Reluctant Global Power.
The book takes a careful look at the many challenges – economic, social, military – that confront modern India and stand in the way of the Great Power status that Indians seems to believe is inevitable.
Scroll.in spoke to Pande about how India’s image is changing globally since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term began, why India’s liberal character matters and why Indian foreign policy research needs more of a focus on history.
What was your aim in writing this book?
The reason I wrote it was because I see that Indians want to be a Great Power and Indians believe we will be a Great Power. But we also believe we don’t really need to work to become one. It is our right to be one, because we are 5,000 years old and only one of two 5,000-year-old continuous civilisations, and because we are a unique example in the last seven decades of being a democracy.
The world wants us to be a Great Power. But to be a Great Power you need stable politics, you need a strong economy, you need to build your military capability, invest in your human capital, and finally have a social society which is stable, and which is homogenous and coherent. And unfortunately, in all these areas, we seem to either be going back or not doing enough.
Yes, we are a democracy, but we have tensions. We have ethnic, linguistic, religious diversity, but there are tensions and strife. I write in my book about these two ideas of India and [how] they are still in conflict about what it is to be Indian. We have not undertaken the economic reforms, we need to in order to get the 8% to 10% growth. We are investing less in military modernisation today, than we were doing a few years ago and than we need to do, to become a great power.
And finally, the belief that India is on the global stage somehow seems to define our foreign policy, the belief that we are already “vishwa guru”. Just because the world wants us to be a Great Power doesn’t mean that the world will wait for us to become one.
If I had to dig into that a bit more, I would say that this has been true for a while. Why write about this now?
I would say three things. One, my previous book was about the past. And this book I wanted to write about the future. There has always been the promise of India – for seven decades. When we came on the world stage, our leader at that time [India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru] and others were talking about an India which would be on the global arena. But in seven decades, it’s still very difficult for us to sort of hit all of the goals we wanted to hit four or five decades ago.
So why is it that despite the fact that we wanted to do this for almost seven decades, we are still nowhere closer to our goal today than we were a few decades ago?
Second, India’s example to the world rests on India’s uniqueness as being a post-colonial country which achieved independence without a violent revolution, and became a democracy. It educated people, had a stable political and social system despite being so ethnically diverse and I fear that that image is changing.
And my worry there is that the world is comfortable with a rising democratic, plural, secure, tolerant India. The world may not be as comfortable with the rising majoritarian India. So, the second reason why is because I always felt growing up that there is one idea of India and the others, even if they competed, that this idea of India would ensure that India would achieve its goals.
And the third is that I do want India to become a global power. And my concerns are that we believe we will become one without doing anything and actually we seem to be moving backward. I mean, on economic growth: Are we going to achieve any of our poverty alleviation programs or employment programs, forget about anything else?
So it’s partly as an Indian, partly as a researcher and partly a continuation of what I’ve been writing and what I wanted to write. This book is a lot more personal for me than my previous books.
I have to remark on the title, Making India Great [an echo of US President Donald Trump’s Making America Great Again tagline.] Tell us about that?
I will give all the credit to HarperCollins for that. [But] while I was writing it, I was sort of going back and forth between the promise of India and the reality of the promise and the hesitance. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which idea of India I talk about, which arena we talk about. The end goal for most Indians always is an aspect of how do we make India great? How does India become the global power? Why isn’t India already a global power? Why aren’t we on the UN security council? Why doesn’t the world treat us more with more status? Why are we pulled down by Pakistan? Why doesn’t China recognise us?
In every arena, we do want to become great. And so I felt that it did appeal to that latent desire.
You talk quite a bit about these competing ideas of the Indian state. How does the Prime Minister presiding over the bhoomi pujan of a Ram Temple in the manner that took place this week fit into that?
This argument is old. I don’t know if you recall, but there was a similar discussion between Prime Minister Nehru and the first president Rajendra Prasad. Prasad decided to inaugurate the Somnath Temple. And there were letters back and forth between the two of them and Nehru’s argument was that you can do it as an individual, you should not be doing it as the president of India, because this is a secular country and therefore, government officials should not be doing this.
