This week, as India celebrates 70 years of independence, it celebrates also its status as a great power. As the most important “global swing state,” the nation is actively courted from all directions. But what kind of power will India become?
The answers to these three questions will determine not just India’s role in the world but the nature of great power politics in the 21st century.
1. Will India convert its demographic potential into economic growth?
India’s population is 1.3 billion today, and it is expected to pass China’s in the next decade and reach 1.7 billion by 2050. India has more youth and fewer elderly than China — and as the Chinese generation born of the one-child policy comes of age, that gap will only grow. By 2050, more than one in four people in China is expected to be over 65 — compared to roughly one in eight people in India.
But raw numbers are not the same as productivity. China today is more than twice as wealthy per person as India. India’s young labor pool is growing most quickly in its most poorly governed states, where opportunities are scarcest.
India’s developing economy continues to lack much of the physical and administrative infrastructure needed to put all those young people to work. “In police, tax collection, education, health, power, water supply — in nearly every routine service — there is rampant absenteeism, indifference, incompetence and corruption,” writes economist Lant Pritchett.
Even as absolute poverty has declined — from 45 percent in 1993 to 21 percent in 2011 — India struggles with widespread child malnutrition. India does not have a large manufacturing sector that can absorb the countryside’s unskilled labor. China’s export-led development model may no longer be replicable, and it isn’t clear that India’s economy can leapfrog directly from agriculture to services.
Right now, many observers expect the coming world order to be divided between two great powers: the United States and China. For India to take its place alongside those two, its next 20 years of economic growth will need to look like China’s last 20 years.
2. As India grows more prosperous, how well will it play with others?
India has had troubled relations with Pakistan, including four wars, since the two countries were created when Britain partitioned its former colony in 1947. India’s relations with China are better, but still fraught, as both countries continue to manage a major territorial dispute that erupted in war in 1962. This summer, Sino-Indian tensions rose over a related Sino-Bhutanese territorial dispute. There is plenty of kindling for conflict involving India — any of which could divert the nation from development.
Sometimes economic modernization leads to international moderation. India’s former prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who held office from 2004 to 2014, argued that India’s problems were mostly domestic and “peace with our own neighborhood” would advance Indian prosperity. He undertook an ambitious peace process with Pakistan, and declined to retaliate after Pakistan-based terrorist groups attacked Mumbai in December 2008.
Singh’s actions fit into what political scientists Sunil Dasgupta and Stephen P. Cohen identify as an “enduring” culture of “strategic restraint,” which manifests as a “reticence to use force.” But political scientists Paul Staniland and Vipin Narang instead explain Indian political figures’ behavior by saying that because Indian voters care less about foreign policy than domestic issues, Indian leaders have been able to act without fear of punishment at the ballot box for foreign policy missteps. This gave them greater latitude to back down in crises when they felt military action was imprudent.
But that may have changed. Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been comparatively hawkish, especially toward Pakistan. Modi’s voters tend to come from the middle and upper class, and are much more likely to care about foreign policy and, perhaps, to punish leaders for foreign policy failings. Narang has argued that Modi’s decision in September 2016 to conduct surgical strikes in Pakistan-administered Kashmir suggests “doing nothing” about areas of simmering tension may no longer be “politically tenable.”
As more Indian voters care about foreign policy, the country’s leaders may have difficulty tolerating provocations from Pakistan and China that previously could have been ignored. Such popular pressures could lead to more conflict along India’s periphery in the coming years.
3. How much will New Delhi and Washington value their strategic partnership?
The George W. Bush administration decided that the United States should “help India become a major world power in the 21st century.” As Ashley Tellis, one of the architects of the policy, explained, the Bush administration believed that direct containment of China was impossible, so it instead pursued “a strategy of balancing China by building up the power of key states located on its periphery.”
For its part, India concluded that U.S. help was necessary to emerge as a great power. Only Washington could undertake the diplomatic effort necessary to permit India to enter international institutions on a stronger footing. And Washington was the best potential diplomatic, military and intelligence partner as India grappled with the rise of China.
Some prominent Indian observers have asked whether India tilted too far toward the United States. They fear New Delhi might collaborate with Washington to manage China’s rise, only to find India alone on the front line following some future U.S. retrenchment. The logic of nonalignment — or more precisely, multidirectional engagement — was to hedge against unexpected changes involving any great power.
With Donald Trump’s election, these same elites argue that too close U.S.-India ties expose India to the vicissitudes of American politics. Indeed, former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran wrote immediately after the U.S. election that compared to the volatile Trump, “China appears as relatively stable, predictable and even positive factor” in international politics.
But while the Indian public has lost confidence in the U.S. president, it still holds generally favorable views of the United States overall. Trump has not appointed most of his South Asia team, however, and it’s not clear whether his administration will invest in the strategic partnership, return to a more transactional India policy or neglect the country entirely.
Christopher Clary is an assistant professor of political science at the University at Albany, State University of New York. From 2006 to 2009, he worked on India policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @clary_co.