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India at seventy: For this continent-sized nation, the quest for a place in the sun continues

The Times of India
By Professor  

The task of accounting for India’s successes and failures is no mean one due to its bewildering complexity. That it is impossible to pigeonhole or fully comprehend India in all its varieties of experiences and outcomes is a given because we are talking of a continent-sized nation. The American scholar, Arthur Asa Berger, wrote in 2008, that “it is hard to reconcile a country that has atom bombs, millions of highly trained engineers, an extremely high growth rate and, at the same time, has millions of cows wandering around its streets and millions of desperately poor farmers.”

Economically, India has been a disappointment. Overall incidence of poverty has fallen from a high of 70% in 1947 to approximately 22% now. However, the pace at which India has slashed poverty has been maddeningly slow compared to other heavily populated countries like Indonesia and China.

Misguided macroeconomic policies driven by socialistic ideology are partly to blame for India’s long post-independence economic stagnation. But even after adoption of market-friendly approaches in the 1990s and record-high GDP growth in recent years, a whopping 300 million Indians remain devoid of basic needs. The United Nations’ Human Development Index, which measures levels of healthcare, education and standard of living, ranked India at 131 out of 188 countries in 2016.

The stubbornness of poverty and malnutrition concentrated in northern and eastern states of India, in spite of the rise of a massive consuming middle class of some 300 million, is a serious flaw that confirms the narrative of India as a heterogeneous country where riches and privation coexist.

To critics on the Left, India can never eliminate poverty if it keeps marching on a ‘neoliberal’ economic path that concentrates the benefits of growth in the hands of big business houses. On the Right, however, the argument is that parts of India where mass poverty is prevalent are presently left out of the burgeoning market economy and must be drawn into it to taste its benefits. A third perspective is that only continuous reform of governance, repurposing of the state apparatus and infrastructure uplift can deliver the poor out of misery.

Since the election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister in 2014, there has been a surge of expectation and optimism about India overcoming its socio-economic maladies and galloping ahead like the east Asian ‘tigers’. A Prosperity Index by the private investment firm Legatum gave India its best ranking in governance in 2016. Transparency International has also promoted India up the ladder for lowering corruption under Modi’s watch.

India’s foreign policy, which used to be lackadaisical and reactive for decades, has also gotten an infusion of confidence and proactiveness under Modi. The utter frustration that India was not living up to global expectations by taking on more international responsibilities has been dispelled by Modi’s quest to make India a “leading power” on the world stage.

Yet, as India turns 70, the spectre of Chinese hegemony and the threat it poses to India’s ambitions in Asia and beyond has magnified. China will seek to bolster Pakistan with more financial aid and military support to try and keep India bogged down in south Asia.

Although the chief of the Indian army, General Bipin Rawat, has talked of India being prepared for a “two-and-half front war” scenario with China, Pakistan and internal Maoist rebels, the history of the last 70 years shows that China and Pakistan could never simultaneously declare war on India due to the role of fourth parties (the Soviet Union/ Russia and USA).

Indian national strategy under Modi should be to ensure that major external powers like Russia and USA stay on its corner or are at least wary of China to ward off the possibility of a two-front war by China and Pakistan against India, that could deal a catastrophic blow to India’s developmental pursuits.

Seventy-year-old India has its tasks cut out. They are to reduce the regional imbalances, inequalities and anomalies in its socio-economic transformation and to emerge as a provider of global public goods in its foreign policy.