So I would say this exemplifies at a core level, the two ideas, the two strands my book talks about, because there is the one which says that India is secular and for us secularism is we treat all religions equally according to the Constitution. The big tent approach – irrespective of your religion or where your forefathers came from, you are Indian.
The other idea is that if India is a Hindu-majority state, then India needs to let the world and Indians know that India is a Hindu-majority state. And [this belief is] that secularism has in many ways depleted the Hindu identity of India and that Indians, minorities and Hindus, need to understand that India is Hindu. And therefore, if a Hindu majority state undertakes such activities, nobody should have a problem.
That’s what yesterday demonstrated: The rise going back to 1980s of Hindutva, Hindu nationalism as a political force and it’s increasing domination over Indian politics and its desire to change not just politics, but society and every other aspect of life.
The key difference between Somnath and this was not just a temple, but the site of the demolished Babri Masjid. It is a message to India’s Muslim minority too.
It ties into the [belief] that the Hindu identity has been suppressed, whether by the fact that Indian history hasn’t emphasised the ancient Hindu past, or the Hindu rulers haven’t been given as much emphasis as the Mughals or other Muslim dynasties. So it’s a struggle and it’s a fight in education, in history, in our perception of who is an Indian and whether minorities – Muslims, Christians – are Indian or not.
Not if you go by strictly by the definition of [Hindutva ideologue Vinayak] Savarkar. Similarly, things like the temple, the cow issue, caste, women, all of these and history – these are the battlegrounds, right? And these have continued. I mean, gau rakshak committees go back to the 1880s, 1890s. The desire to control or decide what women should do, who they should marry, what they should not do, again, goes back. The caste issue goes back. And they remain.
I think that struggle has always been there, but it’s been coming out in the open and in every arena in the past five, seven, 10 years.
I grew up in India and I still call myself a Nehruvian secular. I may not agree with all of his policies, but I agree with most of them. But at the fundamental core, I believe in the Constitution of India, which defines citizenship, religion in a certain way. And I and I believe that is what India should do.
You mentioned earlier that the way people perceive India abroad is changing. How do you see that playing out?
In the 1950s and ’60s, India’s image was as a post-colonial country, you know, a country of maharajas, and elephants and snake charmers, which is still poor. It needed assistance. But India was still viewed as as a unique example, because it was a country which became a democracy immediately after independence, the country which actually gave universal suffrage to everybody, despite the fact that our literacy rate was I would say 16% or 17% at that time.
So we were an example of a post-colonial country which became a democracy, which had an open, plural, tolerant society, which did not suffer any military coups. We did not go into military alliance building, did not go into wars. We were a status quo power. So the image that India built over the decades and I’ve seen this living in the US for 16 years, that India was seen as the land of Gandhi, the land of democracy, a country which has a lot of religions and cultures, but they live peacefully in a country which can actually become a friend and an ally.
Take India’s nuclear weapons programme. We have faced some problems, but by and large, the world has been more comfortable with India’s nuclear programme than that of Pakistan or Iran, or even Israel or Saudi Arabia, right? And the reason is that a democracy which is stable within, which is not aggressive, is a country we would like to have.
Even though you have a large population, and you have a diverse population and you have a very large Muslim population, you manage to keep things democratic, under control. The image of Indians in the US or the UK or Europe is of “model minorities”: they come, they study, they get jobs. It’s not a question of having to track them or trace them for any problems and things like that, because of what India is doing or what they are doing. The image we built is of a country which did not go to war. Pakistan is a country which attacked India in all the wars, China is the country which is aggressive, not India. And that image has helped us in that countries want India to be an ally. Countries want India to rise.
