Is India ready to be a great world power?

Is India ready to be a great world power? Is she ready to stake her claim to world leadership in its true sense and not in the pseudo-self-congratulatory manner of the era of Nehru and later Indira Gandhi in the form of non-aligned movement (blind leading the blind)? Going by events in the past half a decade and specifically post 9/11, the answer is a resounding no.

Today’s New York Times has an article by Tom Friedman called “The Axis Of Order?” in which he suggests that India along with Russia and China form the axis of order which can work to contain the nuclear ambitions of Iran and it is in their self interest to do so but will they step up to the plate and do the big hitting?

That the question is being asked at all is itself a testimony to India’s rapid rise during the past few years as an economic power. This rise is often attributed to India’s formidable intellectual capital. If you cared to look a little deeper, this growth is not a result of any initiative from the Indian government or even the Indian people in a collective sense. Indian government did not set out in 1995 with a master plan to say, “Hey, let’s make sure that by the end of 2005 India is one of leading countries in the field of information technology.” The start of economic liberalization by the Rao government in 1991 itself was forced by India’s dire economic situation at the time (remember Indias’ mortgage of gold to pay the bills?).

In fact, most of this growth happened due to a fortunate confluence of favorable circumstances. Y2K was a fruit ripe for the picking by Indian IT companies to do work which the US software companies were not interested in touching with a barge pole at that time. Money from that work acted as a catalyst in igniting an era of unprecedented growth for Indian IT companies which was helped in no small part by the fact that a country of more than a billion people is bound to produce its share of smart people; add low cost to the mix and you have a potent mix of fuel that blasted Indian economy with the required escape velocity to get out of the “Hindu rate of growth”.

What exceptional role was played by the government in this whole period? In fact, if you do not consider some of the tech savvy local leaders like Naidu, the government tried its best to kill the goose that laid the golden egg for India. This has been evident in the way growth and infrastructure has been managed in cities like Banglore, Gurgaon and Noida and the shabby manner in which some of the Indian IT CEOs have been treated by the politicians. This goes to show that India’s rise as a major economic power was mostly due to effort of private citizens and as I said earlier, favorable circumstances.

In the past five years or so, as India was staking its claim to be an economic superpower, circumstances were also right for her to become a political superpower, at least at a regional level. Post 9/11, India was in a unique position of having a large Muslim population that was not in the least extremist like their Middle Eastern counterparts. India was also suffering from Islamic terrorism fueled from across the border and India had also suffered at the hands of Taliban. Moreover, like the US, India was a truly multicultural democracy. It was a great opportunity to take leadership role in the region, to join hands with the US and take Afghanistan to the path of a democracy. That it would have helped lessen Pakistan’s role in the region would have been an added bonus. But India leaders let it slip by. Something similar happened before and during the Iraq war. As the middle-east was getting reshaped, India, despite having a huge stake in the region stepped back and watched from sidelines and as the recent terror attack in Banglore, which has been linked to Saudi Arabia, has shown, the price for inaction can be huge for the country.

And finally, the rapidly unraveling Iranian nuclear issue offers yet another opportunity to India to claim political leadership in this region of the world. Last time when India voted with the US to refer Iran to Security Council, there was a big domestic political backlash especially from the left parties. So the chances of Indian politicians mustering up the courage to say the right thing are very bleak indeed.

This brings us to Thomas Friedman’s question. Yes it is in India’s best interest to not to have a nuclear Iran but political leadership, unlike the economic one is an entirely different ball game (it is the difference between Lexus and the olive tree to use Tom’s favorite metaphor). To gain political leadership, private citizens, no matter how earnest and hard working, are powerless to make any decisions. The initiative has to come from the political leaders, but going by past experience of India’s politicians, don’t count it.

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