India and greatness are not strangers. It was always great and hence it attracted so many to its natural richness and bounty.
The Aryans, the Muslims, the Europeans, and now the Americans have pursued India either to become part of it, rule it, exploit it, or, as in the case of the U.S. today, partner with it in strategic pursuits. India gave the world great empires, the Mauryas, the Guptas, and the Mughals, to name a few. They collectively created a rich and glorious civilization.
So when India became independent from British colonial rule, even though it had become underdeveloped, poor due to two centuries of British looting, and traumatized as a result of a bloody partition, it expected to soon regain its past greatness. In recent years India’s economy has grown, its military has become more powerful, and it is respected more than ever before in the international arena. Hence, for many in India, imminent greatness is a foregone conclusion.
In this short essay commemorating India’s 75 years of independence, I wish to look at India today with a critical eye to examine if India’s destiny is in its grasp. I identify five of its major achievements, but I also note three major failures which could make India’s journey bumpy and slower if not completely derail it. So first the achievements and then the setbacks.
India was born a full-fledged secular, constitutional democracy with socialist predilections. Today it is recognized as the world’s largest democracy. Even though since 2019 it has suffered severe setbacks in religious and human rights and in maintaining rule of law, and has also seen its secular nature take a severe hit, it is still a democracy, albeit flawed.
However, India’s democratic decline needs to be understood in the global context. Democracy has been on a steady retreat since 2005 and the world, by and large, has seen the rise of illiberalism, populism, and authoritarianism. Less than 20 percent of the world population now lives in full democracies. In this context, India is still the best democracy in South Asia by far. While India’s current trend towards majoritarianism must be noted, its democracy should also be celebrated.
Nuclear and Military Power
India declared its nuclear capability in 1974 with an atomic test and became one of nine known nuclear powers with more tests in 1998. It suffered sanctions for a few years and although it is not recognized as a nuclear weapons power, it is now a respected member of the nuclear club.
Nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantors of national security. If Ukraine had not given up its nuclear weapons it would certainly not be in the position it is in at present.
India has also developed ballistic missile technology and with the world’s third largest defense budget it is well on its way to becoming a major global military power. While many of my liberal and constructivist colleagues may not like this realist assessment, I am convinced that given the unfriendly presence of nuclear China and nuclear Pakistan in its neighborhood, India did well to secure itself.
Economic Growth and Development
After economic liberalization began in 1991, the Indian economy has grown at a very rapid pace, often second only to China. With a GDP of $3 trillion, it is one of the five biggest economies in the world today. When adjusted for purchasing power it is the third biggest economy in the world after China and the United States.
In 2003, nearly a third of the country was in extreme poverty. Today less than 1 percent of its population lives in extreme poverty. From 2006 to 2016, India lifted 273 million people out of poverty. This is like eliminating poverty in a nation the size of Indonesia. This is indeed an exceptional achievement for a post-colonial country that has suffered from four major wars and a lot of domestic challenges. India is still a low-middle-income economy with a poor Human Development Index rating, but it has taken giant steps forward and the momentum is in its favor.
Exporter of Experts
Immediately after independence, India started investing in education but its slow-growth economy, with the so-called Hindu growth rate of 3.5 percent, could not absorb the large number of engineers, doctors, and scientists that were being produced. So Indians started looking for greener pastures abroad. Today, India, with a diaspora which numbers over 18 million, is the biggest supplier of experts to the world. The success of Indians abroad in STEM-related fields, in particular, is widely recognized, especially with so many Indians heading some of the biggest and best tech firms in the world.
India’s investment in education and in human resources is one of its biggest achievements. Moreover, Indian achievers are a source of billions of dollars in hard currency remittances and the transfer of knowledge to India. They are also a source of soft power.
India is not a typical nation-state; it is a conglomerate of dozens of nation-states. It is more like Europe. Consider Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Karnataka, Gujarat, and Bengal. They are all states with a distinct language, history, cuisine, and culture. They are like nation-states. India should have witnessed more than its share of separatist movements seeking separate homelands but except for a few, like the Khalistan movement in Punjab and the Kashmiri crisis, India has succeeded in integrating many diverse communities into itself. That indeed is a tribute to the idea of India that appeals to all these disparate ethnic communities.
India’s failures, like its successes, are numerous. I want to highlight these three because I think they are critical to India’s future as a rising power and the preservation of its democracy.
Rise of Hindutva
The rise of Hindu nationalism has heightened the marginalization and subjugation of Indian Muslims to such an extent that it has prompted the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedoms (USCIRF) to call for India to be designated as a country of particular concern (CPC) by the U.S. State Department, three years in a row. The religious fault line has become so severe that there are open calls for genocide of Muslims from Hindu clerics close to the ruling party.
Muslim life, culture, heritage, and property are at the mercy of the mobs, the law enforcement agencies, and judiciary, all of whom are profoundly communalized. If this war on Muslims is not checked it could undermine all the progress India has made at home and make it a pariah abroad. A tiny glimpse of what could happen was on display during the recent domestic and international uproar over a former ruling party spokesperson’s denigration of the Prophet of Islam.
India is entangled in a perpetual conflict with Pakistan, which has both international as well as domestic dimensions. Not only has India fought four wars with Pakistan, but it also continues to struggle with a domestic insurgency in Kashmir.
Even though the constitutional status of Kashmir was changed to essentially integrate it into the country, the changes were made in a profoundly undemocratic and oppressive fashion and do not enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of Kashmiris. This conflict has radicalized the domestic politics of both nations, diverts large chunks of the budget away from development, and stunts the growth of the two nations as well as the region.
India as the biggest nation in South Asia has failed to bring peace and stability, growth, and regional integration to South Asia. How can it ever become a global leader without first becoming a leader in its own region?
While the economy has done well and millions have come out of poverty, in recent years India has become one of the most unequal nations in both income and wealth. Such vast inequality in addition to existing social inequalities based on caste and religion can potentially cause social and political upheaval. The farmers’ protests and the Agnipath protests are just a few indicators of how the concentration of wealth can potentially destabilize the country.
This inequality is now also showing across the gender divide as the role of women in India’s economy is suddenly shrinking. Inequality along with the end of secularism are India’s greatest failures in the past few decades.
India has much to celebrate on August 15. It has indeed arrived at the cusp of greatness. But there are serious challenges, some old and festering, some new and emerging. They must be overcome before India can taste its destiny. The famous observation made by the Sufi Saint Nizamuddin Auliya, meanwhile, captures India’s situation quite aptly: “Hanooz Dilli Door Asth”; “Delhi is still far away.”