I mean, if you go back in history, how many current powers want another power to become a great power? Why does the US want India to rise? I mean, if you leave China and Pakistan aside, all the countries in our region, from Australia, to Japan to South Korea to United States, Europe want us to rise. You normally don’t want a competitor to rise. But that’s because you don’t see that competitor, as becoming a hegemon or being an aggressor. That is based on your being a democracy, you’re being a plural open society, you’re being non aggressive. You’re keeping strategic restraint and abiding by the rules.
If the image of India changes from being a democracy to not being a democracy, from being one which is a tolerant society and a stable politics to one which is inward looking, which is focused only on rewriting and revisiting history, which is so occupied within that it does not care about what is happening outside its region, then the image of India will change, India will no longer be the country, which you would want as an ally. It will be a country which could have been an ally but didn’t really rise up to the level because it was mired in its domestic disputes
To push back on that – the West has never had a problem working with anti-democratic, authoritarian, illiberal democracies. Why should things be any different for India?
I will say three things in response first.
[For the West] China has never been an ally. The aim was to break China away from the Soviet Union or the aim was to bring China into the global arena, but China has always been treated as an autocratic authoritarian country, which was not an example to the world. It was a country which needed to be managed. A country with which the US needed a relationship.
It was never treated like the Atlantic Charter or the European countries, UK, or even Japan or Australia. The intelligence cooperation, the deep sort military cooperation was not what was offered to China. Yes, the China relationship was there. But China was always viewed as autocratic. The belief was that as it became part of the global economy, it would hopefully become democratic.
In 1946, even before India’s independence, the US State Department said that we want a united India because that is the country we want as an ally and in the 1950s-1960s you had people like President Truman, President Kennedy or even Eisenhower saying, India is going to be our ally or a bulwark. So, India was seen as a democratic counter to China, right to the 1950s.
It’s been said that [this] was some form of strategic altruism: the US saying, under Clinton and then Bush and Obama, that India’s rise is good for us. Even if we don’t get immediate economic benefits or immediate military benefits, we are willing to wait for India to change its view on what an ally means. So we will call you a power. We won’t call you an ally but your rise is good for us.
We don’t want another China rising. We don’t want another autocratic power. So Iran’s nuclear weapon scares us. What Turkey is doing worries us. Saudi Arabia getting nuclear weapons worries us because they are autocratic countries, which we don’t want to become great power because we don’t know which way they’ll go. We trust the democracy in India will be with the liberal international order. And that even if you have some problems within you will resolve them and you will remain with the liberal international order. So we want you to rise because of that. Because you are the counter example to China.
You’re an Asian country, which is democratic. You are a country which has about 150-200 million Muslims, majority of whom live under democracy and have not joined or sympathised with many other radical Islamists. So you are an example we can put forth to Asian countries, to African countries to Latin American countries. And I think that’s why I say India’s example matters. And if our example changes, then we will face some problems. It doesn’t mean the world will suddenly stop talking to us. But, if the image changes, it’s going to hurt our rise.
But there’s the argument that Western nations are themselves flirting with illiberal democracy?
Majoritarianism is everywhere. But here, I would also add, if India was growing at 8%-10% economic growth, if India had the military, which could stand up to China, then maybe we could turn around and say, you know, why are you saying this? But actually we seem to have it bad on all fronts. Economic growth has slowed down. We haven’t invested in human capital as Covid shows us right now. Our military modernisation has not gone as planned. And we have political and social tensions.
So China could say, you know, “I’m growing at 8%-10%. I have a massive military, which may not be as large as America is, but it’s the second largest in the world. Talk to me.” What is India offering aside from its image?
To me that seemed the most pertinent point of the book. If you put aside the moral question of whether India should or should not remain a liberal democracy, it also seems like it is prematurely moving towards this presumption of Great Power status, when it may not have the cachet to do so?
Let’s say I wanted to run the Boston Marathon, or the New York Marathon. And, you know, I decided one month before the marathon that I’m going to run, and I’m going to win it, just because my grandfather was a massive runner and my father was. That doesn’t work. You need to practice for years to be a marathon runner. Just wanting to be a marathon runner doesn’t make you one. Especially when you refuse to do everything, which is required to at least qualify for one.
