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India has enough clout to emerge a winner in global power

April 5, 2011

India has, for long, been regarded as a soft state. Gunnar Myrdal is credited with inventing this term, intended to mean a country where law enforcement and social discipline are low; by extension, one that is as timid and diffident in its dealings with other nations as with its own citizens.

Unlike tough and totalitarian states, or power-projecting countries like Israel, India was seen as mild and non-aggressive; preferring compromise to confrontation. A look at contemporary history may belie this: right from Hyderabad, immediately after Independence, to the liberation of Goa, the annexation of Sikkim, and interventions in Sri Lanka and Maldives. More recently, its muted and measured reaction to the Parliament attack and Kargil, and to China .s reported border incursions, have been lauded as signs of responsibility, as the maturity and confidence of an emerging power.

In fact, some have already anointed India as a potential or soon-to-be superpower. If the size and growth of the economy are a criterion, then India does f it the bill. Its impressive growth over the last two decades is but the prelude to even more acceleration in the next few years. In fact, the prognosis, as indicated in a recent Citi study, is that (in PPP terms) it will be the third-largest economy by 2015, overtake the US by 2040 and, around 2050, become even bigger than China.

Many welcome the move from the pejorative ‘soft state’ to macho ‘superpower’. The xenophobic brigade sees this as a fulfilment of India’s destiny, recapturing its ‘glorious past’. Yet, an objective assessment will hardly justify this appellation: India’s military capabilities are but a fraction of China’s, and its nuclear arsenal reportedly smaller than Pakistan’s. Relative to others, India’s coercive abilities in the region of its immediate interest are very limited.

How, then, can India influence developments in countries of interest to it? Relevant to this is the definition of brand India. Are its primary attributes related to military power: the fact that we are the biggest importer of armaments or have the third-largest army? It is unlikely that this will give us greater clout than competitors. Surely, it is not arms and armies, but culture and cuisine, democracy and diversity, spirituality and software that we would rather be known for.

It is these and similar facets of India that people elsewhere look up to; and, fortunately, in today’s world, it is these that are increasingly important. These have become the new currency of power, as countries realise that the battles of tomorrow are not about occupying land, but capturing hearts and minds.

Hard evidence of this is visible in the turmoil in north Africa and west Asia, as it was earlier in central and eastern Europe, where ideas and ideals are beginning to trump military force. Earlier waves had seen the triumph of other ideals, first nationalism and then religion – sweep many countries. Some had predicted a similar wave of market, or capitalist, democracy ousting all other ideals, but the last decade has not seen this materialising.

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