Dr. Aparna Pande: What would it take for India to be a global power? Long-term planning, investments   

Dr. Aparna Pande
Dr. Aparna Pande

Dr. Pande, author of “Making India Great: The Promise of a Reluctant Global Power,” discusses the book.

Dr. Aparna Pande is the Director of the Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. An expert on South Asia, foreign policy and defense strategy, she is the author of a number of books, including Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: Escaping India (2011), From Chanakya to Modi: Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy (2017), Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Pakistan (2017), and Making India Great: The Promise of a Reluctant Global Power (2020).

Dr. Pande holds a master’s in history from St. Stephens College, Delhi, a Master of Philosophy in international relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and a doctorate in political science from Boston University.

In a freewheeling conversation with Jayshal Sood, Dr. Pande shares her insights on various challenges facing India and how the country can overcome those obstacles. Here are the edited excerpts:

First and foremost, tell me about the phrase “reluctant global power.”

India, while it has built economic power and it has military power, and it believes it should be a global great power, I believe the country and its leaders are still reluctant to either project power in their neighborhood or beyond, or undertake all those policies that will actually make India a great power soon. There is a belief that we are a great power and we become one. We really don’t need to do anything, or that the world will recognize us simply because we are a 5,000-year-old civilization. So, there’s a reluctance to undertake policies, to understand what is power in this day and age.

In your book, you have mentioned several strengths that India has. Now you have mentioned about the country’s reluctance. Elaborate a little bit more: what is stopping India to manifest itself as one of the global powers?

I would say India has a lot of potential in many areas but challenges as well, from social and political challenges to economic and human capital, challenges in the military arena and the foreign policy, and in what people refer to as grand strategy. At the end of the day, what does a country want to become and how does it reach the goal that it seeks? So, if we start off with the social challenges, the modern Indian state is 72 years old, even though India is a 5,000-year-old civilization. And over the centuries, and especially the last few decades, the Indian civilization has had what people have referred to as two broad strands. A strand which is more liberal, progressive, tolerant, open to the world, and believes the more India is inclusive, and it’s open and learns from everybody from everywhere around the world. The second strand believes that India has, in some ways, everything we had to learn, we’ve already learned in the past. And it seems to harken back to the past rather than look to the future, and the desire for making, country which is uniform by language, religion, sort of politics.

Making India Great: The Promise of a Reluctant Global PowerSo there are these two competing strands which have over the decades actually always conflicted. And so there is this, there is this sort of fundamental problem of “what is it to be an Indian” and different people defined it different way, whether you fall on one side or fall on the other.

Why does it matter? Because, at the end of the day, if you want to be a global power of even a regional power, you need social stability. And for that, I will just give three examples. India has had woman as prime minister, woman as president, there are women in many arenas in Indian life, and yet, there are fewer women in the workforce today than there were in the 1990s. India’s female workforce participation is half that of China and half that of the global average. Two, despite having a constitution, which is progressive, open and also socially progressive, India still faces challenges, which affect its lower caste people, people who are minorities. Those challenges facing them, [such as] discriminations, 72 years after independence, do demonstrate that at some level, the Indian society has still not managed to resolve its intrinsic problems. Why does it matter? Because at the end of the day, the world needs to be comfortable with India’s sense of self. While for domestic reasons and populism may demand that you focus internally and then focus on what happened in the past, being a global power means you need to focus on what is going to happen in the future. Not on seeking to rewrite or change the past.

Coming to other areas, economics and human capital, India’s biggest resource is human capital. But as the Covid pandemic has demonstrated, India under invested in its healthcare, which is visible over the last nine months. India doesn’t have enough primary healthcare, India has not invested in hospitals, and not invested in its doctors, so that they are available everywhere. It has not invested in its testing capability or its research and development. Education, those countries like the Southeast Asian countries, or East Asian countries, which invested in education, and provided at least basic primary education, has done much better than India has done. So education, healthcare, water, sanitation, electricity, basic infrastructure in any cities, India has under invested in research and development.

China has invested around two percent two and a half percent in research and development. The global average is two percent. India’s is less than 0.6. That is not how you build your human capital economics. We are the country which sends satellites into space right, we are a country which has a program where ISRO and NASA can cooperate. And yet in seven decades, India has not been able to [manufacture a] branded razor or branded fountain pen, with an Indian brand. Why is that? Seven decades of poverty alleviation programs, still one fourth of India’s population is still below the poverty line. Three decades after the 1990s’ reforms, India’s economic growth has slowed down to two or three percent pre-Covid. Yes, covid has hit us badly and we’ve actually gone into a technical recession. But to come out of it and to actually grow at six percent, in order to achieve India’s social goals and developmental goals, India needs to grow at six percent, at least for three decades. There are only three countries in the world which have grown at six percent for three decades consistently, China, South Korea, and Taiwan. India needs economic reforms, which sort of most people know what those reforms are, and land acquisition the labor market reforms, financial market reforms, some agriculture reform], which is happening, but a lot more agriculture [reform] is required. Let’s turn to military: the size of India’s military… will make people feel we are a great power. [With] 1.2 million serving, 2.8 million reserves, India ranks fourth in the global fire power index. But for the last few years, India’s military to GDP ratio is 1.6 of its GDP. You cannot…

Actually, you have an interesting figure in your book that says a $400 billion dollar equipment deficit. That’s a huge deficit.