It’s what occurred to me as I was reading Shyam Saran’s book. It’s hard to quantify how much this image of India helps, in say clearing the way for the civil nuclear deal, but it’s apparent. Do you actively hear people talk about this image changing especially since Modi 2.0?
There are people who ask me why. Some of them will say, yes, everything is happening around the world even the US’ democracy has changed in this moment, there is populism and nationalism. But there are those who feel that after [Modi] came back a second time, they all expected there would be more economic reforms, more military reform… because you’re more secure today than you were before.
And so the question is why is it that instead of doing that, the shift is more on the social and the religious? Many of them say why is this more important if you have China on your border and you have Pakistan on your border? Some of them are willing to give India the benefit of the doubt, but some of them are getting frustrated and they are seeing you know, how long does one wait for India to make up its mind?
In my book’s conclusion, I say that ancient India could be isolationist. Modern India, if it wants to play a bigger role, you have to get out of being just the Indian subcontinent or looking within. You need to have a global vision. Focusing on the past rather than focusing on the future is what a lot of people here want to know – why India is doing that? They say, Pakistan did that in the initial years. So we can expect it of Pakistan, you went a different route. Why are you going back now?
The broad sense I get is that it is this gap between where India or at least one section of India sees itself versus where India actually is in the world that you’re writing about. Do you think this is getting worse?
I like something that one of the former governors of the RBI and somebody I know very well, Dr. Venugopal Reddy once said: In most countries you were trying to find out what happens in the future. In the case of India, you’re not even sure about what happened in the past, because the numbers are changed or the base mark is changing and sort of you know, that the figures which come out keep changing every few years. And so, yes, it is a problem because if I’m as a researcher, if I can’t trust government data, then they then have a fundamental problem.
And while this is something which is global – not just in India, I see it in the US, I see it in other countries, the attempt by the state to try and restrict access to information, which puts the current administration in a bad light. But, by doing that, what you’re basically doing is you are preventing our discussion on things which matter and you create obstacles for the conscious public but also researchers and others to know what is actually happening. And so yes, it is happening in India, but it’s happening in other countries as well. But more so in India, because the government plays a more dominant role in India than the government plays in many other countries.
My colleague Shoaib Daniyal argues that, while the underlying Great Power presumption was there, some of the blame can be attributed to the late 1990s-early 2000s “superpower 2020” rhetoric, started in some ways by APJ Abdul Kalam, which may have been a bad extrapolation of the growth in those years.
If you read TN Ninan and, he basically says that this belief that during the Mughal empire, we had this, percentage of the world economy – it was because your population basically gave you that advantage. But size doesn’t matter in today’s economy as much. You need to be able to produce, you need to be able to do a lot more. I agree with people who say that part of it is because our economy was growing, but I also push back and say, it’s not just to do with the economy.
Somewhere in my book, I write that most countries believe that their military power or their economic prowess is what makes them great powers or will make them a great power. At the core of the Indian identity, there is this belief that it’s our civilisational heritage, it’s our culture, it’s a history which entitles us to being a great power. We don’t need the economic power, we don’t need the military. Which is why we have never really invested that much in them either.
So we will become great because we deserve to be great. The economic and the military power may add on to it. But I sort of believe that there is a civilisational or an identity belief that it’s inevitable.
The China issue at the moment, in which even Beijing’s troops squatting on Indian land doesn’t dent this self-image, seems relevant?
To some extent, people don’t know that much because you’re restricting information. But people also believe that irrespective of what happens India will overcome. Here I will use it in a totally tangential way that famous Iqbal quote – kuchh baat hai ki hasti mitti nahi hamari sadiyon raha hai dushman daur-e-zaman hamara. [There must be something about us that, despite the whole world being against us, we are still here.]
