A homeless woman plays carrom with her children on a footpath in Hyderabad. India sits low on many socio-economic rankings. Photo: Noah Seelam / AFP

The perceptions of Indian political leaders and top bureaucrats about their country’s position in the world appear far removed from reality.

These elites appear not to be mindful of the republic’s fundamental purposes envisaged in the constitution. And they seem lost to their duty and function to the people.

Yet they want to attempt a massive task that is beyond their economic, technological, political, military and strategic capacity.

After I went through two books and three reports about India recently, I came to this conclusion.

The first was a recently published and slim volume titled The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World by Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. He had been in the Indian Foreign Service for more than four decades.

He became India’s external affairs minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term in May 2019. Modi also had made him foreign secretary in 2015 because of his pro-US foreign-policy thinking.

In his book, Jaishankar says India’s foreign policy carries three significant burdens from history. He writes:

“One is the 1947 Partition, which reduced the nation both demographically and politically. An unintended consequence was to give China more strategic space in Asia.

“Another is the delayed economic reforms that were undertaken a decade and a half after those of China. And far more ambivalently. The fifteen-year gap in capabilities continues to put India at a great disadvantage.

“The third is the prolonged exercise of the nuclear option.

“As a result, India has had to struggle mightily to gain influence in a domain that could have come so much more easily earlier. It is, of course, better that these issues are being addressed late than never. But greater self-reflection on our mistakes since 1947 would certainly serve the nation well. We could also extend that to the roads not taken.”

He also advocated taking the risk of going for an alliance with the US to rebalance China’s growing global power. He also underscores that India will gain more from a partnership with the US in the long run.  

The second book is How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century, by Shyam Sharan. Sharan was also a foreign secretary of India, from 2004 to 2006.

Sharan writes, “India must seek to align with other powerful states to countervail the main adversary. This would mean a closer relationship with the US, Japan, Australia, Indonesia, and Vietnam … all of whom share India’s concerns over China’s assertion of power in Asia.”

The conclusion from these books could be that these senior foreign-policy figures seem over-obsessed with China’s economic, military, and technological advancement. However, their views of the world and their country do not represent India’s current position.

This is not the time for India to rebalance China’s influence. India is not in a condition to counter China.

I also read three reports by credible international think-tanks and media and tried to work out India’s current position.

First, the Global Hunger Index (GHI) was jointly published on October 16 by Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe using the score index calculated by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Despite Indian strategists’ claim that India is an aspirant global power, it is at the bottom in South Asia except for war-torn Afghanistan in the GHI ranking.

The report suggests that India ranks 94th out of 104 countries listed. India shares the same rank as Sudan, in the red zone. That means India’s hunger situation is in the “alarming” category. India’s South Asian peers rank as follows: Sri Lanka 64, Nepal 73, Bangladesh 75, and Pakistan 88.

India is unable to feed its kids and yet dreams of being a global strategic player.

Second, I read a report by Andy Mukherjee in Bloomberg Business dated October 17. The headline is fascinating: “The next China? India must first beat Bangladesh.”

Mukherjee writes: “Ever since it began opening up the economy in the 1990s, India’s dream has been to emulate China’s rapid expansion. After three decades of persevering with that campaign, slipping behind Bangladesh hurts its global image. The West wants a meaningful counterweight to China, but that partnership will be predicated on India not getting stuck in a lower-middle-income trap.”

The third report I skimmed was published earlier but is still relevant. The Davos-based World Economic Forum (WEF) started to publish the World Inclusive Development Report (IDI) in 2017.

The WEF says IDI is designed as an alternative to GDP and reflects more closely the criteria by which people evaluate their countries’ economic progress. The IDI 2018 ranking suggested that India is again at the bottom. In the IDI ranking of 74 states in the Emerging Economies category, Nepal ranks No 22, Bangladesh 34, Sri Lanka 40, Pakistan 47, and India 62.

Besides, India, the world’s largest functional democracy, is not a role model for other countries in South Asia, even for its human-rights record. Amnesty International’s recent closure of its operations in India confirms this.

These reports show that India is neither comparable to the traditional superpower, the US, nor to an emerging superpower, China. It is also not equal to a middle-power country like Japan or Germany. It is not even equivalent to its immediate neighbors Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal in many development indicators.

India lags its South Asian peers. Therefore, India is not a role model in the South Asia region, either in economic performance or in socioeconomic development. Recently, South Asian countries have been looking to China with hope rather than India because of India’s poor image. A country with a lower socioeconomic development ranking cannot be a role model for higher-ranked countries.

Indian leaders’ and bureaucrats’ denials won’t work for India. The sooner India accepts that it lags far behind superpowers, middle-power countries and its immediate neighbors, the sooner it will start fixing its economy.

Hubris of being a global player may be useful for Indian leaders and officials but it won’t help the people.

India must stop the cacophony of strategic matrices like the Quad, the Indo-Pacific Strategy, and Malabar Drill because these things will not solve the “alarming hunger” of Indian kids. They also will not help in the socioeconomic development of India.

India must first develop into a US$10 trillion economy. Then, the global community will recognize its global ambitions.

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Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel is visiting faculty for a master's in international relations and diplomacy, Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, and faculty for a master's program of Development Economics, Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at bhim.bhurtel@gmail.com.