It is, and it is based on the fact that, if you spend 1.6 percent of your [GDP on] military, but the majority of it — 60 percent or 63 percent or 65 percent — goes into salaries and pensions, then the amount that you have left for capital investment, for actually purchasing new equipment, is very little. It’s 10 percent, 15 percent, maybe 20 percent, depending on an average year. If you look at what the Army, Navy and Air Force need, two years ago, at that time the vice chief of Army staff said that around 60 percent of Indian Army’s equipment is out of date and about 10 percent or 15 percent is new. Let’s say it’s gone up to 20. That’s still a massive shortfall for the Indian Army, especially when you have China sitting on the border, and [given] the Chinese investment in its army, its navy and its air force. So 1.6 percent of GDP will not make you — forget about — a global power even a regional power right now. Because you have to contend against what China is spending, and then what Pakistan and the other neighbors are spending. If you want to project power in the region, you need additional equipment. Nowadays, military means not just men — personnel — it means technology; it means equipment; it needs training. It’s not just the resources shortfall, it’s also the perception, the belief that you can react to things as they happen. So when China comes on the border, you need to purchase equipment, you need to provide equipment to your personnel. You need to provide resources. Military planning, or defense planning is 15, 20, 40, 100 years out. That India has never done. India does not do that long-range defense planning.

So is that the overarching strategy you’re talking about in your book that India lacks?

My overarching strategy is you need to go know where you’re going. And for this, I use a childhood favorite. I’m sure you read it also Alice in Wonderland. In a particular part of the book, Alice meets the cat and Alice asked the cat, “Where should I go?” The cat says, “Where do you want to go?” India needs to know what it wants to be. [Whether] India wants to be a regional power, a global power, depending on that, it will need to invest [in] human capital, military accordingly, and do it 5, 10, 15, 20 years [long] planning is required… advance investment is required.

How is India faring in its foreign affairs?

If you look at pure diplomacy, I think India has done quite good in the last few years. There’s been a renewed emphasis on engagements with many parts of the world, where India had not really engaged. Part of that has to do with India’s economic growth. [As] India’s economy grew in the 1990s and 2000s, economic potential and the belief that India would grow more and India was a destination for foreign investment for companies [grew]. India sought more energy. India’s relations with most of Asia, from the Middle East and Gulf to Southeast Asia to Europe and the U.S. also expanded because companies wanted to enter India. So in diplomacy, India has done a reasonably good job. The problem there again comes back to what does India want. For India’s leaders going back decades, there’s always been this desire for multi-polarity. A world where there are a number of countries — not any one country is predominant — and India will be one of the poles in that world, sort of the Cold War and Non-Alignment [situation, which] helped India, because India was not part of the two blocks. India could afford to stay out because neither the Soviet Union, nor the United States coveted Indian territory. Both of them sought relations with India and even if one supported Pakistan and one supported India, one came into Afghanistan, at some level they were still, they did recognize India as the predominant part in the region. China does not do that. China covets Indian territory, actually [it] is holding on to Indian territory. China is interfering in South Asia to the detriment of India and India’s relations, and China does not recognize India as the as the main power, or hegemon in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. So China’s rise and the and the U.S.-China competition means that India will need to choose a side. It cannot stay out of it. It cannot balance against it because one power is antithetical to India’s rise. So there I would say, while diplomatically we are doing well, foreign policy does require a little more. It requires building the economy, seeking more investment, becoming part of global supply chains, building our military, and in some ways sending the message to China that India has allies, and India is not going to be browbeaten on the border, or anywhere else; and that it is India’s neighborhood and India does care and will remain the dominant part in its South Asian-Indian Ocean region neighborhood.

You mentioned China’s stand, and where it sees India. We know about US-India relations under President Trump. Under President-elect Biden’s, where do you see U.S.-India relations?

I actually believe that the U.S.-India relationship will grow under President-elect Biden. We can go back 14 years now, 2006. When the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal was finally passed by U.S. Congress, the House [of Representatives] and the Senate, at that time Sen. Biden was one of the Democratic senators who actually helped push that deal. I came across his quote the other day. He said that he believed that by 2020 the India-U.S. relationship will be the defining partnership. India-U.S. relations are strategic. The rise of India is important and is beneficial for the U.S. not just economically [and] militarily, but the fact that a fellow democracy is rising, it’s important. It will also remain important because of the peer competition with China. If there is a peer competition with China, and China is the main threat, then which other country in the world has a similar-sized population as China as a neighbor and views China as a rival? It is India. So India will remain important strategically. So I see this relationship as being as important under the Biden administration, as it was under the Trump or the Bush, Obama, Clinton administrations. I don’t see any diminishing of the strategic imperative.

You have touched upon several important topics in your book. What is that one takeaway that you would like the reader to come out with after reading your book?

One takeaway is, if I had, let’s say a hundred billion dollars, and somebody asked me what would I do with it, I would say invest it in human capital. Because an educated, literate, healthy population is what India needs, if you’re a country of 1.3 billion people. The more educated, the healthier they are, the more access they have to skills, the faster it will be for India to achieve any of its goals.

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