This idea that irrespective of what happened in the past, all civilisations have come and gone, but ours hasn’t. So yes, China may do something, but we will survive, we will in the end overcome it. There is – I don’t know if you want to call it blind faith, if you want to call it conviction, but there is that belief that we will survive.
You call in the book for Indian foreign policy to marry realism and idealism a lot better. External Affairs Ministry S Jaishankar was, as a former bureaucrat, supposed to do this. What do you make of his tenure?
There’s one part India has done well, which is put forth its views more accurately. One of the problems we used to have in earlier decades was we believed that we didn’t need to say anything. The world would automatically know what we wanted. We tried to keep our foreign policy and politics very opaque for reasons I wrote my previous book.
On this part, Jaishankar has done a wonderful job. But at the end of the day, some of the things which he talked about India has yet to do. In one of his speeches a few years ago he said if you want to be a leading power, then we need the neighborhood rooting for us. Unfortunately, The neighborhood is still not rooting for us. We have problems in Nepal. We have problems now in Bangladesh, in Sri Lanka, we always had back problems with Pakistan. Maybe Afghanistan and Bhutan are the only countries who are still with us, but are sort of, you know, forget about beyond South Asia, we still haven’t got our neighborhood with us.
Second, looking a little broader, if you look in Southeast Asia, look in East Asia and the Indo-Pacific, the easy things like freedom of navigation exercises, building connectivity, collaborating with Japan and America and Australia, countering China’s Belt and Road Initiative – we haven’t been able to do well. So, I would say there’s still not a marriage between realism and idealism. It is still they’re both walking hand in hand and refusing to commit.
Was there anything that surprised you in the research for the book?
I think what surprised me, even as a history student...l was how consistently we’ve had the same challenges – on the social front, perceptions about women or about caste or about minorities. It’s like, we take a few steps forward, and then we debate and then we seem to go back rather than moving forward again. And it seems to happen in every arena – economic, military...
You can go back to the 1950s and you will find a report by the standing committee or defence which would make the same arguments for India’s military modernisation as a report written in 2016. And the fact that you have known what you have to do, and people have made the argument for what you need to do, and you still consistently refuse to do it and still believe that you will become a great power –I felt like I’m hitting my head against the wall multiple times.
And I think that at some level, I guess both surprised as well as maybe saddened me that it’s not something which is recent, it is something which goes back So, maybe we will be able to overcome it, but we’ll only be able to overcome it if we actually use the opportunity we have to undertake policies. Otherwise 10 years from now, Rohan and I will still be having this conversation “Why isn’t India great? Why aren’t we a global power?”
Since a lot of academics and students read this newsletter, I’d like to ask: What research on India would you like to see more of?
So I actually would like two things.
One: More work on India and its immediate neighbors. There’s a lot on India-Pakistan, a lot on Kashmir. But I believe we need more on India-Nepal, India-Bhutan, because India’s neighbors are its first layer of security. I would genuinely like to see more and more ground-level work.
Second: More on China. I mean, China has more experts who work on India than we have on China. One of the reasons I came to the US to do my PhD was I actually wanted to work at an American think tank because I saw American think tanks, as ones which give you opportunity and resources to write and work and I’ve enjoyed it.
Immediately after my graduate studies, I actually wanted to work in India. At that time, the Indian think tank space hadn’t opened up. It has opened up subsequently. But I would encourage more young people to join. The think tank space should include an equal number of people from academia, from media and the government. It should not just be a government heavy, because then you don’t get outside expertise. The government think tanks should provide outside expertise, not government expertise.
And so I would encourage more people to do their masters, do their PhDs, join think tanks and bring in that outside expertise which India needs. If India wants to achieve all the goals, all its ambitions, it needs more people in the policy arena, it needs more people who come from non government backgrounds in the policy arena, making arguments and actually showing the mirror.
What three books, movies or podcasts would you recommend for those who want to read something after the book?
- The Turn of Tortoise, TN Ninan
- The Absent Dialogue: Politicians, Bureaucrats, and the Military in India, Anit Mukherjee
- The Case for India, Will Durant